Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman ( bio ) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here . Saul's Reflections column , in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.
I was barely around in 1934 but I will lay odds that there was no argument in my parents’ household about the forthcoming midterm elections. Indeed, in virtually all of working class New York City, it would have been considered a sin not to vote straight Democrat – for the party of Franklin Roosevelt.
I have alluded to that election in other posts as a lesson for today and President Obama for Roosevelt’s New Deal, while full of promise and proposals, had not yet broken the death grip of the deep recession, which was to become known as the Great Depression.
It was to wear on until the eve of World War II. But, as I’ve said, Roosevelt’s support among voters (now called his “base”) lasted through 1945. And the New Deal’s legacy has outlived his detractors.
By 1934, Roosevelt had closed the banks, 9,000 of which had failed, to avoid further runs and losses of depositors’ money. He had shoved through a frightened Congress 100 days of action, including the Glass-Steagall Act, which barred commercial banks from speculating in investments the market with depositors’ money, and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
The Agriculture Adjustment Act stabilized farm prices, and the Tennessee Valley Authority held the promise of bringing electrification to the poverty-stricken deep south.
Nevertheless, in 1934, Roosevelt found himself beset by the impatience of supporters and the deep hostility of the powerful Republican money changers whose selfishness and conniving had brought on the worst domestic catastrophe of the new, 20th Century.
Roosevelt sought to save capitalism from the left- and right-wing radicals of the day, yet he was called “socialist,” “communist” and worse. Just over the horizon loomed the threats of Italian Fascism and German Nazism. And the polls of the day predicted losses in the elections for the Democrats and Roosevelt’s fledgling New Deal.
It was therefore instructive to read on the web site, New Deal 2.0, a project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, an account of the 1934 election by Roosevelt historian David Woolner, a fellow in residence at Hyde Park.
“In spite of his overwhelming success in the presidential election of 1932, there was no guarantee that FDR would lead his party to victory in 1934,” Woolner wrote. “Then as now, it was something of a truism that the party in power would lose seats in the midterm 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,’ an anti-government, pro-market organization that accused FDR of leading the country down the path of a socialist dictatorship.”
Among the League’s backers were the DuPont family and the leaders of General Motors, General Foods, Chase National Bank and Standard Oil.
The League will sound familiar for, as Woolner wrote,
“it 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...’
“In hundreds of published pamphlets, the League 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 influences of his socialist advisers.
“The league saw economic planning and regulation as a threat to American values, the growth of the national debt as a sign of permanent decline.”
But Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats, his magical voice and his optimism cut through the incessant criticism from virtually every newspaper, helped in part by a rebound in economic growth and the stock market.
Besides, Roosevelt held informal press conferences in the Oval Office every Monday morning, beginning with the president asking, “What’s on your mind, boys?” He had the reporters on his side, if not their publishers. And it was his way of keeping in touch with the public.
In addition to the attacks from big business, Roosevelt had to contend with challenges from phony populists. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana established the “Share the Wealth Movement,” which called for a 100 percent tax on earnings over a million dollars and a guaranteed income of more than $2,000 for millions of American families.
The so-called “Townsend Plan,” called for the a monthly pension of $200 for everyone over 60. And the radio priest, Father Coughlin, was as popular and as vitriolic then as the Becks, Limbaughs, O’Reilly et al are today.
Woolner writes that Roosevelt took on the League, using his friends in the press to expose its ties to the business elite and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of
Obama’s arch critics today. And Roosevelt, from one of America’s most aristocratic families, never hid his disdain for the corporate captains, whom he derided as “economic royalists.”
He told the Democratic convention that nominated him in 1936, what had been on his mind:
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution.
“In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
The Tea Party, Woolner writes,
“shares many of the same tenets and clearly emerged from the same forces and fears that gave rise to the American Liberty League in 1934...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.”
Americans love a good fighter. In November 1934, against the odds and history, Roosevelt’s Democrats picked up nine House and nine Senate seats. In 1936, Roosevelt embarrassed the pollsters with a then unprecedented landslide over the Republican darling of big business, Kansas Governor Alf Landon.