In April 1933 Congress began working on the National Industrial Recovery Act, the centerpiece of the early New Deal. Title II of the legislation concerned the Public Works Administration, the first great spending and jobs program of the New Deal.
This was during the Hundred Days. Roosevelt was at the pinnacle of his political power. With the America mired in the worst economic crisis in its history, with nearly unanimous public support behind him, Roosevelt had a once in a lifetime chance to remake the country's infrastructure, and in the process inject a massive amount of stimulus into the depressed economy and put millions of Americans to work.
Yet despite all of this, as historian David Kennedy writes, with regard to public works:
Roosevelt remained skeptical. Progressives in Congress still clamored for a $5 billion construction program, but Roosevelt reiterated Hoover's insistence that public works be self-liquidating. He also endorsed Hoover's conclusion that only about $900 million worth of acceptable projects were on the shelf. "Do not write stories about five or six billion dollars of public works," he cautioned reporters on April 19. "That is wild."
So with the public almost unanimously behind him, with huge majorities in Congress, with almost dictatorial latitude to act as a result of the crisis he had inherited…Roosevelt was cheaping out on public works spending.
But fortunately, that's not how the story ends.
In the end Roosevelt caved in to political pressure and allowed an appropriation for $3.3 billion to be made for the new Public Works Administration. (Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, 146-147)
That's right, Congress allocated more than three-and-a-half times the amount that Roosevelt preferred – and made him accept it.
How significant was Congress's overruling of Roosevelt on PWA funding? The PWA provided funding to grand public works projects across the country – the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, the Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge in New York, the Skyline Drive in Virginia, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, not to mention over 13,000 projects by mid-1934.
Furthermore the PWA provided funding for the Civil Works Administration, an emergency temporary jobs program that Roosevelt and adviser Harry Hopkins cobbled together in the winter of 1933. Roosevelt, using authority delegated to him in the legislation, created the CWA by executive order, funding it out of the $3.3 billion allocated for the PWA. Hopkins was tapped to run the agency, and ultimately CWA directly hired 4 million Americans to work on a variety of projects from fixing roads to building bridges and schools, while also infusing nearly $1 billion into the economy.
And perhaps the greatest legacy of the CWA is that it was the forerunner and prototype for its much better-known descendant, the Works Progress Administration. WPA, which came about in 1935, emulated CWA's model of directly hiring jobless Americans as opposed to the PWA model, which created work indirectly by providing public works contracts to private firms. And incidentally the legislation that created the WPA, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, obtained some $880 million of its funding out of leftover funds from the PWA's original $3.3 billion allocation.
In June 1933, the Glass Steagall Act was making its way through Congress. For many liberals today, this is the defining achievement of Franklin Roosevelt.
However, as historian Eric Rauchway has written, the Glass-Steagall Act "owed almost nothing" to Roosevelt (Rauchway, The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, 59).
In fact, the provision separating investment and commercial banking, the part of the Act that gets the most attention today, "had been kicking around in Congress since 1931" when Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Financial Committee, began hearings on banking reform (Perino, The Hellhound of Wall Street, 279). Glass originally proposed regulation rather than completely splitting off commercial and investment banking. But Glass's committee
was flooded with so many letters complaining about securities that Glass ultimately decided that complete separation of commercial and investment banking was the only viable approach. (Perino, The Hellhound of Wall Street, 21)
So by the time the Glass-Steagall Act began making its way through Congress in the spring of 1933, the provision separating commercial and investment banking was basically a done deal.
Rather, as Michael Perino writes in The Hellhound of Wall Street, his account of the Pecora Investigation, "the most controversial provision of the Glass-Steagall bill was not the elimination of securities affiliates, but the creation of federal deposit insurance." (Perino, The Hellhound of Wall Street, 290)
As for where Roosevelt stood on federal deposit insurance:
Like the bankers, Roosevelt saw the proposal as requiring stronger banks to subsidize weaker ones, thereby creating disincentives for prudent management. Throughout the debate, Roosevelt continually threatened to veto any bill that contained an insurance provision. (Perino, The Hellhound of Wall Street, 291)
That's right: on the issue of federal deposit insurance, Franklin Roosevelt sided with the bankers.
Glass also opposed deposit insurance initially, but when he introduced his legislation in the spring of 1933, deposit insurance was included in the bill.
As the FDIC website points out (on page 20), a business journal of the time explained Glass's about-face as follows:
It became perfectly apparent that the voters wanted the guarantee [deposit insurance], and that no bill which did not contain such a provision would be satisfactory either to Congress or to the public. Washington does not remember any issue on which the sentiment of the country has been so undivided or so emphatically expressed as upon this.
