Friday, March 27, 2009

Question and Answer time 

DougJ at Balloon-Juice writes (emphasis mine):
Personally, I don’t favor harassing, let alone attacking, the wealthy bankers and other assorted riff-raff who may have caused this financial crisis. But I do wonder what role fear of uprising plays in a society like ours. So I’m going to pose a question that some of you may know the answer to: during the Great Depression, did some wealthy interests see the New Deal as a way to keep the angry poor from rising up? Are there examples elsewhere in the world where fear of a populist uprising affected wealthy interests’ attitudes towards social programs? [read: Broken social contract]

...did some wealthy interests see the New Deal as a way to keep the angry poor from rising up?

I think the answer here would be FDR himself. In that FDR understood his role (and the New Deal) as a way to not only keep the poor from "rising up" in anger, but more importantly, to actually relieve their poverty and improve their overall situation both economically and politically. One of the objectives of the FDR years was to fundamentally change the way Americans viewed government. As James T. Patterson wrote:
Roosevelt was no hard-eyed merchandiser; his opportunism was grounded in social concern and conscience, without which the New Deal would indeed have been mindless and devious. He was also cordial, easy, relaxed - in the words of a perceptive writer, "a thoroughly attractive and engaging man." Part of his attractiveness was his ability to understand what ordinary people wanted. [...] In January 1935 he expressed to Perkins [ed: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins] his commitment to social security: "I see no reason why every child, from the day he is born, shouldn't be a member of the social security system. Cradle to grave - from the cradle to the grave they ought to be in a social insurance system." [1]

Again: One of the objectives of the FDR years was to fundamentally change the way Americans viewed the role of government including their relationship to it. From historian William E. Leuchtenburg's The FDR Years:
The President moved beyond the notion that "rights" embodied only guarantees against denial of freedom of expression to the conception that government also has an obligation to assure certain economic essentials. In his state of the Union message of 1944 he declared:
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable rights - among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures....

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however - as our industrial economy expanded - these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. "Necessitous men are not free." People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

Roosevelt and the New Dealers believed that government should be answerable to the greater good of the citizens and in turn citizens would respond favorably on behalf of good government. Or, rather, government works for you, and in turn you work for it, because it's your government and it's only allegiance should be to the greater good of its citizens. So, in this sense, FDR and the New Dealers (who were certainly wealthy and well connected to "wealthy interests") saw the New Deal as a way to (so to speak) "keep the angry poor from rising up". But not by surpressing any "rage" they might have, but rather by empowering that energy. I'll note here that FDR was extremely popular in both rural farm communities and heavily populated urban/industrial areas.

Edwin Hargrove (The Power of the Modern Presidency, 1974):
In his leadership of public opinion FDR oscillated from the heroic to the cautious. With his sensitivity to public moods, he was forthright as a leader when crisis was high and public sentiment was ripe for heroic leadership. This was the case when he first entered office and embarked on the dramatic legislative leadership of the first hundred days.... At other times he was more cautious and gradually prepared the public for a new departure. For example, he held off on social security legislation in order to... educate people that it was not alien to the American tradition of self-reliance. He did this by blending press conferences, a message to Congress, two fireside chats, and a few speeches, in each of which he progressively unfolded the Americanness of the plan.... He did this kind of thing with artistry, and the artistry was an extension of his own empathy and ability to act to win others over. [2]

Fascinating, ain't it? Especially these days.

"shocking doctrine"

What were FDR's "wealthy interests" with respect to his relationship to governing? William E. Leuchtenburg writes:
In the expanding orbit of the State, Roosevelt demanded that business recognize the superior authority of the government in Washington. At the time, that was shocking doctrine. In the pre-New Deal period, government had often been the handmaiden of business, and many presidents had shared the values of businessmen. When FDR made clear that he did not hold the same values, he was denounced as a traitor to his class. But in one way Roosevelt was not of their class. He was a member of the landed gentry and the old mercantile stratum who could claim ancient lineage. Claes Martenzen van Rosenvelt, the first of the clan in the New World, had come to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Both the Roosevelts and the Delanos were prosperous merchant families who had derived much of their fortunes from seafaring. As a landowner with a Hudson River estate, a man from a family that moved easily in the Edith Wharton universe of Knickerbocker society, Roosevelt approached economic problems with different preconceptions from those of the industrialist or the financier on the make.

