Franklin D. Roosevelt

Radio Address on the Election of Liberals

November 04, 1938

My friends:

On the eve of another election, I have come home to Hyde Park and am sitting at my own fireside in my own election district, my own County and my own State. I have often expressed my feeling that the mere fact that I am President should not disqualify me from expressing as a citizen my views on candidates and issues in my own State.

I have changed my mind about the nature of some problems of democratic government over the past few years as I have had more and more experience with them. I had never realized how much my way of thinking had changed until the other day when I was watching the finishing touches being put on a simple cottage I have recently built—a little cottage which, by the way, is not in any sense of the word a "dream house." Just watching the building go up made me realize that there was a time not so long ago when I used to think about problems of government as if they were the same kind of problems as building a house—definite and compact and capable of completion within a given time.

Now I know well that the comparison is not a good one. Once you build a house you always have it. On the other hand, a social or an economic gain is a different matter. A social or an economic gain made by one Administration, for instance, may, and often does, evaporate into thin air under the next Administration.

We all remember well known examples of what an ill-advised shift from liberal to conservative leadership can do to an incompleted liberal program. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, started a march of progress during his seven years in the Presidency but, after four years of President Taft, little was left of the progress that had been made. Think of the great liberal achievements of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom and how quickly they were liquidated under President Harding. We have to have reasonable continuity in liberal government in order to get permanent results.

The whole United States concedes that we in the State of New York have carried out a magnificent liberal program through our State government during the past sixteen years. If the continuity of that liberal government had been broken in this State during that time, we would be nowhere near the point we have reached today.

The voters throughout the country should remember that need for continuous liberal government when they vote next Tuesday.

On that day in every state the oldest of modern democracies will hold an election. A free people will have a free choice to pick free leaders for free men.

In other lands across the water the flares of militarism and conquest, terrorism and intolerance, have vividly revealed to Americans for the first time since the Revolution how precious and extraordinary it is to be allowed this free choice of free leaders for free men.

No one next Tuesday will order us how to vote, and the only watchers we shall find at the polls are the watchers who guarantee that our ballot is secret. Think how few places are left where this can happen.

But we cannot carelessly assume that a nation is strong and great merely because it has a democratic form of government. We have learned that a democracy weakened by internal dissension, by mutual suspicion born of social injustice, is no match for autocracies which are ruthless enough to repress internal dissension.

Democracy in order to live must become a positive force in the daily lives of its people. It must make men and women whose devotion it seeks, feel that it really cares for the security of every individual; that it is tolerant enough to inspire an essential unity among its citizens; and that it is militant enough to maintain liberty against social oppression at home and against military aggression abroad.

The rest of the world is far closer to us in every way than in the days of democracy's founders-Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. Comparisons in this world are unavoidable. To disprove the pretenses of rival systems, democracy must be an affirmative, up-to-date conception. It can no longer be negative—no longer adopt a defeatist attitude. In these tense and dangerous situations in the world, democracy will save itself with the average man and woman by proving itself worth saving.

Too many of those who prate about saving democracy are really only interested in saving things as they were. Democracy should concern itself also with things as they ought to be.

I am not talking mere idealism; I am expressing realistic necessity.

I reject the merely negative purposes proposed by old-line Republicans and Communists alike—for they are people whose only purpose is to survive against any other Fascist threat than their own.

As of today, Fascism and Communism—and old-line Tory Republicanism—are not threats to the continuation of our form of government. But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land.

It will take cool judgment for our people to appraise the repercussions of change in other lands. And only a nation completely convinced—at the bottom as well as at the top—that their system of government best serves their best interests, will have such a cool judgment.

And while we are developing that coolness of judgment, we need in public office, above all things, men wise enough to avoid passing incidents where passion and force try to substitute themselves for judgment and negotiation.

During my four years as Governor of the State of New York and during my nearly six years as President, I am proud of the fact that I have never called out the armed forces of the State or Nation except on errands of mercy. That type of democratic wisdom was illustrated last year by the action of Governor Murphy of Michigan when he persuaded the negotiators of the employers and employees to sit around a table. Thus he got an agreement, avoided bloodshed, and earned the praise of both sides of a controversy that had frightened a whole nation.

With such an approach, the New Deal, keeping its feet on the ground, is working out hundreds of current problems from day to day as necessities arise and with whatever materials are at hand. We are doing this without attempting to commit the Nation to any ism or any ideology except democracy, humanity and the civil liberties which form their foundations.