Still, Roosevelt continued to oppose federal deposit insurance almost until the end. But, as FDR biographer Jean Edward Smith writes:
Congressional support for deposit insurance was overwhelming. Roosevelt threatened to veto the measure, but when it became clear his veto would be overridden, he gave way. (Smith, FDR, 332)
As with the Congress's actions on public works spending, the creation of federal deposit insurance over Roosevelt's objections ended up benefiting the American people – and Roosevelt himself – enormously. As Smith writes, because of the FDIC "The peril of bank failure was almost totally eliminated, and even when a bank did fail – which was rare after 1933 – a depositor’s funds remained secure." (Smith, FDR, 332) Considering that the epidemic of bank failures between 1931-33 were at the heart of the crisis Roosevelt faced when he took office, it’s not a stretch to say that without the FDIC the Glass-Steagall Act would have had little immediate impact in counteracting the Depression. In fact, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that the crisis may have lingered on much longer without the FDIC, a program that Roosevelt didn’t even want.
There is a longing by many liberals for the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt to arrive and make liberalism great again. For good reason - Roosevelt brought about the New Deal, the most progressive set of reforms in American history; he won four consecutive presidential elections never accumulating fewer than 400 electoral votes, and he never had anything other than full Democratic control of Congress, often by substantial margins, during his presidency; he assembled a durable coalition, the New Deal Coalition, that helped Democrats win 7 of 9 presidential elections from 1932-1964, and maintained Democratic control over Congress for most of the next 60 years; and the government activism initiated by the New Deal known as the "liberal consensus" was the dominant paradigm in American politics until the mid-1960s.
There is a notion among liberals that if only we can find a Democratic politician who can rally the American people around and will into existence a boldly liberal program the way Roosevelt did, we can restore the liberal Democratic dominance of the New Deal Coalition era. The common perception that many liberals have of Roosevelt is best characterized by historian Richard Hofstadter as follows:
Roosevelt’s admirers, their minds fixed on the image of a wise, benevolent, provident father, have portrayed him as an ardent social reformer and sometimes as a master planner. (Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, 413).
But as I've pointed out and as I will further explain, it wasn’t quite that simple. Congress and the American people themselves often pushed the New Deal beyond what Roosevelt wanted, and in some cases had to push Roosevelt out of the way to do it.
To name yet another example of this dynamic playing out during the New Deal, consider the Wagner Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board, and which Roosevelt is often credited by liberals today with bringing about. The reality was, as with public works and the FDIC, the Wagner Act came about almost in spite of Roosevelt. Sen. Robert Wagner of New York introduced the legislation in 1934 but it went nowhere because, as historian Arthur Schlesinger points out, Roosevelt "still hoping for the business cooperation which might make NRA a success, declined to back the measure.” (Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 400).
However in 1935 Wagner reintroduced the legislation, and this time it met with greater success – but no thanks to Roosevelt:
Without presidential backing, the Wagner bill was approved in the Senate by the overwhelming margin of 63-12. Seeing that the legislation would pass anyway, President Roosevelt decided to gain whatever credit he could for a popular law that he had never supported. He suddenly announced that the Wagner bill was on his “must” list of legislation. (McElvaine, The Great Depression 1929-1941, 258)
Roosevelt is also often credited with raising taxes on the wealthy, but often overlooked is the role that the rise of Huey Long and his Share Our Wealth program played in bringing that about.
As Arthur Schlesinger recounts, "the Treasury had privately presented a sweeping tax program to the President as early as December 1934," but "Roosevelt, after a few weeks’ consideration, had laid aside the Treasury proposals in February 1935.” (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 326)
But several months later, Roosevelt changed his mind about the tax proposal. The reason? Schlesinger writes that "the share-our-wealth clamor, rising through the spring, brought them (the tax proposals) to the fore again."
Furthermore, there was a poll commissioned in the spring of 1935 by the Democratic National Committee chairman Jim Farley which found –
that Huey Long, running for the presidency on a third-party ticket, could attract as many as four million votes. "It was easy to conceive a situation," Farley concluded, "whereby Long by polling more than 3 million votes might have the balance of power in the 1936 election." (Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, 240-241)
Not long afterwards, in June 1935 Roosevelt sent to Congress a tax proposal that would become the Wealth Tax Act of 1935, which among other things raised the top marginal rate on incomes over $5 million to 75%.
In Roosevelt’s own words, he did it "to steal Long's thunder" (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 334). Historian H.W. Brands explained it this way: “His purpose was political rather than fiscal. He wanted to demonstrate to the followers of Huey Long that two could play the share-our-wealth game.” (Brands, Traitor to his Class, 435)
And of course there is Social Security, the crowning jewel of the New Deal, for which Roosevelt rightly deserves all the plaudits he has gotten for it. But forgotten by many was the vital role played by Dr. Francis Townsend and the Townsend movement in fomenting the political climate that made Social Security not merely a possibility but a political necessity.
In 1933 Townsend unveiled his proposal, the Townsend Plan, to provide elderly citizens with $200 a month which Townsend also claimed would bring about the end of the Depression.
