The year 1935 was marked by what historian James M. Burns called "thunder on the left," a wave of protest against the New Deal's slow progress toward recovery and its reluctance to confront business power and redistribute income and wealth. Millions responded to Louisiana's senator Huey Long, whose Share Our Wealth program promised to bring a decent life to average citizens through redistribution of large fortunes; to Father Coughlin, the "radio priest" of Royal Oak, Michigan, whose National Union for Social Justice burgeoned as he criticized bankers, capitalism, and the caution of the New Deal; and to Dr. Francis Townsend, the Long Beach, California, physician who mobilized millions of elderly Americans behind a promise of government pensions.
These leaders of mass movements for social change ran only a little ahead of other ambitious politicians who sensed that Roosevelt's New Deal was failing. Some were to FDR's left - socialists like Norman Thomas and Upton Sinclair, progressives such as Robert and Philip La Follette of Wisconsin. There was also in 1934-35 a "thunder on the Right," - attacks upon the New Deal by businessmen, former president Hoover, and the new American Liberty League, an organization funded by large capitalists and conservatives to argue that the New Deal threatened liberty. The year 1935 presented Roosevelt with a still depressed economy and swelling numbers of politicians eager to replace him. In the face of that political challenge, he altered and energized the New Deal, proving that in a political fight he had no peers.
The first evidence of a change came in the annual message of January 1935, when FDR spoke of unfinished business, including public works and a comprehensive social security program. In April, Congress agreed to spend $4.8 billion for a new relief and public works package until turning unemployables back to the states. The sheer size of the appropriation suggested a strong commitment to the casualties of the depression. A comprehensive social insurance proposal had been sent to Congress in January, but for months Roosevelt exerted little pressure for its passage and held back on tax reform and permanent labor legislation. Then on 27 May the Supreme Court by a 9-0 vote invalidated the NRA [National Recovery Administration], centerpiece of the early New Deal.
Roosevelt was furious, denounced the Court for a horse-and-buggy interpretation of the government's capacity to regulate the modern economy, and then energetically backed broad range reforms: Social Security, progressive tax reform, an attack upon public utility holding companies, and compulsory collective bargaining as envisioned in a bill by Senator Robert Wagner. The New Deal had entered its second phase. The "concert of all interests," cooperate-with-business rhetoric of NRA days gave way to a denunciation of entrenched interests, big business, and the wealthy. The New Deal was now more clearly than ever identified with the working class and the disadvantaged, as it challenged the existing distribution of income and business power.
The measures of 1935 (Social Security with old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, tax reform, dissolution of utility holding companies, and the Wagner National Labor Relations Act plus an undistributed profits tax passed in 1936) were more modest in impact and more conservative in design than was implied by the language of the president and his increasingly vocal conservative critics. The tax measure raised little income from the wealthy or corporations; Social Security was financed by a regressive tax and excluded millions who worked in agriculture and domestic service; and compulsory collective bargaining in time was seen even by employers as a measure contributing to labor-management industrial stability, leaving untouched the basic prerogatives of management.
But these were major steps even if hedged with compromise. Accompanied by administration rhetoric more radical than the eventual social impact of the extended reform agenda of 1935, the second New Deal had a decisive political effect. Franklin Roosevelt had firmly regained the leadership of the many elements of society who were pressing for governmental action against the depression. Opposition within the Democratic party vanished, and when FDR ran for a second term against the GOP's Alfred M. Landon, he not only buried the Republicans under a forty-six-state landslide but steamrolled the Socialists and obliterated the third (Union) party effort mounted by a coalition of Townsend, Coughlin, and the followers of Huey Long (who had been assasinated in Louisiana in September 1935). Roosevelt had reshaped American politics, grafting together with his New Deal a coalition of urban workers, farmers, ethnic and racial minorities, and intellectuals that would give the Democratic party majority status until well into the 1970s.
The election of 1936 appeared to give Roosevelt an irresistible mandate to complete the New Deal in his second term. [...]
There were also critics on the Left, who argued that the New Deal saved a capitalist system that had manifestly failed, that it achieved only minor reforms when more sweeping change was possible. They pointed out that recovery did not come until wartime, that inequalities of income were not noticeably narrowed, that regulatory agencies were soon captured by the industries they regulated, that relief of poverty was stingy and limited. These arguments, as well, were rejected by a majority of the electorate and by most historians, though a significant minority of historians has kept such a perspective alive and influential.
In private, FDR mixed the satisfaction of achievement with disappointment that the New Deal system had not come closer to his intentions. But he often acknowledged its flaws as democracy's price. Obstacles could not be simply overpowered, as in closed societies; like the sailor he was, Roosevelt had been forced to tack toward harbor but had not yet made it by the time war intervened. Historians refer to the developments of 1933-38 as "the New Deal," but Roosevelt in 1944 and 1945 was talking with friends about how much of the New Deal was yet undone. After the war, he said, there must be renewed efforts to achieve resource and public works planning, more river valley authorities, perhaps even a third, liberal party. In the meantime, shortcomings should be noted in the spirit of a remark he made in 1936, so often quoted:
The immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the coldblooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the idea of its own indifference.
Intending to lead the nation closer to the New Deal after the war, Roosevelt died [April 12, 1945] in Georgia as spring pushed up the eastern seaboard. He had more than once said that a democratic people could address and remedy errors of omission and commision through experimentation in the future. For half a century and more, that experimentation would take place within the framework laid down by the New Deal.
[ Excerpted from Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times (Otis L. Graham, Jr. and Meghan R. Wander; G.K. Hall & Co., 1985) ]
Previously aired HERE, on March 12, 2010.