Study Guide

FDR's New Deal Analysis

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  • Law

    Unconstitutional Reform

    Was the New Deal unconstitutional? Or at the very least, gluten-free?

    In 1935, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that much of it was, tossing out both the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act—the two main pillars of FDR's 1933 recovery program—on the grounds that they granted vast new powers to the president in ways that violated the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

    Then they complained that the New Deal wasn't working fast enough. Some people, right?

    Supreme Court as Bulwark of Laissez-Faire

    In overturning much of Roosevelt's anti-Depression program, the Supreme Court held firm to a role it had been playing in American politics for more than 50 years. 

    After the Civil War, the Supreme Court became a rigid defender of the principle that any government attempt to regulate the economy represented a substantive violation of individuals' rights to due process by doing away with their freedom of contract. So, for example, legislation mandating a minimum wage was unconstitutional because it restricted an individual's freedom to sell his labor for less than the minimum wage. The Supreme Court's long, consistent stand on substantive due process and liberty of contract maintained laissez-faire as the law of the land and frustrated generations of reformers, who hoped to use the power of government to moderate the free market.

    Basically, the thinking of the time was "hands off the market."

    By the time Roosevelt took office, a large majority of the American people had seen enough of laissez-faire, and demanded government intervention to right the economy. But a bare majority of the Supreme Court still consisted of elderly adherents of 19th-century laissez-faire doctrine. That means a small majority, not a majority that happened to be nude. Or bears. Or nude bears.

    The Supreme Court's 1935 overturning of the AAA and NRA gutted the First New Deal and set the judiciary on a collision course with FDR. The old men of the Court, fierce defenders of the Constitution as they understood it, seemed determined to thwart Roosevelt's manifestations of "bold, persistent experimentation" to address the Great Depression.

    The Court-Packing Crisis

    So, Roosevelt decided to launch a frontal assault against the Court's obstruction of his program. 

    Following his landslide victory in the election of 1936, he proposed new legislation that would allow him to expand the court from 9 to 15 members by adding one new justice for each judge over 70 years old who refused to retire. This would make the Court larger than the Wu-Tang Clan, overturning Washington's popular Wu-Tang Provision. 

    Roosevelt tried to justify the measure as an effort to reduce the workload of aged jurists, but his true intent was obvious: FDR would "pack" the court with enough pro-New Deal justices to outvote the conservative bloc.

    FDR's ill-advised court-packing measure, which would've destroyed the judicial branch's independence from the executive and thus weakened the American system of government, was the most unpopular move of his long political career. Even loyal Roosevelt supporters were appalled by his transparent attempt to subvert the Supreme Court of the United States.

    Yes, this was somehow more unpopular than rounding up Japanese-American civilians (pssst: we've got a learning guide for that executive order) and putting them in prison camps during WWII for the crime of being of Japanese heritage. Sometimes, this country's weird.

    Political Accommodation

    Constitutional crisis was averted early in 1937, when conservative Justice Owen Roberts unexpectedly flip-flopped, ruling in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish that a Washington state minimum wage law didn't violate the Constitution. 

    It's a shame he didn't follow this up with a jubilant "West side!" hoot.

    Just a year earlier, Roberts had consistently supported the conservative majority in rejecting similar laws for violating freedom of contract. Roberts' abrupt change of heart couldn't really be justified by logic or principle. 

    Most likely, it was a political decision. Whodathunk?

    Seeing that the American people had massively ratified Roosevelt's agenda in the elections of 1934 and 1936, Roberts seemingly decided that further obstruction by the Supreme Court would lead only to constitutional crisis and the likely weakening of the judicial branch of government.

    With Roberts in the fold, major pieces of New Deal legislation—most prominently, the Social Security Act—were guaranteed to survive judicial review. Ever since, massive federal intervention into the American economy has been a more or less accepted and expected feature of our political economy, though that has been steadily rolling back.

  • Race

    Strained Coalitions

    The New Deal coalition contained within its ranks both large numbers of African Americans and a huge constituency of racially conservative Southern whites. 

    The racial tension inherent in such a political alignment is obvious. FDR usually tried to hold his coalition together by providing benefits for all while sidestepping racial controversy. He wasn't always successful, and the vexed issue of race in America limited the potential of the New Deal to truly transform our society.

    Roosevelt was no racist—and his wife Eleanor was an early hero of the Civil Rights Movement—but the President knew he needed the support of Southern Democrats to pass his legislation and he wasn't willing to risk his program for the sake of racial justice.

    It's terrible, but that was the reality of politics at the time.

    "I Just Can't Take That Risk"

    The harsh logic of Roosevelt's racial stance was expressed most clearly in 1938, when liberal congressmen attempted to pass federal anti-lynching legislation to halt the most horrific type of anti-Black terrorism. FYI: several thousands of Black people were killed by lynching in the United States between the 1880s and 1960s. Southern Senators angrily filibustered, and FDR defied Black leaders and his own wife by refusing to throw his support behind the measure.