Thousands of Townsend Clubs with some 2 million members sprang up all over the country in 1934 and 1935, they collected some 10 million signatures calling for passage of the Townsend Plan, and in the process they generated an enormous groundswell for some kind of old age pension plan. Several members of Congress were elected on the Townsend platform in 1934, such as California poet laureate John McGroarty. Harper's Monthly said of the Townsend movement's influence, "On Capitol Hill in Washington the politicians are amazed and terrified by it.” (Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, 232).
Of the Townsend movement's role in creating the political momentum that enabled the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, there is little doubt. As the Social Security website's write-up on the Townsend movement points out:
There is even some evidence that President Roosevelt introduced his Social Security proposals when he did in order to stave off pressure from the Townsend Plan and related alternative pension schemes. FDR's Secretary of Labor quotes the President as saying: "The Congress can't stand the pressure of the Townsend Plan unless we are studying social security, a solid plan which will give some assurance to old people of systematic assistance upon retirement."
One last long forgotten chapter of the New Deal I'd like to highlight was the movement for early payment of bonuses for World War I veterans. The movement was begun by the Bonus Army, veterans who famously descended upon Washington in 1932 calling for early payment of their war pensions, and who eventually were forcibly expelled by the Army on President Hoover's orders. The demand for payment of the bonuses continued into the Roosevelt administration, but like his predecessor Roosevelt strongly opposed the bonuses.
Roosevelt was so opposed to the early payment of bonuses that he went in person to Congress to veto a bonus bill that passed both houses in May 1935. In language that might surprise those who had been under the impression that Roosevelt was a devotee of Keynesian economics, Roosevelt said in his veto:
"Wealth is not created, nor is it more equitably distributed by this method. A government, like an individual, must ultimately meet legitimate obligations out of the production of wealth by the labor of human beings applied to the resources of nature. Every country that has attempted the form of meeting its obligations which is here provided has suffered disastrous consequences. In the majority of cases printing-press money has not been retired through taxation. Because of increased costs, caused by inflated prices, new issue has followed new issue, ending in the ultimate wiping out of the currency of the afflicted country."
Congress was unable to override Roosevelt's's veto in 1935, but as with the FDIC, public works, and the Wagner Act, Congress persisted and ultimately overcame Roosevelt's resistance. In January 1936 they passed the bonus payment by veto-proof majority and as a symbolic rebuke to Roosevelt's 1935 veto message a Congressman took a taxi and personally delivered the bill to the White House. Ironically, despite Roosevelt's staunch opposition to the measure the bonus payments turned out to be a huge blessing for him as it provided over $1 billion in economic stimulus in 1936, which no doubt did wonders for Roosevelt's re-election.
And there were other examples of Congress pushing, prodding, and sometimes going above and beyond Roosevelt's preferences during the New Deal portion of his presidency. As Arthur Schlesinger notes:
At other times, congressional initiative forced the administration into action, as when (Senator Hugo) Black's thirty-hour bill precipitated NRA, or when Elmer Thomas gave the administration an unsought flexibility in its monetary powers, or when the constant pressure of (Senators) La Follette, Costigan, and Wagner helped increase appropriations for relief and public works. In these early years, Congress was as often to the left of Roosevelt as to the right. (Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 555)
Looking at all of this begs the obvious question: why didn’t any of this occur in our own time? In the Obama years, I can’t think of a single instance let alone many instances where Congress and/or overwhelming public pressure forced upon Obama legislation that was bolder or more liberal than what he asked for or preferred.
Now I know there will be a temptation to just say, “It's because FDR was so bold and progressive while Obama was not,” or that it was because Obama didn't respond to the left’s pressure, or that it was because Obama asked his supporters to demobilize after he was elected (and to be clear, I'm not equating the two presidents; in my view Roosevelt is by far the better president, in terms of leadership, political skill, and as a progressive).
Leaving aside the fact that the pressure Roosevelt felt from the left arose precisely out of frustration with Roosevelt for not being bold or progressive enough; and the fact that the forces pushing the New Deal leftward often did so over Roosevelt’s strenuous objections; and the fact that the insurgents on Roosevelt’s left did not need his urging or approval to spring into action, there are some problems with this theory, beginning with the fact that the country was already veering leftward before Roosevelt became president.
