Published on 2 July 2020
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COVID19  •  Government

Michael Gove and the “Forgotten Man”

Which “Forgotten Man” – Sumner’s, Roosevelt’s, Schrag’s or Trump’s – will most likely be the beneficiary of the UK government’s public sector reforms and post-Covid-19 Recovery Strategy?

On the last Saturday in June, Michael Gove gave the Annual Ditchley Lecture. The title of his lecture was ‘the privilege of public service’, and it drew on ‘Rooseveltian’ principles to outline Gove’s views on public service reform. Given that Ditchley was founded “to support the Transatlantic Alliance between the United States and Europe by bringing decision makers and experts together in a unique and inspiring setting” it is of little surprise that his lecture looked across the Atlantic for inspiration. However, is there more to this choice than meets the eye?

The first Rooseveltian principle that Gove highlighted in his lecture was that “Roosevelt took it as a given that no society could succeed unless every citizen within it had the chance to succeed.” Gove’s lecture is peppered with references to Roosevelt’s “Forgotten Man” and concluded by comparing the current challenges faced by the UK government with the challenges facing Roosevelt in the 1930s, and indicating that any government reforms need (amongst other things) to “make the Forgotten Man – i.e. the victim of crisis and inequality, our first concern

So, is the “Forgotten Man” the last in a long line of descriptions of the left behind, the just about managing, and the hard to reach? By explicitly referencing Roosevelt and drawing on language from American political history, the answer is probably not. A New York Times article published the day after Trump’s election victory in 2016 by the Yale historian Beverly Gage helps to track the development of the “Forgotten Man” through time.

The term was initially defined by the sociologist William Graham Sumner in a series of essays in 1883. In an address given in the same year to audiences in Brooklyn and New Haven, Sumner described the “Forgotten Man” as “the simple, honest laborer, ready to earn his living by productive work.” In his eyes he saw the “Forgotten Man” standing in isolation from “the vicious, the idle, and the shiftless” on whom “every particle of capital . . . [which] is wasted is so much taken from the capital available to reward the independent and productive laborer.” Sumner saw society as standing “with our backs to the independent and productive laborer all the time. We do not remember him because he makes no clamor; but I appeal to you whether he is not the man who ought to be remembered first of all, and whether, on any sound social theory, we ought not to protect him against the burdens of the goodfornothing.”

Roosevelt saw the “Forgotten Man” somewhat differently. As Professor Gage explains, “To Roosevelt, the ‘forgotten man’ encompassed the industrial worker and struggling farmer and Keynesian consumer — ordinary citizens without whom a modern economy would falter.” In a radio address in 1932, Roosevelt argued that “these unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten . . . that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

This is the “Forgotten Man” of Michael Gove and the Conservative Party. In the description, one can see the reflection of the key workers for who we clapped in solidarity every Thursday evening at the start of lockdown. In the phrase “ordinary citizens without whom a modern economy would falter” we can see the workers of the foundational economy, whose importance to the country has been spotlighted by the coronavirus crisis.

But this is not the end of the development of the “Forgotten Man’s” story. As the 20th century progressed, the “Forgotten Man’s” standing in society changed. From being part of the foundation of plans for the creation of a new society, he returned again to being the disgruntled, left-behind and invisible man as described by Sumner back in the 19th century. Professor Gage highlights an essay written by Peter Schrag in 1969 entitled The Forgotten American. The essay starts:

“there is hardly a language to describe him, or even a set of social statistics. Just names: racist-bigot-redneck-ethnic-Irish-Italian-Pole-Hunkie-Yahoo. The lower middle class. A blank . . . he was once the hero of the civics books, the man Andrew Jackson called ‘the bone and sinew of the country.’ Now he is the “forgotten man,” perhaps the most alienated person in America . . .”

Schrag outlines the targets of the “Forgotten Man’s” ire (“at integration and welfare, taxes and sex education, at the rich and the poor, the foundations and students, at the “smart people in the suburbs.“); his position between rich and poor (A vast, complex, and disregarded world that was once – in belief, and in fact – the American middle); the places where he can be found (If there are neighborhoods of aspiration . . . there are also places of limited expectation and dead-end districts where mobility is finished. But even there you can often find, however vestigial, a sense of place, the roots of old ethnic loyalties, and a passionate, if often futile, battle against intrusion and change.”.

This is the “Forgotten Man” as the left-behind, the just about managing, and the hard to reach. We can also see the “Forgotten Man” as a resident of the ‘Blue Wall’ seats won by the Conservative Party in the 2019 election.

Finally, there is another, more recent, use of the “Forgotten Man”. In his victory speech following the November 2016 election, Donald Trump spoke of him in similar terms to those used by Michael Gove: “Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

This journey through the life of the “Forgotten Man” in American politics shows that he has been used by different political parties to both support and oppose policies. As Professor Gage concludes that “this American political identity has never been especially fixed: Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, but populist above all.” With the Prime Minister announcing a Rooseveltian programme of investment from a government that “puts its arms around people at a time of crisis“,we wait with interest to see which “Forgotten Man” – Sumner’s, Roosevelt’s, Schrag’s or Trump’s – will most likely be the beneficiary of the government’s public sector reforms and post-Covid-19 Recovery Strategy.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Owen Garling

Knowledge Transfer Facilitator

Owen Garling is the Bennett Institute’s Knowledge Transfer Facilitator and he provides an important conduit between our own researchers and policymakers in the UK and internationally. His work helps to...

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