Could Franklin Roosevelt’s Playbook Work for Joe Biden?

May 29, 2020 by Thor Hogan

He settled, perhaps unjustly, upon Samuel Insull, a little-remembered figure whose rags-to-riches-to-rags story involved him almost single-handedly electrifying America — before he ultimately became an object of scorn during the Great Depression. Today, Zuckerberg might prove to be the perfect Insull-like figure.

In 1881, the 21-year-old Englishman arrived in the United States to become Thomas Edison’s private secretary. He was quickly promoted and tasked with managing the production of power-station equipment, where he “created a small revolution in the mass production of parts … that allowed the volume of shipped products to go way up and the price per part to go way down.”

In 1892, he left to become chief executive of the Chicago Edison utility company. Within a few decades, he became the nation’s most important financier by figuring out how to electrify America’s cities. As his biographer John Wasik writes, while “Edison and Westinghouse are better known, it was Insull — the Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and PT Barnum of his time — who brought electricity into nearly every home, office, commercial building, and factory.”

When Insull arrived in the Windy City, few people had electricity because power stations only operated at peak loads for a few hours a day and thus prices were exorbitant. He instituted a transformative strategy to increase efficiency by creating modern power grids, advocating for government-protected utility monopolies and promoting “the gospel of consumption” to smooth out demand during nonpeak times to allow cost-effective use of large power stations.

By the 1910s, this formula had turned Chicago into the world’s most electrified city. Using this model, Insull set out to conquer the rest of the nation. By 1932, he controlled 6,000 power stations in 39 states. As economist Peter Fox-Penner writes, “Insull, perhaps more than any other single person, changed American life. Over the span of … four decades nearly every urban home and shop got electric power and lights.”

His success made Insull extraordinarily wealthy and influential. He became a favorite of Hoover, who admired his consumption-based approach to electrifying the nation. But, he also tangled with Roosevelt, who favored public control of the power sector.

When his holding company folded in 1932, the largest business failure in U.S. history to that point, he became a natural scapegoat for the entire economic collapse. Roosevelt saw an opportunity: He believed Insull typified the greed that led to the Great Depression.

In April, Roosevelt delivered his first speech attacking Insull as a selfish monopolist who cared little for the public good. He raged against private utilities that he argued had been charging the American people extortionate rates. Barnstorming the nation, he argued that electricity companies needed to be “kept very closely under the watchful eye of its parent — the people of the United States.”

Roosevelt cast himself as the person who could stand up for the public against corporate avarice, an extraordinarily powerful theme during an economic crisis. During a pivotal September speech in Portland, Ore., he railed against “that great ‘Insull monstrosity,’” which had fleeced unsuspecting investors of more than $1.5 billion.

Two days later, in his famous Commonwealth Club speech, Roosevelt turned this criticism into a positive case for government regulation. “Whenever in the pursuit of this objective the lone wolf, the unethical competitor, the reckless promoter, the Ishmael or Insull … declines to join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare … the government may properly be asked to apply restraint.”

By focusing on Insull rather than Hoover, Roosevelt let the administration’s struggles serve as a millstone, while still highlighting the electoral stakes for voters and laying out a plan of action.

In November he beat Hoover in a landslide, and once in office he had a mandate to fundamentally alter government’s role in providing economic security. In 1934, Insull was acquitted of all charges at a trial for fraud and embezzlement. But he remained the villain that helped Roosevelt demonstrate how he’d be a champion for the average American against corporate power.

Today, Roosevelt’s approach might provide a way for Biden to articulate his broader vision, while avoiding a mudslinging contest with Trump, a gifted brawler.

And Zuckerberg is the ideal Insull-like figure. His favorability ratings have been plummeting in recent years. Facebook is particularly unpopular with Gen Z and millennials, who’ve spurned the platform in favor of hipper alternatives and abhor the role it played in electing Donald Trump. Zuckerberg’s blasé attitudeabout the real-world impacts of his company, on everything from democracy to mental health, could make him an ideal target for Biden — particularly if it helps him rally the youth vote to his candidacy. According to a recent Gallup-Knight survey, 60 percent of Americans think the nation’s biggest tech companies are helping to divide the country, while only 11 percent believe they are bringing people together.

The Wall Street Journal report and Zuckerberg’s comments this week, which Trump cited in his new push to regulate Twitter, may deepen the public’s concern about the youthful billionaire’s disregard for the dangerous role his creation plays in the spread of misinformation. “Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said in 2016. Given this attitude, it’s not surprising, therefore, that the company continues to profit from political advertising.

Although Facebook executive Joel Kaplan told the Journal that the proposals for addressing the company’s role in furthering societal division that got blocked were stopped to ‘“instill some discipline, rigor and responsibility into the process,”’ voters already skeptical of the company may see this as an attempt to bolster earnings rather than safeguarding the public good.

Zuckerberg and Facebook have attempted to remove disinformation about the coronavirus from the platform. But that simply highlights how much the company could do to eliminate hate speech, falsehoods and half-truths if it considered it a priority. Instead it continues to profit from peddling political propaganda. Highlighting this fact would allow Biden to cast himself as the protector of American democracy and the guardian of a society guided by science and facts — something that could be appealing at a time when public health experts are being ignored by many Americans and public officials.

Roosevelt’s key insight was that this sort of tactic works. In this election, it could help Biden reach voters with a positive message and a broad vision for our collective future. No attack he makes against Trump will clearly change voters’ assessment of the president’s performance. But painting a compelling contrast would provide real benefits, and Zuckerberg might have given Biden an opening to do just that.