Richard Hofstadter, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Progressive and Populist movements, the Age of Reform, put it this way:
Even before FDR took office a silent revolution had taken place in public opinion, the essential character of which can be seen when we recall how little opposition there was in the country, at the beginning, to the assumption of the New Dealers that henceforth, for the purposes of recovery, the federal government was to be responsible for the condition of the labor market as a part of its concern with the industrial problem as a whole. (Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 307)
For example, consider what happened in the spring of 1932, a full year before Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Congress was considering a sales tax being pushed by the Hoover administration and the leaders of both parties, and initially it looked headed for passage. But then the following happened:
An unprecedented volume of mail poured into congressional offices. Constituents denounced the sales tax in no uncertain terms, and making democracy work as it ought to, obliged their representatives to defeat the proposal. The events of March 18-24, 1932, in the House were truly remarkable. Prompted by the largely spontaneous outpouring of sentiment from their constituents, congressmen rebelled against their leaders. Amidst cheers, foot stomping, whistling, and wild applause, progressive Republicans united with Democrats in voting to increase income taxes, surtaxes, and estate taxes. Shouts of "soak the rich!" and "conscript wealth!' rose from the House floor. (McElvaine, The Great Depression: 1929-1941, 87)
In the end Congress, prompted by their constituents, passed into law the Revenue Act of 1932 which raised the rate on top incomes from 25 percent to 63 percent, doubled the estate tax, and raised corporate taxes by almost 15 percent. And they did all that without needing Franklin Roosevelt to rouse them into action, in fact they did so with Democrats having the slimmest of majorities in Congress and with a Republican president in charge.
Around the same period in 1932, A.N. Young, president of the Wisconsin Farmers’ Union, speaking before the Senate Agriculture Committee, offered this description of the political mood among farmers in his state:
“The farmer is naturally a conservative individual, but you cannot find a conservative farmer today. He is not to be found…The fact is today that there are more actual reds among the farmers in Wisconsin than you could dream about…They are just ready to do anything to get even with the situation.” (Schlesinger, The Crisis of the Old Order, 176)
There was this from Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, also in 1932, describing the political climate in his neck of the woods:
"Folks are restless. Communism is gaining a foothold. Right here in Mississippi some people are about ready to lead a mob. In fact, I'm getting a little pink myself." (Schlesinger, The Crisis of the Old Order, 204-205)
1932 was also the year that the Farmers’ Holiday Association, the group marching in the picture at the top of this diary, went on strike seeking mortgage relief, nationalization of banks, and a federal guarantee that they “got the cost of production” for their farm products. In language that today would seem more appropriate for a campus chapter of the Spartacus Youth League than Iowa farmers, the Farmers’ Holiday Association proclaimed in its statement of principles that both industrial workers and farmers “are both alike exploited by capitalist owners of the means of production” and they demanded “a change in the system of industry which shall guarantee to the worker a job, the fruits of his toil, and protection in old age.” (Luoma, The Farmer Takes A Holiday, 91)
Led by a Populist organizer named Milo Reno, the Farmers’ Holiday movement sought to go on “strike” by withholding farm products off the market until their demands were met. As historian William Leuchtenberg writes, in carrying out the strike “Farmers blocked highways with logs and spiked telegraph poles, smashed windshields and headlights, and punctured tires with their pitchforks.” (Leuchtenberg, Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal, 24) Alarmed by the unrest generated by the Farmers’ Holiday movement, in 1933 Gov. William Langer of North Dakota declared a moratorium on foreclosures and mobilized the state National Guard to enforce it.
And as I’ve already mentioned, it was in 1932 that the Bonus Army marched on Washington calling for early payment of their World War I bonuses.
Whatever might be said of the situation before Obama took office, Congress was not doing anything as radical as passing 63% top marginal tax rate on the wealthy, nor was there talk of "communism getting a foothold" in places like Mississippi. And we certainly weren’t seeing typically conservative segments of the population like farmers and military veterans engaging in radical acts and making radical demands for policies that were squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum.
But further attesting to the leftward mood of the country during this period is the fact that at least in his initial campaign for president and in his first couple years in office, Roosevelt was not the liberal crusader many liberals today believe he was. In fact he only became the “I welcome their hatred” version of Roosevelt that we all know due to pressures that pulled him in a bolder, more leftward direction as his presidency wore on.
