I’ve been reading Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. His analysis of Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the Great Depression is immensely valuable, both for its humanization of the modern progressive hero, and its lessons for progressives today.
Even though Roosevelt’s administration is remembered as a testament to countercyclical Keynesian spending, Roosevelt campaigned as a deficit scold even as the Depression worsened throughout 1932. According to Hofstadter, Roosevelt “called the Hoover administration ‘the greatest spending Administration in peace time in all our history.’” Roosevelt implored the country to “have the courage . . . to stop borrowing to meet continuing deficits.”
Roosevelt was also originally resistant to taking extraordinary measures to rehabilitate the country’s banking system. “In his first press conference,” Hofstadter writes, “he was asked if he favored federal insurance of bank deposits. He said that he did not.” Roosevelt did not want government on the hook for the losses of bad banks. Nonetheless, he soon signed into law the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for precisely this purpose—“a concession to a bloc of insistent Western Senators,” Hofstadter explains.
Roosevelt made a slew of conflicting promises to the country about how he would rescue the economy. As Hofstadter put it: “All Roosevelt’s promises—to restore purchasing power and mass employment and relieve the needy and aid the farmer and raise agricultural prices and balance the budget and lower the tariff and continue protection—added up to a very discouraging performance to those who hoped for a coherent liberal program.”
While admiring progressives look back in retrospect at Roosevelt’s economic rescue effort as a dedicated application of government ingenuity and Keynesian economics, his course was hardly deliberate. “The New Deal will never be understood by anyone who looks for a single thread of policy,” Hofstadter argues, calling Roosevelt’s eventual economic program a “series of improvisations.”
John Maynard Keynes himself met with Roosevelt in 1934. FDR was overwhelmed by what he called Keynes’ “rigmarole of figures.” And Keynes came away disheartened, remarking that he had “supposed the President was more literate, economically speaking.”
Hofstadter divides Roosevelt’s economic policy into two distinct ideological approaches. The first New Deal, enacted between 1933 and 1934, tried to spark a supply-side recovery by adopting “the retrogressive idea of recovery through scarcity,” Hofstadter writes. The key recovery efforts during these years were business-friendly initiatives to boost agricultural and business revenues. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for instance, set farm quotas to withhold supply and boost agricultural prices. “[T]he policy seemed to have solved the paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty only by doing away with plenty,” Hofstadter laments.
The heart of Roosevelt’s initial economic program was the National Recovery Act, which allowed businesses to set price agreements and production quotas in exchange for wage increases and improved working conditions. This idea originated with the Chamber of Commerce. Still, Roosevelt called the NRA the “most important and far-reaching legislation ever enacted by the American Congress . . . a supreme effort to stabilize for all time the many factors which make for the prosperity of the nation.”
The NRA took a decidedly business-friendly approach to economic stimulus. “It is not unfair to say that in essence the NRA embodied the conception of many businessmen that recovery was to be sought through systematic monopolization, high prices, and low production,” Hofstadter writes. Yet it is far from clear that the NRA had a positive impact on the economic recovery—the economy’s best years came in the two years after the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional.
Roosevelt’s first New Deal was conceived as a “true concert of interests,” as he put it on the campaign trail—a consensus approach to benefit business, farmers, and workers alike. “Although he had adopted many novel, perhaps risky expedients,” Hofstadter observed, “he had avoided vital disturbances to the interests.” Roosevelt refused calls to resolve the banking crisis by nationalization the country’s banks, for example, and instead relied on government to prop up the private banking system.
Roosevelt’s eventual populist shift was driven by venom from the right and pressure from the left. Conservatives and wealthy interests wielded vehement political opposition against Roosevelt. “His political struggle with the ‘economic royalists’ soon became intensely personal,” Hofstadter writes.
From the left, influential populist Louisiana Senator Huey Long was clamoring for a more radical economic program and making noise about challenging Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936. Roosevelt’s political operatives thought Long had enough political support to swing the election. Long was also advocating for a “Share Our Wealth” platform that would have capped annual incomes at $1 million to fund a $2,500 annual basic income; provided for an old-age pension and free kindergarten through college; and government-provided automobiles and washing machines for every family.
