The New Deal period has been considered to be a turning point in American politics, with the President acquiring new authority and importance, and the role of government in the lives of citizens increasing. The extent to which this was planned by the architect of the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has been greatly contested, however. Yet, while it is instructive to note the limitations of Roosevelt’s leadership, there is not much sense in the claims that the New Deal was haphazard, a jumble of expedient and populist schemes, or as W. Williams has put it, “undirected”. FDR had a clear overarching vision of what he wanted to do to America and was prepared to drive through the structural changes required to achieve this vision.
It is worth examining how the New Deal period represented a significant departure from the US government and politics up to then. From the start of Roosevelt’s period in office in 1932, there was a widespread sense that things were going to change. In Washington, there was excitement in the air, as the first Hundred Days brought a torrent of new initiatives from the White House. The contrast with Herbert Hoover’s term could not have been more striking. By 1934, E.K. Lindley had already written about The Roosevelt Revolution: First Phase. Hoover, meanwhile, denounced what he saw as an attempt to “undermine and destroy the American system” and “crack the timbers of the constitution.” In retrospect, it was only a “half-way Revolution”, as W. Leuchtenburg has written. Radicals have been left with a sense of disappointment at the “might have been”, in P. Conkin’s words.
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But Roosevelt never intended to overthrow the constitution, nor did he wish for an end to capitalism and individualism. He harboured the American Dream just like the millions of people who sent him to the White House a record four times. That, indeed, was precisely why they loved him so much: because the American Dream had turned sour in the Great Depression, and they trusted that he would be able to find a way back towards it. As Europe gave in to totalitarianism, the New Deal set out to show that democratic reform represented a viable alternative.
Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for his role as head of state established a new convention that the President would lead from the front, and in his First Inaugural, he warned that he intended to ask Congress for greater powers to enact his policies. Congress obliged; the Supreme Court would not. FDR, far from accepting the Court’s decisions, launched a challenge to it, attempting in 1936 to pack the court with new, more accommodating Justices. The plan failed, but eventually, the pressure told, and 1937 saw a series of landmark rulings.
The fact that he was able to impose his will on Congress and the Supreme Court was constitutionally very significant: the Presidency gained a great deal of power at the expense of the other branches of government. The New Deal was the first instance of a President setting the legislative agenda, and it has been emulated by all presidents since, most notably by Lyndon Johnson in his Great Society programme. The creation in 1939 of the Executive Office of the President was confirmation of the extent to which authority had passed to the White House.
The New Deal also marked a decisive shift in the balance of power from the states to the federal government. By 1932 it had become clear that state governments were unable to cope with the demands of widespread hardship and modernity.
Hoovervilles – shantytowns – sprang up in every city, and some people were looking for food in garbage dumps; meanwhile, the usually fertile Midwest was a dust bowl. The New Deal enabled the federal government to take over the burden. What was needed, it was thought, was for a major force to co-ordinate the efforts of the states and drive the nation back in the right direction. The Tennessee Valley Authority was one such example of co-ordination. Categorical grants to the states ensured that funds were used as the federal government wished. From now on, people would no longer look to the state capitol for solutions to their problems, but to Capitol Hill; or more precisely, to the White House.
Indeed, the very notion that people could look to any government, federal or state, to solve their problems was novel. The 1930s provided a framework for the scope of governmental action that remains intact today. The Federal government began to wield its muscle in the economy; in the banking and finance industries; in farming prices; in the relations between management and workers; in the support of the vulnerable and needy. The Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 were representatives of a momentous shift in the attitude of government: the state as protector of the weak. A. Badger has calculated that 35% of the population received direct assistance from the New Deal.
As would be expected, this redefinition aroused great opposition. The New Deal period saw the rebirth of issues politics, with the ideological divide between the Democratic and Republican parties wider than in a long time. Roosevelt had mentioned in 1932 that he would transform the Democratic party into the progressive party. Despite his failure in 1938 to purge the party of conservatives, increasingly its appeal was class-based – insofar as America can be said to have classes. The poor, the newly arrived, the Catholics and the Jews became overwhelmingly Democrat. The situation of Blacks in society did not improve a great deal in the period, but they were looked on with more sympathy by the Democratic party, and they too have tended to vote Democrat ever since the 30s.
So the New Deal period did change the course of American politics and government in several significant ways. And furthermore, as has been shown throughout, the role that FDR played in bringing about these changes cannot be ignored. It was thanks to his great ability and personal qualities that he was able to take advantage of circumstances and transfer power to himself and to his administration, in order to apply his remedy to the Great Depression. His remedy was not a resounding success – by 1939 unemployment stood at 10 million, and America regained prosperity only as a result of the new economic climate prompted by the Second World War. Nonetheless, it was a concerted attempt at change for the better, not just economically but also socially and politically.
Critics have regarded the social and political change as largely accidental. It is argued that, upon discovering that the recession was deeper and more stubborn than anticipated, Roosevelt embarked on ever bolder rescue plans that involved such ground-breaking measures as Social Security, of which he did not foresee the full implications for society or for government; and the resistance of other political forces – notably the Supreme Court – despite his popular mandate, led him to favour changes to constitutional conventions and in the balance of power which he had not originally planned for and which had a far greater impact than he anticipated.
But Roosevelt’s commitment to greater social justice and a bigger role for government cannot be dismissed as merely a by-product of his attempts to solve his economic frustrations. Certainly, there was a shift towards more radical action as the 30s progressed, with the growing realization that America’s malaise extended deeper than had been thought at first. Nonetheless from the start, the New Deal was meant to be exactly that: a new deal for citizens, with all the connotations of increased social fairness and structural reorganization that the phrase carries. FDR was not an economist (indeed Keynes was shocked when he met him at his lack of economic sophistication); he saw his duty as far more than just restoring prosperity.
One reason why the New Deal has been accused of lacking a clear vision and focus is the sheer number of new initiatives that were launched, many of which overlapped or were abandoned. The resultant alphabet soup – WPA, CCC, WPC and the rest – might seem to betray a lack of a coherent programme. In one of his early fireside chats, Roosevelt defended these measures as “not just a collection of haphazard schemes, but rather the orderly component parts of a connected and logical whole.”
He may have been overstating his case: a year earlier, in 1932, he had talked of the need for “bold, persistent experimentation”, intimating that some policy failures along the way were to be expected. What this should not hide is that his ultimate objective of new birth for the American Dream, adapted for a modern world, was there from the start and remained with him, even though the New Deal was pragmatic and many new ideas were tried out and failed. Its guiding principle throughout was that it was the national government’s duty to look after the whole nation. If the rest of the government shirked this responsibility, as indeed occurred, then the Presidency was prepared to take up the slack.
The New Deal arrived at a time when America desperately needed leadership to drag it out of the hole it was in. No other institution of government – state or federal – was able or willing to cope with this responsibility. FDR arrived promising hope and change, and America believed him. It was not by accident that the presidency in Washington became powerful: it was because, ultimately, the American people wanted a leader, and the President was prepared to fill that role. By the time he was gone, he had performed this task so ably, with such vigour, and for so long, that he had effectively changed the course of US government and politics.
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