I tried to show in the first part of this article how the American economy was transformed during the Depression in large part because of the singular integrity and abilities of the men who were swept into government with Franklin Roosevelt’s victory of 1932 and how progressive ideas had been germinating within the judiciary and legal academia. It was a commitment to the common good against tremendous political pressure that would seem out of place in today’s environment. We all understand that politics is the art of the possible, and that compromises, which the layperson might be ignorant of, are at the heart of all legislative effort. But how can we explain the level of debasement to private interests that our current discourse has fallen to?
I don’t think that it’s too conspiratorial to suggest that this is partly due to deliberate effort. Ever since World War II when the federal budget and its attendant deficits grew to titanic proportions, corporations have worked to claim a bigger and bigger share. This has been most effectively achieved by injecting money into the electoral process, particularly by spreading the largesse between both major parties, so that whichever way power might shift corporate interests are always protected.
It’s worth noting too that television, which started out influencing the minds of consumers as to which products to buy, has grown increasingly sophisticated until now the world-view of the bulk of the public is shaped by the expenditures of corporations. This has markedly softened the innate sense of self-interest of the average voter.
So it’s important to compare this to the influence that voters had in 1932 to illustrate how sheer electoral strength once moved politicians and the political discourse toward problem-solving. Roosevelt won in a landslide in 1932. There was no confusion about where the blame lay for the economic and material condition of the country. But the New Deal could not have been enacted by eggheads in the administration alone. Every initiative also had to be powered by a muscular legislature, often acting ahead of the curve.
Throughout the 1920’s, Progressivism had been in eclipse. The backlog of needed reforms was building pressure. Basic worker rights such as the abolition of child-labor, the minimum wage and anti-sweatshop provisions had been trapped in limbo for years, even as Felix Frankfurter and his men were fighting valiantly for them in the courts.
Suddenly with Roosevelt’s first hundred days of legislation the log-jam broke with incredible force. Within the signature piece of legislation, the National Industrial Recovery Act, section 7a resolved many of these labor struggles in one fell swoop. Collective bargaining was guaranteed, child labor was gone and the sweat shop proscriptions sailed through intact.
But it was Senator Robert Wagner of New York who had threatened to hold up the legislation unless these provisions were included. When the Supreme Court threw out the NIRA three years later, Wagner quickly moved to re-introduce all of the labor measures in the much stronger National Labor Relations Act which passed less than two months later. For the first time organized labor could foresee having the force and prestige of government on its side in its struggle with management.
Throughout the New Deal, Roosevelt had powerful allies in the legislature who were ideologically committed to progressive goals. Men like Burton Wheeler of Montana, Sam Rayburn of Texas, Hugo Black of Alabama and Robert LaFollette Jr. of Wisconsin had strong support from labor and an innate understanding of the class struggle. They were veterans of the Progressive Movement, and were certainly not a bunch of Eastern elites. They represented heartland liberalism and they still cast a huge shadow over the congressional Democrats of today.
None of these men would have been in their positions if their constituents at home hadn’t stood up and voted for progressive principles. In the 1930’s economic self-interest trumped social wedge issues. The culture wars wouldn’t arise for several decades. But the groundwork for these vigorous populist sentiments had been laid in the decades before.
The Populists, the Progressives, the Socialists and the Suffragists had all arisen around the turn of the last century, out of a need for a moral counterweight to the excesses of industrial capitalism. They were all intent on fostering economic and social justice as standard components of American society. The principle at stake was whether in a classical economic system there could still be democratic control of market forces. At the time of the stock market crash they were still seeking the formula for establishing that control.
The voters of that period were much more independent minded then we find today. From 1892 when James Weaver ran, through Franklin Roosevelt’s election, there was a Populist, Progressive or Socialist in every presidential race either as a third party or on a main party ticket and always with significant support. In 1896 and 1900 William Jennings Bryan ran as a Democrat but carrying the populist banner. In 1900 Eugene V. Debs made his first run as a Socialist and in 1904 Theodore Roosevelt who was soon to be the progressive stand-bearer won the presidency.
These third party campaigns were hardly footnotes. Their showings ranged anywhere from Debs’ 3% in 04 to Teddy Roosevelt’s 27% in 1912 on the Progressive Party line. People were more interested in expressing their principles than just being on the winning side. All of this electoral fluidity had the effect of making politics more about coalition building and less about the identity politics that we see today. If a discerning voter didn’t get what he wanted from a main party candidate he would quickly throw his hat in with the Socialists or the Progressives. In this way, both the Republicans and Democrats came to have strong elements of progressivism.
World War I had the effect of dampening the reform spirit. Eugene Debs was jailed for opposing the war and the red scare that immediately followed broke the back of the radical labor movement. Pro-business Republicans took the White House for three elections in a row. In 1920 the Democrats suffered from the ambiguous sentiments surrounding Wilson and his legacy.
In 1924 they fell apart completely. Rifts over the KKK and prohibition led to a weak compromise candidate. That year Republican Robert LaFollette Sr. ran as the Progressive party candidate and drew about 17% of the vote from both Republicans and Democrats. In 1928 the Democrats ran progressive reformer Al Smith who lost badly. So in spite of a string of defeats the progressive electoral block had stayed strong so that in the 30’s they were able to elect not just Roosevelt but scores of legislators with the ideological stamina to push through real and lasting reform.
The circumstances of Roosevelt’s presidency and the impetus for reform created a powerful coalition that lasted for sixty odd years. The ideals of the progressive movement had become the mainstream of the Democratic party. They were now the party of solidarity. If you were a small player, whether a worker or a small business owner or in a minority group, you felt your own self-interest reflected in the larger coalition. Roosevelt’s skill as a politician as well as the success of agricultural reform kept the segregationist South on board for several decades. Conservatives likewise felt comfortable in the structure of solidarity.