The New Deal wasn’t just a product of Democratic super-majorities. Principled legislators in both parties were willing to work together to revive the economy.
The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it. The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change. Liberalism becomes the protection for the far-sighted conservative. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s recent announcement that she has decided to leave the Senate because of partisan gridlock is being widely viewed on both sides of the aisle as further confirmation — as if we needed it — of just how dysfunctional our political process has become. In good health and likely to win if she were to run, Senator Snowe said she had to consider how productive an additional term would be given the “polarized environment” in Congress. In light of this, and in light of the fact that she does not expect the intense partisanship of recent years to change over the short term, she reluctantly decided not to seek re-election. Her fellow senator, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, remarked that she is “devastated” by the news, while Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont called her decision a real loss, noting that he misses the days when “Republicans and Democrats worked together” for the good of the country.
Partisanship has been part of America’s political process from the beginning. Why, then, is today’s partisanship so much more destructive than in the past? The answer may lie in the makeup of the parties themselves. Many Americans, for example, assume that Franklin Roosevelt was able to get through such landmark pieces of legislation as the Social Security Act or the National Labor Relations Act because the Democrats held huge majorities in both houses of Congress. But the truth is that many of FDR’s harshest critics came from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, while some of his strongest supporters were progressive Republicans.
In the early days of the New Deal, for example, FDR teamed up with Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska to create the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), our nation’s first major regional supplier of public power. On May 8, 1933, also a part of the famous 100 days, Republican senators Robert La Follette Jr. of Wisconsin and Bronson Cutting of New Mexico joined forces with Edward Costigan of Colorado to sponsor a bill authorizing $6 billion in public works expenditures. Moreover, the director of one of the most important New Deal stimulus agencies, the Public Works Administration (PWA), which among other things built the Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel in New York, the Washington National Airport, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Grand Coulee Dam, and thousands of miles of public highways, was led by the progressive Republican head of the Department of the Inferior, Harold Ickes. Progressive Republicans even supported legislation aimed at securing the rights of workers to join unions and secure better wages, hours, and working conditions — the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act — and the vast majority of Republicans in both the House and the Senate voted for the Social Security Act and the establishment of the Social Security Administration, whose first head was the former governor of the state of New Hampshire, Republican John G. Winant.
In the meantime, the Roosevelt administration’s determination to expand the U.S. economy and put people back to work through compensatory deficit spending had raised the ire of many conservatives — including conservative Democrats — who denounced the New Deal as nothing more than a left-wing plot to take the United States down the path of socialism. One of the most outspoken critics was Al Smith, the former governor of New York and Democratic candidate for president in 1928. Smith’s vehement opposition to Roosevelt’s policies led him to join forces with other prominent conservative Democrats like John J. Raskob, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Jouett Shouse, who had served as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the DNC, and John W. Davis, the party’s nominee for president in 1924, in forming the American Liberty League in August of 1934.
The Liberty League also received strong support from conservative Republicans and was largely financed by some of the most powerful business elites in the county, including the du Pont family and other prominent corporate Republican leaders, such as the heads of General Motors, General Foods, Chase National Bank, Standard Oil, and other major corporations. The League spent vast sums of money in an attempt to unseat FDR in the 1936 presidential election. They ruthlessly attacked the New Deal and characterized their efforts as being motivated by a desire “to defend and uphold the [U.S.] Constitution.” The League also insisted that the growth of the national debt was a sign of permanent economic decline and argued that there was no difference between Roosevelt’s policies and socialism, warning, as Al Smith did in the 1936 election, that there “can only be one capital, Washington or Moscow.”
The Liberty League’s efforts to roll back or halt the New Deal and defeat FDR in the 1936 election failed spectacularly. One of the main reasons for this failure was the widespread consensus that had emerged in Washington by this point among like-minded members of both parties that government action in the face of such an unprecedented crisis was critical — not merely as a means to provide relief to the millions of unemployed, but also as a means to restore the American people’s faith in liberal capitalist democracy. As FDR put it in his first inaugural, the onset of his administration was a “day of national consecration,” a time when the nation was “calling for action and action now,” and as the legislative record of his first administration in particular shows, most members of Congress — be they Republican or Democrat — understood this.
This is not to say that the two parties did not compete with one another. They most certainly did. But the partisan divide of the 1930s was based much more on political and economic philosophy than it was on party affiliation. One gets the sense that this not only made for a healthier and more natural political discourse — a debate over ideas instead of party — it also made it much more likely that the forces necessary to form a political consensus over a particular issue would form. All of this was helped along of course by FDR’s political genius, but the major reforms of the New Deal were not solely of his making. He had a great deal of help from both Democrats and Republicans, many of whom joined hands in a common effort to provide the American people with Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, protection from the avarice of an unregulated banking and financial sector, and a host of other programs designed to provide the average citizen with a measure of economic security within the capitalist system.
Today, in the wake of the Great Recession, one might assume that the U.S. Congress would respond in a similar fashion. But as Senator Snowe’s decision reminds us, this is not to be the case. Senator Leahy is right. It is a sad day indeed when, in the face of a similar economic crisis, a consensus-seeking legislator like Olympia Snowe, who has dedicated much of her life to serving the public interest, now finds it impossible to serve that interest in the one national institution whose sole purpose is to do so.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.