    Just to reiterate here. There were people—like, actual humans beings—who thought hanging Black people was okay.

    "I did not choose the tools with which I must work," FDR explained. "Had I been permitted to choose them, I would have selected quite different ones. But I've got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners [...] occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can't take that risk."blank">Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. 

    It was no accident that the conservative revival in America in the late-20th century began with the mass defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Party following desegregation.

    "Fixing the country is fun and all, but where's the good if you can't hate someone for the color of their skin?"—Southern racists, presumably.

  • Society

    The New Deal Coalition

    Franklin Roosevelt's election ended a long period of Democratic futility in national politics. 

    Between former mountain namesake William McKinley's election in 1896 and Herbert Hoover's defeat in 1932, only one Democrat—Woodrow Wilson—occupied the White House. And Wilson only won because his two Republican predecessors, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, ran against each other in the election of 1912, splitting Republican support and allowing Wilson to sneak in with a plurality of the votes.

    Roosevelt's 1932 victory was due more to disgust with Hoover than to enthusiasm for the Democratic program. There was a Depression, so there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm for anything. Through the implementation of the New Deal, FDR was able to construct a new political coalition that created a solid Democratic majority that would endure for a generation.

    To be fair, the bulk of that "generation" was Roosevelt.

    The New Deal coalition began with the Democrats' traditional core of support—the "Solid South," where traditionalist Southern whites still resented the Republican Party for its leading role in leading the North to victory in the Civil War and destroying slavery. 

    They just weren't going to let that one go.

    Southern Democrats' conservatism made for an awkward partnership with Roosevelt's progressive agenda, but the "Solid South" did heavily influence the New Deal by setting certain boundaries beyond which Roosevelt couldn't go without upsetting his coalition. The New Deal's very mixed record on race, for example, is largely due to Southern Democrats' leverage in blocking progressive measures to benefit African Americans.

    The other groups that comprised the New Deal coalition—trade unionists, farmers, city-dwellers, minorities, and liberal intellectuals, all beneficiaries of federal programs—tended to be more sympathetic with Roosevelt's progressive instincts. Still, it was a big and unwieldy coalition, each piece with its own needs.

    New Deal legislation provided, for the first time, government protection of the rights of workers to organize unions, allowing the unionized population to skyrocket from 11% of the workforce in 1930 to an all-time high of 35% in 1945. The labor vote has been heavily Democratic ever since.

    Roosevelt's measures to prop up farmers were far from perfect, but they still went farther than any previous president had gone to address agricultural grievances that dated back to the 19th century. A large bloc of progressive farmers, epitomized by FDR's Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice President Henry A. Wallace, offered fervent support to FDR and his agenda.

    Much of the New Deal's relief spending was funneled through liberal and Democratic political machines in the nation's large cities. That spending sustained huge patronage operations and won devoted adherents among the large populations of African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and other ethnic groups who inhabited America's metropolises, and who came to view the New Deal as a lifeline in a time of industrial collapse. 

    Roosevelt won further support among his urban boosters for his role in ending Prohibition, which had always been a policy pushed by rural conservatives. There have been a lot of presidents you wanted to have a beer with. Roosevelt helped make that legal again.

    Roosevelt's New Deal Coalition was not without its tensions, though. The divide between conservative Southerners and progressive Northern urbanists had wracked the Democratic Party for decades, and would continue to bedevil the coalition until the Southerners finally flipped to the Republicans in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. 

    Still, through the magnetism of his personality and the largesse of his programs, Roosevelt was able to hold the coalition together to create a Democratic majority that endured for decades. Between 1932 and 1968, the Republicans elected only one president, war hero Dwight Eisenhower. Even more remarkably, the Democrats maintained control of both houses of Congress for all but four years from 1932 to 1980.

    It was an impressive achievement for a politician once dismissed as "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, very much would like to be president."

  • Ideology

    "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-20th century. And really, just knowing who your fifth cousins are is a pretty good indicator of privilege.

    Franklin Roosevelt was charming and chummy, "the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with." He'd 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." 

    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.

  • Politics

    The Hundred Days

    President Roosevelt called Congress into special session on March 9th, 1933, determined to put his plan of "bold, persistent experimentation" into action. What ensued was "The Hundred Days," a flurry of legislative accomplishment unprecedented in American history.

    On the very first day of the special session, Congress passed Roosevelt's bill to stabilize the country's failing banking system. In his first days in office, FDR even had had to declare a nationwide "bank holiday"—closing down every bank in the country—in order to stop a devastating run of bank failures. The House passed Roosevelt's banking bill unanimously, after just 38 minutes of debate, without even seeing the text of the legislation.

    It's a shame Roosevelt didn't sneak in something like naming his cat Secretary of the Interior or something. 

    Representative Robert Luce captured the mood, saying "this is a case where judgment must be waived, where argument must be silenced, where we should take matters without criticism lest we may do harm by delay."

    Considering Hearst, this qualified as an understatement.

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