Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.
Recent press reports have indicated that in switching tactics, President Obama has decided to take a more active and aggressive role in trying to help his party limit the damage or even achieve something of a victory this November. If history is any guide, this may prove to be one of the wisest political decisions he has made.
In spite of his overwhelming success in the Presidential election of 1932, there was no guarantee that Franklin Roosevelt would lead his party to victory in 1934. Then, as now, it was something of a truism in American politics that the party in power in the White House would lose seats in the mid term election. Moreover, 1934 was the year that the arch right-wing and left-wing reaction to the launch of the New Deal would begin to coalesce around a variety of newly formed “populist” organizations that claimed to represent the will of the people. It was in August of 1934, for example, that a group of hardcore conservative democrats and republicans — financed by some of the most prominent names in American business — formed “The American Liberty League,” (See: “The Tea Party Movement: Successor to the American Liberty League?”) an anti-government, pro-market organization that accused FDR of leading the country down the path of a socialist dictatorship. It was also in 1934 that “the Kingfish” of Louisiana politics, the demagogic Senator Huey Long, established the “Share Our Wealth Movement,” which, in a thunder from the left, called for 100% tax on all earnings over a million dollars and a guaranteed income for every American household of between $2,00 and $2,500. FDR also had to contend with the rise of the “Townsend Plan,” which called for all persons over the age of sixty to receive a monthly pension of $200 (a fairly large sum in 1934) provided they would spend it within thirty days; and of course the vitriolic attacks by Father Coughlin, the so-called radio priest, who by 1934 was calling FDR a Marxist whose government had fallen under the sway of “internationalist bankers and financiers.”
There were other rumblings, too — that both Mussolini and Hitler were in power in Europe, and that FDR was stealthily leading the country into a Fascist dictatorship. Some even equated FDR with the two European dictators, a charge answered by none other than the Conservative British MP, Winston Churchill, who wrote in a 1934 Collier’s article that:
“To compare Roosevelt’s effort with that of Hitler is to insult, not Roosevelt, but civilization. The petty persecutions and Old World assertions of brutality in which the German idol has indulged only show their smallness and squalor compared to the renaissance of creative effort with which the name of Roosevelt will always be associated.”
By the middle of 1934, most Americans understood that the partial economic recovery achieved under Roosevelt in his first 16 months in office had brought the immediate crisis to an end. Indeed, national income rose by over 20 per cent in 1934, but given the unprecedented depth of the economic collapse, the country still had a long way to go.
FDR knew that in spite of this marked improvement, millions of unemployed Americans (with no unemployment insurance yet in place) continued to suffer. He knew that this suffering left them in a state of fear and uncertainty about the future, and he understood that he could not take the 1934 election for granted. He had to get his message out to the people; to counter the fear mongering tactics of his so-called populist opponents. On June 28, 1934, he set the tone for the electoral season by giving one of his famous fireside chats. Here he asked the American people to reflect on whether or not they and the country were better off in June of 1934 than in June of 1933:
“a few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it Fascism, sometimes Communism, sometimes Regimentation, sometimes Socialism. But in doing so, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and practical.
I believe in practical explanations and practical policies. …that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment…of old and tested American ideals.”
In addition to the radio, FDR also hit the road, making a mid-term election campaign swing in August of that year that would take him through Washington, Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Along the way he implored the American people to reject the notion — advocated by the American Liberty League and others — that the way to recovery was for the repeal of all laws, state or national, that regulate business. To do so, he said, would be to return the nation to the “old law of the tooth and the claw” so that once again the “unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked.” FDR had faith that the American people would reject such a vision, because they believed as he did that “sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof.”
In the end, FDR’s efforts paid off, for Tuesday November 6, 1934, was a huge victory for both him and his party. Most political analysts had predicted a loss for the democrats; democratic optimists said that the losses might be small or the party might break even. Few predicted that the party would actually gain seats, rising from 313 to 322 in the House and from 59 to 69 in the Senate-giving the democrats in the latter body the widest margin ever held in the history of the Republic. Having achieved the seemingly impossible, FDR went on the launch the “second New Deal” which gave us some of the most important social and economic reforms in our nation’s history, including Social Security and unemployment insurance.
The circumstances in which President Obama finds himself today are not exactly like those which confronted FDR in 1934 (President Obama, for example, has had to deal with a more recalcitrant and obstructionist Congress, thanks in part to the disappearance of liberal and moderate republicans). But the mood among the electorate — symbolized by rise of the Tea Party — is not unlike that of 1934, where apprehension and uncertainty gave rise to bigotry and hatred. In such a climate, President Obama’s decision to counter the fear mongering and red-baiting tactics of his more extreme opponents is not just the right thing to do for the country. It may also prove to be good politics.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.