Our economic and social system cannot deny the paramount right of the millions who toil and the millions who wish to toil, to have it function smoothly and efficiently. After all, any such system must provide efficiently for distributing national resources and serving the welfare and happiness of all who live under it.

The modern interdependent industrial and agricultural society which we live in is like a large factory. Each member of the organization has his own job to perform on the assembly line, but if the conveyor belt breaks or gets tangled up, no one in the factory, no matter how hard he tries, can do his own particular job. Each of us—farmer, business man or worker—suffers when anything goes wrong with the conveyor belt.

If our democracy is to survive it must give the average man reasonable assurance that the belt will be kept moving.

Dictators have recognized that problem. They keep the conveyor belt moving—but at a terrible price to the individual and to his civil liberty.

The New Deal has been trying to keep those belts moving without paying such a price. It does not wish to run or manage any part of our economic machine which private enterprise can run and keep running. That should be left to individuals, to corporations, to any other form of private management, with profit for those who manage well. But when an abuse interferes with the ability of private enterprise to keep the national conveyor belt moving, government has a responsibility to eliminate that abuse.

We do not assume for a minute that all we have done is right or all that we have done has been successful, but our economic and social program of the past five and a half years has definitely given to the United States of America a more stable and less artificial prosperity than any other nation in the world has enjoyed in that period.

The very fact that the business slump that began last fall and kept running into last summer did not become a major economic disaster, like the terrible slump that ran from 1929 all the way through to 1933, is the best kind of proof that fundamentally we have found the right track.

You have just heard the news about the automobile factories and many other industries that are opening up for full employment again. And during the month of October alone over-all employment has risen nearly 3 1/2 per cent.

I have been very happy in the last six months to see how swiftly a large majority of businessmen have been coming around to accept the objectives of a more stable economy and of certain necessary supervision of private activities in order to prevent a return of the serious abuses and conditions of the past. But if there should be any weakening of the power of a liberal government next Tuesday, it would resurrect false hopes on the part of some businessmen who are now beginning to change antiquated ideas, hopes that if they can hold out just a little longer no adaptation to change will be necessary.

There is no doubt of the basic desires of the American people. And because these basic desires are well known you find all parties, all candidates, making the same general promises to satisfy these desires.

During the weeks before a general election, all parties are the friends of labor, all parties are against monopoly, all parties say that the unemployed must have work or be given government relief, and all parties love the farmer.

Let me warn you now, as I warned you two years ago in my address at Syracuse, against the type of smooth evasion which says:

"Of course we believe all these things; we believe in social security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes. Cross our hearts and hope to die, we believe in all these things; but we do not like the way the present Administration is doing them. Just turn them over to us. We will do all of them—we will do more of them—we will do them better; and, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything."

But when democracy struggles for its very life, those same people obstruct our efforts to maintain it, while they fail to offer proof of their own will and their own plans to preserve it. They try to stop the only fire engine we have from rushing to the fire because they are sales agents for a different make of fire engine.

New ideas cannot be administered successfully by men with old ideas, for the first essential of doing a job well is the wish to see the job done at all.

Judge parties and candidates, not merely by what they promise, but by what they have done, by their records in office, by the kind of people they travel with, by the kind of people who finance and promote their campaigns. By their promoters ye shall know them.

No national administration, however much it may represent the genuine popular will of the people, can in the long run prove enduringly effective if that administration can be cut off from the people by state and local political machinery controlled by men who are hostile.

My own State of New York is to choose a Governor. Ours is the most complex state in the Union—thirteen million population, great farming areas, hundreds of small communities, one huge city of seven million people, and many other cities, great and small.

Governing the State of New York requires the skill that comes from long experience in public affairs.

In 1918, twenty years ago, when I was thirty-six years old, I was invited to run for the Governorship of this State. I was then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. I declined the offer, because my job required me at that time to sail on a destroyer for overseas service. I am glad I did, for, looking back on that time, I do not think that I had experience and knowledge of public affairs wide enough to qualify as Governor. Besides, I did not think it quite right to abandon in mid-stream an important public job that I had undertaken.

