My maternal grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression—the period between 1929 and the eve of WWII, 1939. During those lean years she worked on the family farm in Danville, Virginia. The struggles and hardships of that decade were always in some way part of her life story. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard people explain the thriftiness of their grandparents by saying “they grew up during the Depression.” Well, my grandmother was thrifty, hardworking, religious, modest in manner, stoic, had a low tolerance for nonsense, and seemed always grounded in basic realities.
I spend a lot of time with my grandmother (“Nanny”) during my adolescent years, and I don’t recall Nanny talking much about politics. She was a southern baptist, conservative in most ways, and a Democrat. I recall my father, a businessman and a Republican, sometimes making mildly sarcastic comments about Nanny’s support—“no matter what”—for the Democratic party. But of course dad was just as devoted—no matter what—to the Republican Party. “Once you touch the biographies of human beings,” Walter Lippman said, “the notion that political beliefs are logically determined collapses like a pricked balloon.” And so it was with both of them…and the rest of us.
Nanny’s politics was grounded in a very basic reality: who, or what party, really cared. As a kid, I do recall her and I sitting in her small living room in her Norfolk, VA, home and talking about her early years in Danville. Somehow we got on the topic of Presidents. “We would have starved to death had it not been for Franklin Roosevelt!” my grandmother said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Hoover almost destroyed this country” she added. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a progressive era style Democrat and Herbert Hoover a Laissez–faire Republican. Nanny never forgot, nor would she forgive, the cruelty of Hoover and his policies.*
So you understand, when the Great Depression hit, millions of Americans were out of work (about 25% of the working population), banks were closing all over, farmers were losing their farms everywhere, and millions were on the verge of starving. President Hoover, being a good Laissez-faire conservative, and echoing the views of Big Businessmen, felt it would damage the moral fiber of Americans to allow the federal government to expand and provide direct assistance. Charity, in his decided view, was a local thing. Of course state and local governments were in pretty bad shape themselves from the collapse of the economy. So things were really bad and getting worse by the day. And this was the case largely because Laissez-faire economics had failed in a big way. Something Hoover couldn’t bring himself to admit…and so he couldn’t act.
Not too surprising, in the 1932 election, FDR defeated Hoover in a massive landslide.
I thought of Nanny when I recently completed reading Nothing to Fear (2009) by Adam Cohen. The book is about FDR’s first 100 days in office and his inner circle of staff and cabinet members who helped draft the 13 or so major laws that comprised the core of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which started the slow climb out of the Great Depression. From a historical perspective, Nanny was right, FDR and his administration did save this country from a terrible situation. FDR’s various New Deal government programs started the recovery, and the massive government spending to defeat the axis powers in WWII, completed the recovery. From FDR forward we began growing the biggest middle-class in world history. There is no doubt this successful broadening of wealth wouldn’t have been possible to the extend it was without FDR’s progressive economic policies and programs. As one historian said, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the framework for the success of our modern day world.
Cohen’s book is mostly about FDR’s own “team of rivals” that helped him launch the New Deal. A team of people who knew the problems facing the nation couldn’t be resolved by waiting and hoping things just got better—just letting “the market” deal with it. The most interesting character in Cohen’s story is Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration. She was the first woman to serve in any Presidential cabinet. She is the one who pushed the massive infrastructure spending that would ultimately put millions of Americans back to work. As she argued, this spending would “prime the pump” of economic growth. She was largely right. She’s important because at first FDR was reticent about the infrastructure spending (FDR was a fiscal conservative at heart), but she persuaded him to go with it and the rest is history.
FDR’s governing philosophy for the Great Depression, and in general, was pragmatic. Something had to be done and he, unlike Hoover, was willing to experiment, to try something, anything, to see if it would work. There was going to be no risk free success in FDR’s view. Doing nothing was not an option. FDR’s view, unlike Hoover’s, was that government had a responsibility to reduce suffering and address major social problems. A government IS the people acting through their Representatives. If, in FDR’s view, a policy or program didn’t work then he’d try something else. The important thing was to act, to do something, to use government to solve problems, not just sit on your hands and wait while things got worse. That’s not leadership, that’s surrender.
Business interests were not going to solve this big problem. In fact, a lot of Big Business interests resented FDR. Being a wealthy man himself, FDR was labeled a “traitor to his class.” But FDR was unmoved and took pride in the wealthy class’s distain of his loyalty to working families. FDR and his progressive allies in Congress put the government to work serving the people, not “organized money.” In thinking about how the rich business class viewed him, during one of his reelection campaigns, FDR wrote:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
Thus the New Deal was a social experiment—an attempt to solve a large socio-economic problem via government intervention. And for the most part it worked. In a flurry of legislative activity FDR put into effect over a dozen major laws during his first 100 days. The major departments and programs he established brought aid to millions and provided millions more with jobs…and dignity.
It’s important to note that Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate with large majorities during FDR’s first 100 days. Something critical to remember. If a President doesn’t have their party in control of Congress then that President may not get the support for the major changes needed to address major problems. In other words, major New Deal programs, like Social Security, may not have been a reality today had FDR not had majorities in both the House and the Senate. Programs like Social Security (and later Medicare) for example, were not supported by conservatives in Congress at that time. They were attacked as a form of sovietism. Consider the example of Ronald Reagan. After having moved to the political right in the 1950s, he actually attacked the idea of Medicare as surrendering to “socialism.” But Reagan, of course, would eventually himself surrender to the overwhelming popularity of Medicare and convert to being a supporter of this socialist style program.
I was interested in Cohen’s book because I wanted to understand how and by what means FDR and his team tackled the Great Depression. The truth is we can’t say another Great Depression isn’t in our future, and so studying the 1930s, both economically and, given the times, politically, provides some important lessons and insights about issues we face today and may face tomorrow. Of course my hope is we’ve vanquished any chance of a 1930s style Great Depression for good. Certainly because of FDR and many subsequent policies since that time we’re not as likely to crash as hard as they did in those less regulated times…though we’re on a binge of deregulating Wall Street currently and that should cause deep concern for all Americans. The 2008 crash was largely the result of reckless behavior by deregulated Wall Street Bankers.
If you’re interested in FDR and his first 100 days or the New Deal in general, this is a good book to start with. Because how a leader and his team go about saving a nation is always a good story.
*Not all Republicans at that time adhered to Laissez-faire like a religion. From the start the Progressive Movement cut across party lines. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was a champion of the Progressive Movement, and actually founded the Progressive Party. There were Progressive Republicans in both the House and Senate throughout most of the early and mid 20th century. Most of the progressive Republicans in Congress supported FDR and his New Deal legislative agenda.