Roosevelt wished to do something “to steal Long’s thunder” during the latter half of his first term in the White House. “The result,” Hofstadter writes, “was a sharp and sudden turn toward the left, the beginning of the second New Deal.” Roosevelt latched on to the Wagner Act, which had been floating around Congress for some time, to create the National Labor Relations Board. And he even sought a drastic Long-style “wealth tax.” And of course, Roosevelt piggybacked on Long’s old-age pension idea to enact Social Security.
After winning reelection, Roosevelt executed an ill-advised and harmful pivot toward austerity in 1937. Believing the economy to be on better ground, government spending was cut, and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. This mistake, Hofstadter writes, produced “a sharp downward trend [in the economy], which reached alarming dimensions in early 1938.”
Roosevelt eventually realized his mistake, and sought new government spending that spring, which Congress quickly approved. It was not until 1940, Hofstadter writes, that Roosevelt “finally accepted in theory what he had long been doing in fact, admitted the responsibility of government retrenchment for the recession, credited the revival of spending for the revival in business, and in general discussed the problem of the federal budget in Keynesian terms.”
By 1944, Roosevelt was speaking of a new “economic bill of rights” and guaranteed full employment within the confines of “our democratic system of private enterprise.” “With the economy operating at fall speed under war time conditions,” Hofstadter writes, “it was easy for him to forget the incompleteness of recovery under the New Deal and to refer proudly to the manner in which ‘we . . . fought our way out of the economic crisis.’”
Reading Hofstadter’s then-fresh history (published in 1948) of the Roosevelt administration holds wisdom from our own recent history. Hofstadter’s warts-and-all account of Roosevelt’s handling of Great Depression doesn’t look all that dissimilar from Barack Obama’s economic recovery efforts eighty years later. Obama too gravitated toward consensus reforms, opting for a stimulus package tilted toward tax cuts and money for the states. Obama too resisted calls for bank nationalization, promoting financial liquidity and stress tests instead. Obama favored stabilizing industry rather than bailing out individual homeowners.
Unlike Roosevelt, Obama did not enjoy a pliant Congress willing to cede economic deference to the White House and rubberstamp new recovery legislation. Roosevelt was able to experiment with a wide variety of programs with quick congressional approval—and was even able to course correct after his premature pivot to austerity.
Obama, on the other hand, never got a second bite at the apple for more stimulus because of a polarized Congress exhausted after one round of new government spending in 2009. Obama’s administration was too quick to pronounce economic triumph, seeing “green shoots” around every corner in 2009, with Treasury Security Timothy Geithner declaring “Welcome to the Recovery” in August 2010—years before most Americans felt anything resembling a return to economic normalcy. Obama too spoke of the need for Washington “belt-tightening” as early as April 2009, in the depths of the recession. Obama acceded elite Washington deficit scare mongering and pivoted toward austerity too early in 2011. When he tried to counteract the continuing sluggish economy by proposing a jobs bill in September, Congress never even considered it.
Which is to say that Obama was a fallible and imperfect progressive president—just like Roosevelt. Progressives routinely chastised Obama for falling short of hopes that he’d be the second coming of FDR. But as Jonathan Chait notes in Audacity, liberals have a penchant for perpetual disappointment and despair. Even in Roosevelt’s time, there was a contingent of the political left that incessantly criticized him for enacting policy that was too conservative.
Where Roosevelt differed from Obama was in the external leftward pressure he faced. Roosevelt faced real and imminent electoral pressure to move in a more progressive direction. For all the dismay with Obama from some progressives, the left never mobilized to become a political counterforce.
Since Obama’s administration, the American left has begun mobilizing. Bernie Sanders mounted an insurgent candidacy against Hillary Clinton, and extracted policy concessions that shifted Democratic economic policy decidedly to the left. Sanders remains the country’s most popular politician and a major force in the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Socialists of America have seen an upsurge in enrollment and activism since Donald Trump’s victory.
Hofstadter’s honest contemporaneous appraisal of Roosevelt’s administration avoids the sanctification that so many progressives are prone to when lionizing the Democratic Party’s most towering figure of the twentieth century. Roosevelt was a great progressive, but was hardly without missteps and oversights in his economic management, and was made better by a mobilized left.
The lesson of Hofstadter’s take on FDR is that progressives should not be discredited for failing to meet a standard of purity and perfection—and that those same progressives might benefit immensely from being challenged in the policy sphere from an engaged left.