The Tea Party Movement: Successor to the American Liberty League?

By David B. Woolner |

legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

Much has been written about the parallels between President Obama and Franklin Roosevelt. Both leaders assumed office during a time of great economic crisis and at a moment when the United States faced significant security threats from abroad. And, even though President Obama has turned out to be a more of a centrist politician than his liberal supporters would like, he nevertheless shares (albeit to a lesser extent) FDR’s belief in the use of government as an instrument to help restore the economy and provide the American people with a basic measure of social and economic security — hence the push for the stimulus bill and for health care reform, however imperfect critics on both the left and the right find these two pieces of legislation. One further and largely overlooked parallel, however, is the conservative/right-wing reaction to the two men’s assumption of power; a reaction that led to the creation of two remarkably similar organizations: the American Liberty League in 1934, and the Tea Party Movement in 2009.

The American Liberty League was essentially an anti-government organization that ruthlessly attacked nearly every New Deal measure under the guise of its goals “to defend and uphold the [U.S.] Constitution…to teach the duty of government to protect individual and group initiative and enterprise, to foster the right to work, earn, save and acquire property and to preserve the ownership and lawful use of property when acquired.”  In hundreds of published pamphlets, the League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President’s leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers.

The League saw economic planning and regulation as a threat to American values, the growth of the national debt as sign of permanent economic decline, and the New Deal itself as the enemy of private enterprise and hence the Constitution. Like the Tea Party, the Liberty League also claimed to be a non-partisan, popularly based organization, but its membership never exceeded 125,000.  It was largely financed by some of the most powerful business interests in the country, including the du Pont family (which provided roughly 30% of the League’s budget) and the leaders of General Motors, General Foods, Chase National Bank, Standard Oil, and other major corporations. The League spent enormous sums of money in an attempt to unseat FDR in the 1936 Presidential election, but thanks to the President’s exposure of the League’s ties to America’s wealthy corporate elite — whom FDR famously termed “economic royalists” — their plans backfired and the Republicans suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in American history.

The Tea Party Movement also calls for “Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”  Like the American Liberty League, it views the recent government initiatives to bring an end to the financial/economic crisis and reform health care as unconstitutional and accuses President Obama of pursuing policies that will turn the United States into a socialist country. The Tea Party also claims to be a non-partisan, populist movement, but a recent New York Times article noted that its membership is disproportionately made up of white male Republicans over the age of 45. It has also been widely reported that the Tea Party has received significant financial support from wealthy donors.

As a political phenomenon, then, the Tea Party shares many of the same tenets and clearly emerged from some of the same forces and fears that gave rise to the American Liberty League in 1934. The one major difference to date appears to lie in the two leaders’ responses; for in spite of his popularity, FDR never took anything — especially an election — for granted, and in the 1936 campaign he launched such an effective rhetorical assault on the League and its moneyed backers that by the fall of that year his Republican opponent, Alfred Landon, called the League’s endorsement of his candidacy “the kiss of death.”  To date, President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

ND20 ALERT: Join us in NY for fresh ideas, July 16-18! Guild Hall, in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute, will gather thought leaders in the arts, the economy, and the media in East Hampton for a can’t-miss symposium featuring George Soros, Van Jones, plus ND20 contributors Elizabeth Warren, Rob Johnson, Jeff Madrick, Editor Lynn Parramore, and more. RSVP today – seats are limited.

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian of the Roosevelt Institute, Senior Fellow of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, and Associate Professor of History at Marist College. He most recently published the edited volume Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future.