Arnold Kling  

What Franklin Roosevelt Accomplished

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I have been reading William E. Leuchtenburg's The FDR Years, a collection of essays by the author. Jonah Goldberg had recommended one of the essays, called "The New Deal and the Analogue of War," written in 1964. I should hasten to point out that Leuchtenberg is no conservative. When he asserts that Roosevelt greatly enlarged the role of the State in the affairs of Americans, he means that as praise.

Leuchtenburg spent his prime writing years during a period when Roosevelt was under attack from left-wing academics for being insufficiently revolutionary and anti-capitalist. The essays in the book frequently serve to defend Roosevelt against these attacks from the left. In one such essay, "The Achievement of the New Deal," Leuchtenberg writes (p. 271),


Before 1933 the government had paid heed primarily to a single group--white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. The Roosevelt administration, however, recruited from a more ethnically diverse medley, symbolized by Ben Cohen and Tommy Corcoran, the Jew and the Irish Catholic...though, in the entire history of the republic of nearly a century and a half before 1933 only four Catholics had ever served in a cabinet, FDR, in choosing his first cabinet, named two.

I think that if you want to understand why Roosevelt won such a landslide in 1936 and why the "Roosevelt coalition" was a significant force in American politics at least until the 1970's, the Masonomics concept of group status is key. The biggest surge in population in the 1920's had been among non-Protestants--the "hyphenated Americans" from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Roosevelt gave them unprecedented status recognition. On rights for African-Americans, he moved forward just enough to earn the gratitude and loyalty of blacks in the North (where they could vote), while not moving forward fast enough to lose the racists of the Solid South. (The racists stuck with Roosevelt in part because they had nowhere else to go. Even as late as the 1960's, Republicans were not willing to be as racially regressive as southern Democrats. In 1948, for example, when Strom Thurmond ran against Truman, instead of joining the Republicans Thurmond formed the Dixiecrats.)

Roosevelt, like President Obama, first won election because the public was done with his predecessor. But over the next four years, Roosevelt's group-status flattery created a new and robust majority. Thus far, it seems to me that President Obama is the anti-Roosevelt in this regard. Is there any group that feels today that it has a sense of higher status as a result of his Presidency? My guess is that many African-Americans feel an acute sympathy for him, but that is not the same thing as feeling a sense of higher status

Anyway, below I will give more Leuchtenburg excerpts.

p. 6:


"The year 1931 was distinguished from previous years...by one outstanding feature," commented the British historian Arnold Toynbee. "In 1931, men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work."

p. 18:

By the end of his second term, his vetoes already totaled more than 30 percent of all the measures disallowed by presidents since 1792.

To me, this is a sign of how weak the Presidency was back then. It is impossible to imagine a contemporary President having to veto so much, particularly if his own party controlled Congress to the extent that the Democrats did in Roosevelt's first two terms.

On p. 20, the author quotes Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union Address, in which the President said, "We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights" and then proceded to enumerate this list:


The right to a useful and remunerative job...
The right to earn enough...
The right of every farmer to...sell his products at a return that will give him...a decent living
The right of every businessman [to] freedom from unfair competition...
The right of every family to a decent home
The right to adequate medical care
The right to...[insurance to address] old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment
The right to a good education

One could stage a good debate between libertarians and those who would support Roosevelt's second Bill of Rights.

The essay on the analogue of war spells out the many ways that New Dealers drew on World War I as a precedent for the actions. One line of thinking was that if the country was successfully mobilized to prosecute the war, then why could it not be successfully mobilized by Washington to fight hard times? The analogy today would be people saying, "If we can build an atomic bomb and put a man on the moon, why can't we ____?" where the ____ might be "achieve energy independence" or "give everyone a college education" or what have you.

On p. 210, Leuchtenburg provides a transcript in which he is interviewed.:


Insofar as one accepts the theory that underconsumption explains the Depression, and I do, then one can say that the presidents of the 1920s are to blame...a government responsive mainly to large corporations...the failure to maintain adequate purchasing power of workers and farmers

I think this is a common view among historians, that the economy in the 1920's got "out of balance." Elsewhere, Leuchtenburg shows that Roosevelt was very sympathetic to the view that low farm incomes were a cause of the Depression. On p. 216, he writes that "He was more concerned about farmers than workers, in part because of the vast extent of the rural depression."

My guess is that this is similar to the view today that we are in trouble because manufacturing employment is declining, as expressed in the claim that "We don't make things any more." As with agriculture, the problem is not that we have become unproductive. The problem is that long-run income elasticity of demand is less than one, and with higher productivity this means that the share of employment in the sector is bound to fall.

I think that in the 1930's the continued mechanization of agriculture reduced the demand for manual labor, and this was a major factor in the unemployment of that era. Similarly, we are seeing today a reduced demand for factory-floor labor, which is creating considerable dislocation.



COMMENTS (4 to date)

Your observation is interesting. You are right; Obama is no Roosevelt. Whether that's a good or a bad thing will likely depend on how one fares on this interesting dalliance.

Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks, excellent point about FDR and group status. As Democratic governor of New York, FDR (despite being of quasi-aristocratic Northwestern European stock himself) inherited Al Smith's religiously diverse coalition. This helped make FDR immensely popular with the rising ethnic groups in America's media capital, New York City.

It's interesting that the election of the first Catholic president, JFK in 1960, seems to mark the beginning of the decline of Catholic identity as a major feature of American life. Once Catholics were shown that no major doors were closed to them anymore, Catholic solidarity began to wane.

It will be interesting if black identity similarly wanes now that a black has been elected President. My guess would be: no.

Mercer writes:

"The biggest surge in population in the 1920's had been among non-Protestants--the "hyphenated Americans" from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Roosevelt gave them unprecedented status recognition."

Why do you say they voted for FDR for "status recognition"? It would just as plausible to say that Catholics and Jews are more liberal on economic policy then white Protestants and they voted for the party that reflected their views.

mark writes:

Very interesting post, thanks. I am referring more to your comments than the book you are commenting on.

I think a much more intelligent phrasing of the "second bill of rights" would have been a "list of collective goals".

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