With a country squire's contempt for the grasping businessman and with a squire's conviction of noblesse oblige, FDR refused to accept the view that business and government were coequal sovereigns. Although the New Deal always operated within a capitalist framework, Roosevelt insisted that there was a national interest that it was the duty of the president to represent and, when the situation called for it, to impose. Consequently, the federal government in the 1930s came to supervise the stock market, establishing a central banking system monitored from Washington, and regulate a range of business activities that had hithero been regarded as private. [3]

So in this regard, FDR, someone who understood very well the interests of the wealthy intimately, used that knowledge and experience to empower the greater good. FDR also understood the dangers of angry "interests" whether they came from the Left or whether they came from the Right. And a good deal of angry backlash against FDR and the New Deal came from the angry (and often "wealthy interests") on the Right. People such as Elizabeth Dilling and William Randolph Hearst and the du Pont family come to mind here (as offhand examples).

Attempts to instigate popular dissent or uprising against FDR certainly wasn't discouraged by some "wealthy interests". Media circus clowns like Hearst or wealthy batty right-wing pro-fascist Christianist gadflys such as Dilling (more on Dilling in a followup post) engaged in complex boo-scare campaigns to exploit fear. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. notes in
The Politics of Upheaval (1960):
In the spiritual turmoil of the year, the Hearst crusade found immediate response, especially among troubled members of the lower middle class, already apprehensive over their status, resentful of the foreigner, and suspicious of sex and radicalism. For them "Communist" did not mean a man under the discipline of the Communist party of an agent of the Soviet Union; it meant a dissenter or a foreigner, if not simply an outlander who drank and smoked. Hearst promoted this confusion. With almost faultless precision, his campaign avoided any identification of authentic Communists, and whipped up the mob against liberalism, sometimes of the most innocuous variety.

Sounds familiar.

From the Left FDR would deflect such political foes as Huey Long who would accuse FDR of being a supplicant tool of the Wall Street banksters:
Distressed at his inability to win from FDR the kinds of commitments he sought, Huey made no secret of his displeasure. On one occasion, shortly after the convention, he was heard yelling over a phone: "God damn it, Frank, don't you know who nominated you? Why do you have... those Wall Street blankety blanks up there to see you? How do you think it looks to the country? How can I explain it to my people"


Few rivalries of the 1930s cut so deeply as the conflict between Roosevelt and Long. Each held or was bidding for national power at a time when, in much of the world, totalitarianism was coming to seem the wave of the future. Roosevelt was one of many who feared that unless certain social changes were made peacefully, they would ultimately be made violently. Unless responsible leaders gave new hope to the country, democracy might not survive. For the President and his circle, the threat to democracy came from two sources: the Old Guard conservatives who resisted change, and men such as Huey Long who would exploit popular discontent if change were not achieved.


The Louisiana Senator could not help but be aware of the obstacle FDR constituted to his ambitions. A contemporary commentator wrote of Long: "Obviously he cannot succeed while the country still has hopes of the success of the New Deal and trusts the President. Huey's chances depend on those sands of hope and trust running out." "Long's resentment of the president, Glen Jeansonne has pointed out, "was almost pathological." [4]

...did some wealthy interests see the New Deal as a way to keep the angry poor from rising up?

So, in summary, I guess the answer is yes. FDR saw the New Deal as a way to empower not only the poor but the citizenry in general. And on the Right many wealthy interests such as the du Ponts and the Dilings and the Hearst media empire saw demonization of the New Deal as a way to keep the poor submissive to those wealthy interests by appealing to the specter of communism, the complete overthrow of capitalism, and the demise of Americanism (wrapped in white supremacy and Christian fundamentalism). On the Left too many sought ham-fisted dramatic change which simply wasn't politically or culturally feasible. In the case of Huey Long, change by autocratic decree and demagoguery was the way forward. It might also be noted here that despite Long's achievements overthrowing an old ingrained oligarchy in Louisianna he never managed to bring the kind of sweeping change to his own state that FDR brought to the nation. (Long was unsympathetic to unions and collective bargaining and rejected reforms to child labor laws.) Huey Long essentially saw himself as a benevolent dictator. FDR saw himself as the leader of a multifaceted representative democracy.

[Footnotes 1-4 from: The FDR Years; On Roosevelt and his Legacy - William E. Leuchtenburg / Columbia University Press NY, 1995.]


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