In the 1932 campaign Roosevelt had savaged the Hoover administration as "being the greatest spending Administration in peace times in all our history," and in a speech in Pittsburgh a month before the election Roosevelt said, "I regard reduction in Federal spending as one of the most important issues of this campaign. In my opinion, it is the most direct and effective contribution that Government can make to business.” (Leuchtenberg, Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal, 11)
Marriner Eccles, a Utah banker who Roosevelt would later choose to become Federal Reserve chair, said the campaign speeches of Roosevelt and Hoover “often read like a giant misprint, in which Roosevelt and Hoover speak each other’s lines.” (Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge, 42) Columnist Walter Lippmann offered this description of Roosevelt: “FDR is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege.” (Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge, 35)
And of Roosevelt’s early years as president, here is what some prominent Roosevelt and New Deal historians have written on the matter:
Roosevelt presented himself not as the paladin of liberalism but as father to all people, not as the representative of a single class but as the conductor of a concert of interests. A man above the political battle, the President aimed to serve as the unifier of interests and the harmonizer of divergent ideologies. (Leuchtenberg, Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal, 1932-1940, 84)
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.:
He (Roosevelt) had staked his program in 1933 largely on the thesis that, as he had put it, business leaders could be relied on to operate for the general welfare and that 'industry would not violate a great public trust.’ In that faith, he had appointed business leaders to posts of high responsibility. (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 212)
The good politician – and Roosevelt unquestionably was one of the best – always seek to occupy the center ground. President Roosevelt engaged in a masterful balancing act in 1933 and 1934…What FDR sought in his first two years was not majority support, but something approaching consensus. The First New Deal tried to please everyone. Roosevelt's penchant for splitting differences down the middle, blending opposites, and playing one side against the other was evidence of this. (McElvaine, The Great Depression, 1929-1941, 167)
During the emergency Roosevelt had had practically dictatorial powers…Although he had adopted many novel, perhaps risky expedients, he had avoided vital disturbances to the interests. For example, he had passed by an easy chance to solve the bank crisis by nationalization and instead followed a policy orthodox enough to win Hoover’s approval. His basic policies for industry and agriculture had been designed after models supplied by great vested-interest groups. (Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition: And The Men Who Made It, 435)
Curiously, during his first transformational term in office, Roosevelt displayed no interest in building and leading a resolutely liberal Democratic Party. He never repeated the uncompromising partisan message of his Chicago acceptance speech and never took aim at conservatives in his own party. (Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge, 46)
So anxious was Roosevelt to respond to different political and economic pressures, to annex moderate Republicans and Independents and cobble together as broad, inclusive, and nonpartisan a coalition as possible that, during the first years of his presidency, he virtually peeled the Democratic label off himself and his administration. (Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge, 47)
James MacGregor Burns:
As leader of all the people, as broker among major organized interests, he would take the middle way. He adopted spending policies, but only as a temporary measure until the budget was balanced. He favored tariff reduction, but not where it hurt major American interests. He wanted a “reflationary” price rise, but not an “inflationary” one. He was favorable to organized labor, but only to the point consistent with a partnership of industry, labor, and farmers with government. (Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and The Fox, 197)
Roosevelt during 1933-34 was no Jefferson, no Jackson. He did not conceive of himself as the leader of a majority on the left, as a party leader building a new alignment of political power. His job, as he saw it, was to patch up an ailing economic system, to rescue human lives, to bring about generally agreed-on reforms, and above all to promote economic recovery. (Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and The Fox, 209)
That Roosevelt went from appointing “business leaders to posts of high responsibility” and saying that “industry would not violate a great public trust” in 1933, to calling the captains of industry “economic royalists” and welcoming their hatred in 1936 attests to how Roosevelt felt it necessary to move leftward in order to keep up with the prevailing political winds.
As I’ve demonstrated in the numerous examples I’ve cited above of how Roosevelt and the New Deal were pulled leftward, it was clear that on economic matters those winds were blowing towards the left. On the political front, the 1934 midterms are often seen as a testament to Roosevelt’s popularity, which they certainly were, but they also told the story of how the country’s mood was increasingly lurching to the left. As Robert McElvaine wrote of the midterm results:
The congressional elections in 1934 saw victories by some thirty-five men who were clearly to the left of the President. Among them were Maury Maverick of Texas, Vito Marcantonio of New York, Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota, and Tom Amlie of Wisconsin...And across the nation in the state of Washington, a group favoring a production-for-use economy, the Commonwealth Builders, elected both of the state’s United States Senators, one each in 1932 and 1934, three congressmen, and nearly half of the state legislators. (McElvaine, The Great Depression 1929-1941, 229)
And, as McElvaine also points out, “In Wisconsin, when voters were given the choice between a New Deal Democrat and someone even more liberal, they mostly opted for the latter" – with the result being that in 1934 the Progressive Party of Wisconsin won 7 of the state's 10 congressional seats.
Editorials after the midterms expressed alarm at the country’s sharp leftward turn as demonstrated by the election results, and the challenge it posed to Roosevelt:
The Hartford Courant forecast that the conflict in Congress during the next two years would not be between Democrats and Republicans but between “conservatism and radicalism.” The Portland Oregonian observed that Roosevelt now had on his hands “a Congress made bumptious by smashing victory and permeated with big ideas. The Lord help us if it gets out of hand!” The Washington Star predicted that the radical element in Congress would press leftist legislation sure to be opposed by mainstream Democrats. “In which direction,” the paper wondered, “will the President lead?” (Mitchell, Campaign of the Century)
This became especially problematic in early 1935 when Roosevelt’s popularity took a turn for the worse. It was during this period that Huey Long, the Townsend movement, and other protest movements calling for solutions more radical than those of the New Deal reached their greatest strength and popularity. So great was the threat from Long and the left becoming that one Senator said at the time, "We are obliged to propose and accept many things in the New Deal that otherwise we would not because we must prevent a union of discontent around [Long]". (Brinkley, Voices of Protest, 86)
As David Kennedy described the growing discontent with Roosevelt:
Disillusionment with Roosevelt ran deepest and most dangerously on the left, especially among jobless workers and busted farmers, among reformers and visionaries who had been led to giddy heights of expectation by Roosevelt's aggressive presidential beginning, and among radicals who saw in the Depression the clinching proof that American capitalism was defunct, beyond all hope of salvation or melioration. (Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, 219)
It was then that Roosevelt began making his famous turn to the left, which came first in the form of the so-called Second New Deal that produced some of the most lasting and impactful policies of the New Deal.
