Last Person Standing: The Presidential Succession Act Turns 75

by Michael Liss

I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, April 12, 1945.

Cartoon by Jim Barstow, originally published in General Electric News, October 2, 1949.

It was all so fast. Just moments earlier, FDR was sitting for an official portrait, reading the newspapers, writing a few notes. Now, after 12 years of turmoil, World War and Depression, he is gone, work unfinished. Within hours, his successor, Harry S. Truman, is sworn in, and, for the first time, is told of the Manhattan Project. The awesome moral responsibility for the use of nuclear weapons falls on his shoulders, and a bullseye appears on his back.

The fact is that Vice Presidents are pretty much non-entities, supporting actors in a one-man play, unless and until they suddenly become the most important person in the world. History shows us that this occurs far more often than simple mortality tables might suggest. By one estimate, being President is about 27 times more dangerous than being a lumberjack.

The authors of the Constitution understood this, but, after vigorously debating the extent of Executive Power and the interrelationship of the three branches of government, and creating the future monster known as the Electoral College, they flickered out a bit when it came to figuring out Presidential succession beyond the elevation of the VP. Instead, they kicked the can to Congress in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, to declare which “Officer” would act as President if both the President and Vice President died or were otherwise unavailable to serve during their terms of office “until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.” Read more »

The Counter Revolution

by Akim Reinhardt

FDRThe United States boasts a deeply conservative economic tradition. From its origins as a colonial, agricultural society, it quickly emerged as a slave holding republic built on the ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide of Indigenous peoples. After the Civil War (1861-65), it reshaped itself in the crucible of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism straight through to the Roaring ‘20s. A post-Depression Keynesian consensus led U.S. leaders to reign in the most conservative impulses during the mid-20th century, but the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s set the stage for the current neo-liberal moment.

Consequently, ever since the industrial revolution, the United States has typically trailed other developed nations in establishing a basic social welfare system. It has never fielded a competitive socialist or labor party. It was the last major nation to implement an old age pension. More recently, ObamaCare made it the last major nation to mandate that all of its citizens receive some sort of healthcare coverage, even if it's quite wanting in many cases.

Amid its overriding conservativism, the United States has had only three presidents with any real socialist tendencies: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45), Harry S. Truman (1945-53), and most recently Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose presidency (1963-69) ended before half of current Americans were born (median age 37.9).

The election of Donald Trump as president and, just as important, the impending Republican dominance of Congress, make certain that the United States will not correct its social welfare shortcomings anytime soon. Indeed, the nation may take significant steps backwards.

However, a quick review of America's stunted progressive history suggests that the opportunity for a progressive counter-revolution may be closer than it appears at this dark moment.

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