Ideology in FDR's New Deal
"A Kind of Amiable Boy Scout"
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaign for the White House in 1932 gave little indication that his presidency would prove to be one of the most consequential in American history.
Roosevelt was a scion of privilege, born into a family of old wealth and heavy political influence. (His fifth cousin Teddy Roosevelt had been the most popular American politician of the early twentieth century. Really, just knowing your fifth cousins is a pretty good indicator of privilege.) Franklin Roosevelt was affable and gregarious, "the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with." He had never distinguished himself as a particularly deep or innovative thinker, and it was often difficult to discern whether any bedrock principles underlay his evident political ambition. So, pretty much exactly like a modern president.
In the campaign of 1932, FDR was a giant flip-flopper. One day, candidate Roosevelt proudly defended Wilsonian internationalism; another day, he demonized the League of Nations to win the support of isolationist kingpin William Randolph Hearst. One day, he criticized Herbert Hoover for centralizing power in Washington; another day, he demanded bold new "social planning" by government. One day, he called for increased federal spending to kick-start the stalled economy; another day, he blasted Hoover's deficit spending and promised retrenchments to balance the budget. Roosevelt's frequent attacks on Hoover for excessive government spending are bizarre in retrospect; indeed, one of FDR's advisers later wrote that "given later developments, the campaign speeches often read like a giant misprint, in which Roosevelt and Hoover speak each other's lines."7 Roosevelt was basically running under the premise, "I'm rich, you know my name, vote for me." This might seem a bit familiar even now.
Even FDR's famous New Deal began not as a detailed policy platform but merely as a throwaway applause line in a speech. "I pledge you, I pledge myself," Roosevelt told the delegates at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago, "to a new deal for the American people."8 It was not FDR but newspaper headline writers who attached great significance—and a capital "N" and "D"—to the phrase. The specific policies that comprised the New Deal would only emerge later.
Candidate Roosevelt's vacillating campaign left many political observers deeply unimpressed. Elmer Davis, a prominent journalist, figured that FDR was "the man who would probably make the weakest President of the dozen aspirants" for the Democratic nomination.9 His later career as a psychic did not go well.
Walter Lippman—even more prominent than Davis, one of the great newsmen in American history—privately called FDR "a kind of amiable boy scout," and wrote a column that described Roosevelt as "a highly impressionistic person, without a firm grasp of public affairs and without very strong convictions... Franklin D. Roosevelt," Lippman wrote, "is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president."10 Gotta love the irony.
Kicking Out Our Unluckiest President
Important qualifications or not, Roosevelt was able to get away with a weak campaign because, by 1932, the American people had come to despise incumbent President Herbert Hoover. Hoover, surely our unluckiest president, took office to great acclaim just months before the 1929 stock market crash plunged the country into Great Depression. The Depression wasn't Hoover's fault, but Hoover's policies, which mixed faith in the free market with appeals to voluntary cooperation among businessmen in the interest of the public, proved entirely unable to restore prosperity. That's right, Hoover's policy amounted to, "Let's let the rich guys who got us into this mess get us back out." It did not go well.
Shantytowns of jobless workers, which cropped up in cities across the nation, became "Hoovervilles." Old newspapers became "Hoover blankets" for the homeless. Broken-down cars became "Hoover wagons," pulled by mules when the owners couldn't afford gasoline. Empty boxcars became "Hoover Pullmans" transporting hoboes on fruitless transcontinental journeys in search of work. Small varmints became "Hoover hogs," hunted and eaten by starving Americans. Many of the worst miseries of the Great Depression came to bear the name of Hoover, which—to say the least—did not bode well for the president's campaign for reelection.
By the time the 1932 vote rolled around, the American people were more than ready to kick Herbert Hoover to the curb. Roosevelt won almost just by showing up, sweeping into office by winning 57% of the popular vote (to less than 40% for Hoover). Roosevelt carried the electoral votes of all but six states. Voters' disgust with Republican governance didn't end with Hoover; the GOP also lost twelve Senate seats and a shocking 101 House seats, meaning that Roosevelt entered office backed by a strongly Democratic Congress. If this sounds familiar to you, then congratulations. You've been paying attention.
"Bold, Persistent Experimentation"
Roosevelt's campaign may have been a muddle of inconsistent and contradictory statements, but in at least one of FDR's speeches, the candidate did reveal the core principle that would come to drive his presidency. Speaking at Oglethorpe College in May 1932, Roosevelt declared that "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."11 It's the old saying: the best thing to do is the right thing. The second-best thing is the wrong thing. The worst thing to do is nothing.
Roosevelt may not have entered office with a coherent ideological position or a well-developed policy platform, but his commitment to activist, pragmatic government became the hallmark of the New Deal.
Following a bleak, four-month interregnum between FDR's election and inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt finally assumed office on 4 March 1932. "Let me assert my firm belief," the president famously declared, "that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror... Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated."12 Contrast this with the modern sentiment that most politicians use: "The only thing we have to fear is absolutely everything, and it's going to get you right now."
Roosevelt's tone—defiant, confident, populist, borderline radical, and above all, hopeful—struck a chord with the American people, seeming to break the spell of despondency that had fallen over the nation.