Should Hillary move left? A historian explains how FDR did in 1936 — and won in a landslide
As the Democratic Party convention begins, it behooves us to look back at its last visit to Philadelphia, in 1936. Then, too, the United States found itself in a time of incredible economic stress and inequality—in fact, the Great Depression was far worse than recent troubles. The mid 1930s also saw the first rising of global fascism in Japan, Italy, and Germany, the latter two supporting Spanish General Franco’s military overthrow of the democratically elected Socialists and plunging Spain into civil war in 1936. In that time of domestic and global unrest, the Democrats’ standard-bearer, none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, embraced an increasingly radical and leftist message.
In 2016 Hillary Clinton continues following the playbook of her husband Bill Clinton, staying close to the center. Her relative conservatism partially explains the success of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, in the Democratic primaries. How, in fact, does a 74-year old Jewish man with a thick Brooklyn accent from the tiny state of Vermont win primaries in twenty-one states? Clearly, his message resonated—and still does—with a huge percentage of Democrats and other Americans.
Hillary Clinton would do well to read and consider the powerful convention speech Roosevelt delivered in Philadelphia. After all, FDR won in a landslide as his New Deal ushered in two generations of progressive politics with Democratic majorities for most of that era.
First some statistics. Americans know about the Great Depression but most are aware of only the slightest of details. The worst economic crisis in US and global capitalist history, official unemployment reached as high 33% in the USA and underemployment was closer to 50%. “Real” wages dropped nearly 20%. Millions of house owners and renters were expelled from of their homes. Homelessness skyrocketed. The Gross National Product plunged 30% in four years. Construction sunk by 75%, manufacturing by 50%, investment by 98%. Thousands of banks collapsed, taking nearly ten million savings accounts with them.
Into this sinking ship, FDR quickly changed course with his New Deal after his election in 1932. First he shored up the financial system and restored confidence. Banking and finance, after all, are the lifeblood in a capitalist body and when the blood does not flow, the body dies. The goals of his “first” New Deal were short-term, stimulating an economic recovery and providing relief to millions in desperate need. Despite the many short- and even long-term benefits of the first round of legislation passed in 1933, the Great Depression continued. As a result, in 1935 FDR adopted more radical and sweeping policies.
FDR’s “second” New Deal had much broader goals: to eradicate unemployment and poverty, grant rights and protections for workers interested in joining unions, and reduce inequalities of wealth that hindered democracy itself. Roosevelt’s underlying philosophy was that, by enlarging the middle class, all of society benefits. The ideal bears repeating: when inequality is greater, a society is less democratic. Conversely, the most democratic nations are the ones with the broadest distribution of wealth. To achieve these sweeping goals, FDR continued expanding the role and authority of the federal government.
Here are a very brief, “greatest hits” of this 2nd New Deal, all passed in 1935. Social Security, which some call Roosevelt’s signature achievement, guaranteed that no elderly or other dependent person would be destitute in a nation as wealthy as America. The Wagner (or National Labor Relations) Act “gave” workers the right to organize unions and go on strike. It also compelled employers to recognize these rights. Strengthened by these measures, unions arguably did more than anything else to ensure the rise of a large middle class by empowering workers to demand higher wages and more benefits, essentially redistributing wealth downward.
Finally, the Works Progress Administration, a jobs program on an unimaginable scale, employed nearly nine million people and, in the process, built the nation’s infrastructure that ably served the nation’s people and economy for three generations. A laundry list of WPA projects would fill a book and includes the Lincoln Tunnel, San Francisco Bay Bridge, Midway Airport in Chicago, Boise High School, Rubber Bowl Stadium in Akron Ohio, Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina, and Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
This historian cannot help but note the WPA also created a Federal Writers Project that employed authors, historians, playwrights, and poets, including Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. Among other contributions, they created historical guides for each of the 48 states and the District of Columbia. Another project, the WPA Slave Narratives, conducted “more than two thousand interviews with former slaves, most of them first-person accounts of slave life and the respondents’ own reactions to bondage.”
None of these new laws were perfect. Many people were exempted from Social Security and new workplace rights—especially agricultural and domestic workers who, not coincidentally were disproportionately women and people of color. Millions still were unemployed and without federal assistance.
Still, the New Deal helped the nation at the time and ever since, particularly for its poor, working, and middle classes.