Roosevelt’s turn to the left was especially apparent in his approach to the 1936 re-election campaign. As David Kennedy recounts, when Secretary of Labor Harold Ickes expressed to Roosevelt in December 1935 his view "that I believed the general sentiment of the country to be much more radical than that of the Administration," Roosevelt "readily agreed." (Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, 278) As a result, Kennedy concludes, Roosevelt decided that in his approach to the 1936 campaign, "To bind the potentially explosive left to him and to reduce its capacity for radical mischief, rhetorical attacks on business were a cheap price to pay.” (Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, 284) The evidence of this can be found in the emergence in 1936 of the fighting rhetoric Roosevelt is best known for, from his condemnation of “economic royalists” to “I welcome their hatred”.
Or as Arthur Schlesinger aptly put it, Roosevelt had “passed out of the George Washington mood of the First New Deal. Now he saw himself increasingly as Andrew Jackson.” (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 637)
I’m sure you all have plenty of theories as to why the American people were further on the left on economic matters in Roosevelt’s day than in ours. There are a few explanations I find particularly convincing, a couple of which are the fact that the situation in Roosevelt's time was far more desperate and the fact that the size and scope of government was much smaller in Roosevelt’s day than in ours.
To put this in perspective, in 1933 GDP had fallen by nearly half from where it was in 1929, unemployment was at 25% and underemployment at 50%. US Steel had gone from having over 200,000 full-time employees in 1929 to exactly none in 1933. Before Roosevelt even declared a Bank Holiday banks were already closed by gubernatorial or legislative decree in 40 states. As bad as things were in 2008-09, they were nowhere near as dire as the situation in 1933.
Also, federal spending was just 8% of GDP when Roosevelt took office; by contrast, it was well over 20% when Obama took office. In 1933 there was no Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance, farm price supports, food stamps, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families. The only contact most Americans had with the federal government was with their local post office. Quite simply, attempts to stoke public fear and resentment of a gargantuan, all-powerful, and intrusive federal government were not convincing to most Americans at the time.
The combination of sheer economic desperation and a small, weak federal government made for an environment where robust government intervention in the economy, a policy approach that tends to be found on the left side of the ideological spectrum, became desirable to large segments of the American public.
But there is one other critical difference between our time and Roosevelt's, and that would be the character of the American people themselves. Specifically, I'm referring to middle America. Today middle America is implacably conservative on both economic and social matters and has been for many decades now. But that was not always the case at least with regard to economic matters and the government's role in the economy.
Before Roosevelt took office middle America had a strong, long-standing tradition of progressivism. The Populist movement of the late 19th century, which advocated things like a graduated income tax and public ownership of railroads, utilities, and banks, originated in the rural deep South. Southerners overwhelmingly backed their fellow southerner, Woodrow Wilson, and his New Freedom, which prior to the New Deal was the most progressive set of reforms in American history. And of course Southerners overwhelmingly backed the New Deal, at least in Roosevelt’s first term.
The far west and plains states, today some of the most conservative regions in the country outside the Deep South, also once had a strong progressive tradition. In the 1924 presidential election, the Progressive Party of 1924 won 45% of the vote in North Dakota, 37% in Montana, 36% of the vote in Idaho, and 31% in Wyoming. In the 1912 election Socialist Eugene Debs won 16% of the vote in Oklahoma, 13% in Montana and Arizona, and 11% in Idaho. Some of the New Deal's most important proponents, allies, and challengers from the left in Congress, hailing from both parties, were from these states: Republicans William Borah of Idaho, George Norris of Nebraska, and William Lemke and Lynn Frazier of North Dakota were progressives, as were western Democrats like Edward Costigan of Colorado, Burton Wheeler of Montana, and Joseph O'Mahoney of Wyoming.
To put it another way, today Utah is perhaps the most reliably conservative state in the union. But in 1935 an organization in that state called the Reform Taxpayers' League, which advocated redistribution of wealth along the lines that Huey Long was calling for, "had developed such strength that its proposals were gliding through the legislature almost without opposition." (Brinkley, Voices of Protest, 204)
The fact that the rural and small population regions of the country, which used to have a strong progressive presence both before and during Roosevelt's presidency, have become citadels of reaction in the last half century or so explains to a great degree the decline of liberalism in America. Our system of government is set up so that rural and sparsely populated states and districts have outsize power and representation. For a progressive agenda to become reality, it requires support among those rural and less populated states and districts. Not surprisingly, liberalism has been mired in the wilderness ever since those regions became bitterly hostile to liberalism and the government’s involvement in the economy.
