How our misreading of history harms progressivism today.
The New Deal was not a seamless narrative of aggressively liberal steps in which conservatives were sent scampering. It was full of starts and stops, and it took a long time. There were many reasons for this, but a chief one had to do with Roosevelt himself–seen by the more impatient reformers of his day as equivocal and adhering to too few core beliefs, exactly the way some see Obama today. Alan Brinkley, in Liberalism and Its Discontents, reminds us that the general historians’ view of Roosevelt, quite far removed from that presented in the sound bites and summaries employed today, was that of “a man without an ideological core and thus unable to exercise genuine leadership.” Huey Long, who sat out on FDR’s left flank, complained of this in a quote in which he invoked his ideological nemesis, the Senate majority leader from Arkansas: “When I talk to [Roosevelt], he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says ‘Fine’ to everybody.”
To read through any number of thorough histories of the New Deal is to be struck not by the differences between Roosevelt (man of action) and Obama (pensive equivocator) but by the many consistencies in how politics actually unfolds in real time–the difficulties inherent in trying to effect change, the readiness to accept half a loaf, and the regular reassurances sent to the moneyed classes that the liberals hadn’t taken over the candy store. It’s worth noting, for example, that the second act to become law under the New Deal, after the Emergency Banking Act, which was a progressive piece of legislation, was a conservative bill, the Economy Act. It cut salaries of government employees and benefits to veterans, the latter by 15 percent. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, writes that literally an hour after signing the banking act, Roosevelt outlined this bill to congressional leaders, saying the next day and sounding more than a little like some Robert Rubin progenitor had been whispering in his ear: “For three long years, the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy.” (And maybe one had: Schlesinger notes that Roosevelt’s budget director, Lewis Douglas, was certainly no Keynesian.) Just imagine Obama having tried something like that, alienating both veterans and AFSCME within a week of taking office. The Economy Act was opposed by many liberals in the House, so FDR turned to conservative Democrats and Republicans, who passed it.
Roosevelt and some advisers felt the bill was necessary to win support in Congress for other, more liberal moves. Chief among those, in the near-term, would be the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). NIRA, of course, was the linchpin of the first New Deal–passed at the end of the Hundred Days in June 1933, it was the subject of contentious Senate debate (although ultimately it did pass comfortably, with the backing of some Republicans, which remains one crucial difference between FDR’s time and ours), and it was criticized and attacked constantly by the right (same players as today: the Chamber of Commerce, the National Associations of Manufacturers) and by some on the left who thought it didn’t go far enough. NIRA did, unquestionably, dramatically help organized labor, through its famous 7(a) provision that provided for collective bargaining. But its lack of enforcement mechanisms–not unlike the lack of sanctions for insurers in the health bill–also led to vast labor unrest–strikes and walkouts adjudicated by no clear arbitrating authority; and there were aspects of the law that labor did not like, language labor had wanted that just didn’t make it into the final bill.
Among those measures: a cap on the work week and a wage increase. Sidney Hillman and other leaders were impatient for Roosevelt to impose one. It wasn’t until August 1934 that FDR did so, and even then, the figures he announced–a 36-hour work week and a 10 percent hike–were compromise numbers, and the order applied only to the cotton garment industry. When in September of that year, after months of tension, Roosevelt finally sacked National Recovery Administration leader Hugh Johnson (another anti-Keynesian whom Roosevelt put in a position of vast power), he replaced Johnson not with a liberal tiger, but with a board–a board that included Hillman but was chaired by the head of Reynolds Tobacco, Clay Williams, and had if anything a slightly center-right overall cast, according to Steven Fraser in Labor Will Rule, his majestic Hillman biography.
The NIRA, as we know, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935, and FDR, along with Harold Ickes and Rexford Tugwell and Adolf Berle and the rest of the Brains Trusters, went back to the drawing board. “The fantasies of state capitalism,” wrote Fraser, “…disintegrated in an acid bath of acrimonious self-interest, administrative ineptitude, and political vacillation.” Think about that: The centerpiece legislation of the new era was a mixed bag that was ruled unconstitutional in the President’s third year in office, with unemployment still around 20 percent. It was only with the “Second New Deal” in 1935-36 that the administration truly found its footing–and even then, FDR changed course in 1937 when his more centrist instincts reasserted themselves and he sought to balance the budget too quickly, sending unemployment back upwards.
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