FDR headed into his first re-election, fast on the heels of his most ambitious year, and continued moving leftwards.
The Democratic Party held its convention in Philadelphia July 23 to 27, 1936. Then, socialism very much was on the agenda for an increasingly progressive President Roosevelt forcefully laid out a vision undeniably more ambitious and leftist than any president before him or since.
(Coincidentally, the Republican Party held its 1936 convention in Cleveland, where they met this year. However, this essay has nothing to say about Donald Trump.)
Like Bernie Sanders, FDR regularly was attacked for being a socialist, his programs constituting “creeping socialism.” Alfred “Alf” Landon, his Republican opponent and the governor of Kansas, said, “National economic planning—the term used by this Administration to describe its policy—violates the basic ideals of the American system… The price of economic planning is the loss of economic freedom. And economic freedom and personal liberty go hand in hand.” The National Association of Manufacturers suggested New Deal laws protecting workers “constitutes a step in the direction of communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism.”
When he addressed the convention, Roosevelt acknowledged the suffering of the nation and world: “But I cannot, with candor, tell you that all is well with the world. Clouds of suspicion, tides of ill-will and intolerance gather darkly in many places.” His speech is so fascinating and instructive it deserves to be quoted from extensively.
FDR squarely attacked economic inequality that he clearly laid at the feet of corrupt, greedy rich people and corporations, suggesting that the extreme concentration of wealth of the Republican-dominated 1920s actually was both anti-democratic and un-American. He labeled them “economic royalists who complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America.”
He contended that, while the Constitution privileged political and legal rights (e.g. free speech, due process) to economic and social ones, economic rights must be protected, too: “Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.”
Roosevelt continued: “An old English judge once said: ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” In this ideal, Roosevelt harkened back to the Revolutionary era ideal of “republicanism”: that no person who was economically dependent—meaning slaves but, more generally, those who worked for someone else—truly could be free. FDR was quite right that the birth of the USA began a grand experiment in striving to make the vast majority economically independent as well as politically equal and free.
FDR also understood that times had changed from the late 18th century. “The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.” More specifically, industrial capitalism permanently altered the economy: “For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things.” The economic system, without sufficient checks by the government (to protect ordinary citizens), was problematic.
Worse, the moneyed class sought to undermine the democratic republic: “It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.”
Corporations, then (and now), dictated how people lived and toiled: “The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor—these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship.”
Ultimately, Roosevelt asserted, “Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.”
There was only logical conclusion to draw, declared FDR: “For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.”
In such dire straits, what force could help the people? “Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government.”
He also fully appreciated the reality of a conservative backlash: “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.”
How was Roosevelt’s socialistic message delivered at the Democratic convention received? In 1936 he won the presidency in the biggest electoral landslide in US history (523 to 8) with among the biggest margins in the popular vote, 61% to 37%. (Only LBJ, who very much modeled his own domestic policies—and even his nickname—after FDR, won by a greater margin in the popular vote.)
Not only did FDR win in a landslide, he expanded the Democrats’ already-large hold over both houses of Congress, too. Subsequently, Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress passed several more major pieces of legislation. Most importantly, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 finally created a minimum wage for many hourly workers and established maximum hours (8-hour day, 5-day workweek) along with overtime; the FLSA also abolished chair labor. Other signal policies included the creation of the US Housing Authority to ensure that no one went without decent shelter and Farm Security Administration that sought to root out rural poverty and aid small, landless farmers. What else FDR might have done, domestically, is speculation as fascism in Europe and Asia engulfed the world in the worst war the world has ever seen. Roosevelt proceeded to lead the Allies to victory in the “good war” but passed away near its close.
Fast forward to 2016: What might Hillary Clinton take away from this history lesson? Clinton could learn a great deal from Roosevelt, who ironically was accused of both being a socialist and “saving capitalism.” After all, Sanders repeatedly invoked the legacy of FDR and the New Deal and nearly upended Clinton’s effort to win the Democratic nomination.
As Roosevelt noted in his convention speech, “Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history. This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776—an American way of life.”
What could Clinton learn? Well, in 1936, Roosevelt moved Left which proved good for the Democratic Party but, far more importantly, good for the nation and its people.
Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of “Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia” and currently at work on a book entitled “Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.” He writes on labor history and politics and tweets from @ProfPeterCole
This article was originally published at History News Network