I should also mention that it’s hard to overlook the racial component here, because when we’re talking about middle America, what we’re really talking about is white middle America.
Just consider this: In 1932 a country that was over 95% white and largely rural elected by landslide margins both Franklin Roosevelt and a Congress that was in many respects further to the left than Roosevelt. Roosevelt not only swept the Deep South by absurd margins – he got 98% of the vote in South Carolina, 95% in Mississippi – but he also won 73% of the vote in Oklahoma, 63% in Nebraska, 58% in Idaho, and 56% in Utah and Wyoming.
Yet if the country's demographics in 2008 matched those of 1932, Obama would've been easily defeated* despite the deep unpopularity of the Republican president, the Republican Party, and despite an economic and financial crash that most Americans blamed on the Republicans (*Obama lost among whites 55-43% in 2008). If the demographics of 2016 matched those of 1932 we would be looking at President Trump regardless of whether Clinton or Sanders is the Democratic nominee (in PPP’s most recent poll, on page 46, among whites Trump beats Clinton 53-36, and beats Sanders 52-35).
Or to put yet another way how much things have changed, when in 1936 a white North Carolina mill worker was asked why he supported Roosevelt, his reply was, “Mr. Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand my boss is a sonofabitch.” (Leuchtenberg, The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton) Yet, if exit polls of white working class Americans — particularly in the South — are any indication, the modern day descendants of that white North Carolina mill worker almost certainly voted in 2012 for Mitt Romney, a financial baron who made the celebration of “job creators” — the sort of folk that mill worker in 1936 referred to as “a sonofabitch” — central to his campaign, and who made his fortune buying up distressed companies, laying off workers, and reselling the assets at enormous personal profit. And now they probably support for president a billionaire famous for uttering “You’re fired.”
How much of this change in the ideological leanings of white middle America has been due to racial bigotry, economic and social upheaval, or the fear and resentment of government that has been part of the American political tradition since the country’s founding, I will not touch upon here for this diary has already run on too long. But the fact that white middle America, still the dominant voting bloc in this country, has turned sharply toward the side of reaction is something that is impossible to ignore in any discussion on the trajectory of liberalism from the early 20th century to the present day.
Let me just finish by saying that my point in writing all of this is that for progressive change to happen, the people must make it happen, in addition to having the right leader in place.
In my view and reading of history, it is far more the case that the people lead and the politicians follow rather than the other way around. As I've tried to explain, Americans didn't just suddenly become economic liberals because Roosevelt inspired them to do so, they had been headed that way long before he took office. The election of one person, even to as powerful a position as President of the United States, and even electing a substantial congressional majority, mean little if the existing political conditions aren't amenable to strong progressive reforms.
We know this based on the example of Franklin Roosevelt himself.
Often overlooked is the fact that the New Deal period made up just half of Roosevelt's presidency. As I've pointed out, when the political climate was favorable to government activism and progressive policies, Roosevelt was able to shepherd the most sweeping progressive program in American history through Congress.
But beginning in 1937, despite Roosevelt having the largest congressional majorities of his presidency and despite having just won re-election by the largest margin in history, the New Deal ground to a virtual halt. Furor over Roosevelt's court-packing plan and Roosevelt's declining popularity resulting from the Roosevelt Recession certainly played a role in the New Deal's decline. But in Roosevelt's first term, it was when his popularity dipped that insurgents who pushed the New Deal leftward gained in strength. Not so in Roosevelt's second term. In addition, the recession did not become fully apparent until the fall of 1937, yet the New Deal had been stalled long before that.
Rather, there was another significant reason for the New Deal's decline, which according to historian Alan Brinkley was as follows:
The erosion of congressional support for liberal measures did not, of course, occur in a vacuum. It reflected a broad growing popular impatience with the New Deal – and with the taxes, deficits, and expansion of bureaucracy that many voters associated with it. Even many people who continued to admire and support President Roosevelt expressed weariness with some of the liberal causes for which he had long fought, particularly once the wartime economic boom made some of them seem superfluous. Opinion polls recorded rising opposition to New Deal relief agencies and support for their abolition; deepening hostility to the conduct (although not the fact) of labor unions and their leaders, and increasing sentiment for laws to forbid strikes; growing resentment of government regulation and support for the prerogatives of business. (Brinkley, The End of Reform, 142-143)
Or as Harry Hopkins wrote in 1937, it was as if the American people had "grown bored with the poor, the unemployed, and the insecure." (Leuchtenberg, Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal, 274)
So even with the great Franklin Roosevelt as president and with a massive Democratic majority, and less than a year following the greatest electoral landslide in history, the dynamic phase of the New Deal was finished. With the exception of a spending plan to counteract the Recession of 1937-38 and a watered-down wages and hours bill that passed in 1939, the remaining eight years of Roosevelt's presidency were spent fending off attempts by conservatives in both parties to roll back the gains made during the New Deal years. In fact virtually all major progressive legislation would remain bottled up for the next 25 years as the Conservative Coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats came to dominate the legislative agenda.