Governing the State of New York is more than being an Assistant Secretary of the Navy or a local District Attorney. The Governor of this State is called upon to administer eighteen great departments of government and to supervise state institutions that house over one hundred thousand wards of the State. He must be able to understand, and handle the vast and intricate problems of agriculture. He is charged with the supervision of State finance and the maintenance of the State credit. He is responsible for its widespread system of roads, parks, canals, bridges and schools. He has to maintain, preserve and improve the great body of social legislation already on the statute books of the State—unemployment insurance, workmen's compensation, social security, help for the needy and the underprivileged; and he must see to it that these recent reforms are made to keep pace with the broadening conception of social justice.

Equal protection of the law- criminal and civil- for human rights as well as property rights; prosecution of criminals in high financial places as well as in low places; the preservation of civil and religious liberties—all these precious essentials of civilization are entrusted to him.

New York has State laws matching every progressive Federal measure of the last five years. They were all enacted under the guiding hand and driving energy of Governor Herbert H. Lehman.

Recruits in the battle for economic democracy are always welcome irrespective of party; but at a critical moment in the world's history we cannot take the risk of supplanting seasoned leaders like Governor Lehman with men, no matter how sincere, who have yet to win their spurs or prove what they really know or where they really stand in the fight for social justice. Those who truly and sincerely join the struggle for social justice, economic democracy for its own sake, do not throw stones at veteran fighters in that cause.

No one can properly minimize the need of active law enforcement, whether it be in—a great city or in the rural counties of this or any other state. Certainly Governor Lehman has never minimized it, and has never hesitated to call to his assistance in law enforcement, young and vigorous prosecutors, irrespective of politics. We need more active law enforcement, not only against the lords of the underworld, but also against the lords of the over world.

It is right—wholly right—to prosecute criminals. But that is not enough, for there is the immense added task of working for the elimination of present and future crime by getting rid of evil social conditions which breed crime. Good government can prevent a thousand crimes for every one it punishes.

The fight for social justice and economic democracy has not the allure of a criminal jury trial; it is a long, weary, uphill struggle— and those who give themselves unsparingly to it are seldom acclaimed at my lady's tea or at my gentleman's club.

As a resident and voter in the State of New York I urge my fellow citizens and voters, who are interested in preserving good government and American democracy, to vote for Herbert H. Lehman.

Just as a Governor is required to be much more than a good prosecutor, so a United States Senator must be much more than a good lawyer. A Senator from New York must do more than merely vote on whatever bills happen to drift by. He must be able and willing to take the initiative—to keep the legislative wheels turning in the right direction.

If you were to list some of the newly recognized major responsibilities of government to meet the complexities of modern. life—security in old age, unemployment insurance, protection of the rights of labor, low-cost housing, and slum clearance you would have a virtual resume of the Acts of the Congress that bear the name of Robert F. Wagner. So often since 1933 has new legislation been described as "The Wagner Act" that the phrase has become confusing because there have been so many Wagner Acts. For example, there is not only the Wagner Labor Relations Act; there are the Wagner Social Security Act and the Wagner Housing Act; and although you might feel uncertain as to which particular Act is meant by the phrase, you can feel no uncertainty as to this—that any one of the Wagner Acts was an Act intended for the benefit of those who need the help and support of government against oppression and against intolerable conditions of living. His name stands in our history for courageous and intelligent leadership, constructive statecraft and steadfast devotion to the common man and the cause of civil liberties.

With him I hope the voters of this State will send to the Senate in Washington an experienced Member of the House of Representatives—James M. Mead—known through many years for his expert knowledge of three fields whose intricate problems press heavily upon government today—railroads, aviation and Civil Service, and for his unflagging support of every liberal measure that has come before the Congress. We need that legislative experience, that temper of mind, that expert knowledge in the United States Senate.

Look over the rest of the names on the ballot next Tuesday. Pick those who are known for their experience and their liberalism. Pick them for what they have done, and not just for what they say they might do.

And one last but important word: Pick them without regard to race, color or creed. Some of them may have come of the earliest Colonial stock; some of them may have been brought here as children to escape the tyrannies of the Old World. But remember that all of them are good American citizens now.

Remember that the Fathers of the American Revolution represented many religions and came from many foreign lands.

Remember that no matter what their origin they all agreed with Benjamin Franklin in that crisis: "We must indeed all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Remember that in these grave days in the affairs of the world we need internal unity—national unity. For the sake of the Nation that is good advice—and it never grows old.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Radio Address on the Election of Liberals Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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