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What we can learn from our history of political discontent

March 20, 2016 at 5:32 PM EDT
A recent poll revealed that only 21 percent of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction. So what happens in a democratic society where understandable grievances have tuned many citizens angry? NewsHour Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield looks back at a long-ago late winter and two nations that responded in very different ways.

TED CRUZ: “People are fed up with what I call the Washington Cartel.”

HILLARY CLINTON: “The kind of bluster and bigotry and bullying”

BERNIE SANDERS: “Are you tired of a handful of billionaires running our economy?

JEFF GREENFIELD: Now is the late winter of our discontent, at least, that’s what the polls, politicians, and the pundits tell us.

DONALD TRUMP: You’re losing your jobs, you’re losing your income, you’re losing your factories”

JEFF GREENFIELD: We are an angry people — battered by economic stagnation and cultural dislocation. From across the political spectrum come arguments that we’ve been played for suckers; the system is rigged. So how does a free society respond?

How do legitimate grievances that stir legitimate anger get resolved, not exploited? One answer comes from a late winter more than eighty years ago. On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of a nation where one in four adults were out of work, where banks were failing by the hundreds, where deprivation was a stark reality.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

JEFF GREENFIELD: His reassuring words about fear are famous — less so, his indictment of those responsible:

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated.

JEFF GREENFIELD: But by month’s end, FDR had turned from recriminations to action – using the first of his “fireside chats” to explain a mandatory week-long bank holiday to avoid a run on the banks.  And he was also offering a raft of proposals during his first hundred days — a New Deal — to pump up the economy.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan.

JEFF GREENFIELD: But across the Atlantic in another democratic nation afflicted by crisis, something very different was happening. A day after FDR’s inauguration, Germans went to the polls burdened by their grievances — punishing reparations imposed on them after World War I and staggering inflation that rendered life savings worthless.

Their votes strengthened the hand of interim chancellor Adolf Hitler, who endlessly told his country of the great betrayal at the hands of Bolsheviks and Jews, who, he said, had committed a “crime unparalleled in German history.”

By the end of March, 1933, the German Parliament would adopt “The Enabling Act,” which let Germany slide into a one-party dictatorship determined to avenge the humiliations of the Great War by military conquest. One nation preserving its traditions, the other descending into tyranny; but it’s not the whole story.

For instance, there were important voices back then arguing the tools of the American government were inadequate to meet the crisis of the Great Depression. Walter Lippman, the most influential, syndicated newspaper columnist of his day, had argued: “A mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.”

The day after FDR was inaugurated, a Chicago Sunday Tribune headline had read: “For Dictatorship If Necessary.” William Randolph Hearst, then the most powerful newspaper publisher of his day, financed a movie, “Gabriel Over the White House,”

“GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE” CLIP: “Mr. President, this is dictatorship.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: It celebrated the idea of a divinely inspired President solving the nation’s woes by seizing total power.

“GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE” CLIP: “And as commander and chief of the army and navy it is within the rights of the President to declare the country under marshall law”

JEFF GREENFIELD: And in real life, Louisiana Senator Huey Long – whose control over the State was described as a dictatorship by critics-was preparing a presidential challenge to FDR with a “share the wealth” program.

HUEY LONG: “That 4% of the American People own 85% of the wealth of America”

JEFF GREENFIELD: Radio priest Charles Coughlin, whose listeners numbered in the millions, was beginning his move from FDR supporter to denouncing “international bankers” and Jewish political influence.

FATHER CHARLES COUGHLIN: “We are Christian in so far as we believe in Christ’s principal of love your neighbor as yourself and with that principal I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me that he does not believe in it.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: And in 1937, FDR himself pushed the boundaries of presidential power…trying to change a Supreme Court that opposed many of his programs.  

He wanted to “pack” the high court with six additional justices. But his own Democratic party rejected the plan. Retirements enabled FDR to replace enough Justices so the Court’s was no longer an obstacle to the New Deal,

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: “I ask this Congress for authority and for funds”

JEFF GREENFIELD: By 1940, a defense “mobilization” to meet the growing Nazi threat finally ended widespread unemployment. It’s impossible to know what might have happened with different leaders at the helm of the United States and Germany; if the U-S had been led by a more timid — or a more aggressive or vengeful leader.

And even in this winter of our discontent, we are facing nothing like the crisis of that Great Depression. But that long ago March has a lesson for us — when a sense of grievance is strong enough, wide enough, it can subject even the most stable of political system to the most significant of challenges.