Since this is election season, I want to make clear that I'm not arguing that who we elect for president means little or nothing, nor am I trying to absolve certain politicians of responsibility for their errors, shortcomings, or misdeeds. And I'm certainly not trying to diminish the contributions of Franklin Roosevelt, someone who I’ve studied and admired more than any single political figure in our nation’s history.
Rather, my point is that people should try to view politics as something that is driven from the bottom up than from the top down. That it is the people who exert greater influence on the direction of our politics than do Presidents or individual politicians and leaders. There is too much yearning for heroes and saviors on the part of not only the left but the American people. Politics and history are too much framed in terms of individuals. In reality the people are just as accountable as our leaders for what happens in politics, and I would argue more so.
H.W. Brands, Traitor To His Class. Anchor Books, 2000.
Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform. Vintage Books, 1996.
Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest. Vintage Books, 1983.
James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and The Fox. 1956. Mariner Books, 2002.
Susan Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge. Belknap Press, 2010.
Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History. Free Press, 2011.
Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform. 1955. Vintage Books, 1960.
Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition: And The Men Who Made It. 1948. Vintage Books, 1989.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Oxford, 1999.
William Leuchtenberg, Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal: 1932-1940. 1963. Harper Perennial, 2009.
William Leuchtenberg, The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Oxford, 2015.
Everett E. Luoma, The Farmer Takes A Holiday. Exposition Press, 1967.
Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: 1929-1941. 1983. Three Rivers Press, 2009.
Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics. 1992. Townsend Books, 2011.
Michael Perino, The Hellhound of Wall Street. Penguin, 2010.
Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and The New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2008.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of the Old Order. 1957. Mariner Books, 2003.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal. 1958. Mariner Books, 2003.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Upheaval. 1960. Mariner Books, 2003.
Jean Edward Smith, FDR. Random House, 2008.
I also want to clarify something about my use of the terms “liberal”, “left”, and “progressive” in this diary. Huey Long, the Farmers’ Holiday movement, those who made up the Townsend movement, the World War I veterans who marched in the Bonus Army, and many of the other figures during the New Deal who I refer to as pushing Roosevelt and the New Deal to the left were not “liberals” or “lefties” in the sense that liberals today would understand. Many of the people who supported these various movements and figures were otherwise quite conservative in most aspects of their lives. The Townsendites, for example, were made up in large part by old, conservative Republicans. The kind of folk who supported Huey Long, the Farmers’ Holiday, and the Bonus Army — poor, small farmers, small businessmen, military veterans - were not wild-eyed leftists, they were often the kind of traditionalist, God-fearing, salt of the earth, and in many cases anti-intellectual, nativist types one would today associate with the Tea Party.
But I refer to them all generally as being of the “left” or “liberal” side because with regard to their preferred economic policies and their political rhetoric, one would have to place their views as being squarely on the left. Huey Long was calling for steep taxation on the wealthy and for redistribution of wealth — both things one would associate with the left. The Townsendites were calling for a radical, government-run old age pension plan — another policy usually associated with the left. The Farmers’ Holiday called for a moratorium on foreclosures, government subsidization of their farm products, and nationalization of banks, while the Bonus Army called for a massive economic stimulus to be financed through deficit spending — again, policies one would normally find on the left side of the spectrum.
And of course there was the rhetoric employed by these groups. Condemnation of the wealthy, of capitalism, of bankers, big business, calls for “soaking the rich”, social justice and equality — this is the kind of language you normally hear on the left today, but it was also the political language being spoken by many of these otherwise conservative-seeming movements and figures during the New Deal (Indeed, this had been the dominant political rhetoric among wide swaths of middle America since at least the late 1800s).
To give another example of this, Father Charles Coughlin was a figure one would usually place on the right considering his anti-Semitism, religious fundamentalism, virulent hatred of communism, and fascistic tendencies. But the organization he headed was called the National Union for Social Justice, and its statement of principles included support for the following:
“nationalizing those public necessities which by their very nature are too important to be held in the control of private individuals”
”the right of the laboring man to organize in unions but also in the duty of the Government which that laboring man supports to facilitate and to protect these organizations against the vested interests of wealth and of intellect”
“preferring the sanctity of human rights to the sanctity of property rights”
“the chief concern of government shall be for the poor because, as it is witnessed, the rich have ample means of their own to care for themselves”
The very fact that otherwise conservative people and groups were calling for solutions and speaking in terms that we would today clearly identify with liberalism speaks to just how much further to the left the political climate was in America during Roosevelt’s day compared to ours. It is for this reason that I use the terms “left” and “liberal” to describe the various movements and figures who pressured Roosevelt and the New Deal to move, well, to the left.