forgotten man

forgotten man

In politics, a phrase invoking the average American citizen. The implication is usually that the forgotten man has suffered some major economic hardship and has been neglected by the federal government. 

The phrase was first popularized in 1932 by Franklin Roosevelt during his first presidential campaign. FDR delivered a radio address setting out his argument against the Hoover administration. FDR called for an end to “the illusions of economic magic” and urged, instead, policies that would rebuild the economy “from the bottom up” and would focus on the real needs of ordinary Americans – the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” as he put it.

But FDR didn’t invent the phrase. Writing at the end of the 19th century, the sociologist William Sumner wrote about the plight of the “forgotten man.” Sumner’s forgotten man had a very different connotation from FDR’s. For Sumner, the forgotten man wasn’t someone who needed help from the government. Rather, he was the victim of an over-reaching government.

Sumner was looking out for hard-working Americans who, as he saw it, were being over-taxed so that idealistic social programs could be put into place. The forgotten man himself never saw any benefit from those programs. Sumner wrote,

It is when we come to the proposed measures of relief for the evils which have caught public attention that we reach the real subject which deserves our attention…Their [the reformers’] law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. …what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist.

Decades later, Richard Nixon returned to the idea of the “forgotten man.” Nixon argued that American politics was being dominated by a few, outspoken voices on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. He said that instead of listening to the loud voices of activists and anti-war protesters, he wanted to listen to “another voice. It is the quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans — the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land. They are black and they are white — they’re native born and foreign born — they’re young and they’re old…They give drive to the spirit of America.”

In 2017, President Trump referred again to the forgotten man during his inaugural address. The president vowed that during his presidency, the “forgotten men and women of this country” would be treated fairly:

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.