This post is in response to Sir Charles’s request, though I can’t find it.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a liberal president, allowed by crisis to go further in turning the purpose of the United States to the aid of the least among Americans than any president before or since. He spoke frankly of his commitment to the poor and downtrodden.
Tonight I call the roll—the roll of honor of those who stood with us in 1932 and still stand with us today.
Written on it are the names of millions who never had a chance—men at starvation wages, women in sweatshops, children at looms.
Written on it are the names of those who despaired, young men and young women for whom opportunity had become a will-o’-the-wisp.
Written on it are the names of farmers whose acres yielded only bitterness, business men whose books were portents of disaster, home owners who were faced with eviction, frugal citizens whose savings were insecure.
Written there in large letters are the names of countless other Americans of all parties and all faiths, Americans who had eyes to see and hearts to understand, whose consciences were burdened because too many of their fellows were burdened, who looked on these things four years ago and said, “This can be changed. We will change it.”
We still lead that army in 1936. They stood with us then because in 1932 they believed. They stand with us today because in 1936 they know. And with them stand millions of new recruits who have come to know.
Their hopes have become our record.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful, law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
And yet within less than two years his program stood dead in the water. Indeed if it weren’t for the obviously impending war, Roosevelt probably would have lost his campaign in 1940, if he had even run for a third term, and it would now be harder than it already is to point out the success of his New Deal.1
What stalled the New Deal and nearly killed FDR’s presidency? Why, a campaign for true democracy and ideological purity within the Democratic Party.
For starters, Roosevelt came into his second term determined to skirt the obstreperous Supreme Court by, as you almost certainly know, enlarging its membership. Roosevelt lost this fight, which consumed almost the entirety of a Congressional session. He called Congress into special session, asking for more New Deal legislation—a renewed AAA, labor laws, and an expansion of the TVA model of regional planning. None passed, and instead the session produced the “Conservative Manifesto,” a document in which Southern Democrats joined other conservatives to ask for lower taxes and protection for private enterprise as well as, of course, respect for “states’ rights.”
Conservative white supremacist southerners, bulwark of the Democratic Party, had as the Depression lessened become enemies of the New Deal. Roosevelt wanted the Democratic Party to become the party of the New Deal.
So in 1938 he campaigned against conservative southern Democratic senators “Cotton Ed” Smith and Walter George. In opposing them, he proposed an agenda of his own: in that summer’s “Report on Economic Conditions of the South,” the President’s men identified problems specific to the region that New Deal policies could fix.
But Roosevelt did not prevail. Instead of debating Roosevelt’s policies, southern Democrats turned the elections instead into a referendum on outside agitation in their affairs, depicting Roosevelt’s intervention as “a second March through Georgia” or part of an effort to secure a federal anti-lynching bill. And so Roosevelt lost.
What defeated Roosevelt in 1938? In part the peculiar southern fear of federal interference, which flourished in the night soil of white memories that preferred night riders to black voters.
But in part, too, the general conditions of American politics that favor the overrepresentation of rural voters and the local over the national. Because such a variety of diverse local interests must be represented at the national level, no competitive national political party in the United States has ever been ideologically pure, and the Democrats have generally been even less pure than the Republicans (see under Rogers, Will).
Neither Roosevelt’s eloquence, nor his personal popularity, nor the success of the New Deal could overcome such opponents. Instead, by ineffectually attacking them, he made them stronger and ensured that the roots of modern conservatism struck deep into the earth of the South. Returned to his position, Cotton Ed Smith faced reporters who wanted to know if Roosevelt was his own worst enemy. “Not while I’m alive,” Smith answered.
1Great, some spam blog has picked up this tag for posts about L/ndsay L0han. The Internets are awesome.
For this post I relied mainly on memory of Brinkley’s “New Deal and Southern Politics” here, Patterson’s Congressional Conservatism, Schulman’s Cotton Belt to Sunbelt, and Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear.