By Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
It is a common mental error to suppose that the stupidities and ills of our own day are without precedent. This illusion is, of course, strengthened by a press corps that is so arrogant it doesn’t feel it needs to read or study anything to perfect and enlarge its powers of interpretation. The commonplaces already in their heads are enough. Listening to today’s pundits is disheartening, like watching a single loop of film being played repeatedly, or gazing at a child’s toy train endlessly traveling the same figure-eight under a Christmas tree.
History can provide some help. There is an interesting account of the 1936 election by New Deal historian Basil Rauch which to me reveals common features between that fateful year and our own.
FDR launched the second New Deal of 1935 with some very moving rhetoric. In talking about the profit motive and the “conception of the acquisition of wealth,” the president said that “excessive profits” had created “undue power in private and public affairs.” FDR’s ideal was more modest and more humane. He did not want to destroy the ambition to make money nor did he want to divide the national wealth into equal shares. His intent was to recognize that among human beings there were different endowments of mind and heart, and in spite of those differences, FDR still believed that even the average human being had the right to “obtain for him and his proper security, a reasonable leisure and a decent living throughout his life.”
The chief responsibility of the government was to guard the men, women and children of the nation “against the hazards of life” by means of unemployment and old-age insurance, payments to the disabled and destitute and the like. The enactment of such programs was the central aim of his agenda, he said.
He was talking to a tough audience bristling with hostile groups. There were millions of Americans who were attracted to the Townsend Movement which demanded that payments of $200 a month be paid to the elderly, Father Charles E. Coughlin’s Social Justice Party and Huey Long’s Share-Our-Wealth movement were virulently opposed to FDR and all he stood for. In addition, business groups had already demonstrated they would resist any and all compromise or cooperation with the FDR administration.
The business community was represented by the Liberty League which drew class lines across party divisions and consistently identified the narrow privileges of big business with national liberty. The League had lost some of its allure after a highly-staged dinner of industrialists, financiers and dissident Democrats at which 12 members of the DuPont family attended, making a joke of any folksy appeal to the masses. The League was defeated after it tried to get congressmen elected along grounds of class interests designed to favor property interests.
As the 1936 election neared, the chief position of the Republicans rested on outrage over the extravagance of federal spending and the expansion of federal authority which could only end by replacing the entire administration. Just as today, the Republicans did not specify which programs would be cut or government agencies abolished. All were damned but only vaguely. However, in 1936 a sinister figure emerged in the person of Gerald L.K. Smith, a minister from Shreveport. Smith’s speeches and hand outs emphasized a rabid hatred of the New Deal as well as minority racial groups, professional competence, and radicalism.
Smith soon teamed with Townsend and Father Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Royal Oak, Mich., who abominated Roosevelt and was a master of propaganda. Coughlin made the argument, now so familiar, of re-founding society based on “moral values.” What these were remained conveniently vague. He launched vicious, bitter personal attacks on FDR and alleged that his administration was controlled by “godless capitalists,” Jews, international bankers and communists.
FDR’s presidential opponent was Alf Landon and the platforms of the two candidates don’t require elucidation here. (What is interesting is how the media of the day took a very favorable view of Landon and entirely ignored the subtle webs of support FDR commanded among seemingly disparate farm and labor groups where there had been major shifts of allegiance from one party to another. One thinks of the media coverage of Harry Reid which ignored the impact of cell phones in marshaling support .)
In any case, the Smith-Townsend-Coughlin groups exhibited much of the venomous fanaticism that can be seen today in the Fox News crowd. Those groups were disgraceful because their main animus was hatred, and their efforts to appeal without shame to the rancor and animosity of the most ignorant people of the country.
Thankfully, the above coalition remained on the “lunatic fringe” of American politics, unable to move to the center. In 1936, in the midst of a huge voter turn- out, the extremists got only 8.9 percent of the vote.
But what troubles me is the suspicion that the fringe is presently gaining legitimacy. Because so much widespread fear renders the average person susceptible to absurdities that in normal times they would disavow and the fringe is no longer seen as unbalanced, racist and disagreeable with nothing specific to offer.
The country voted for change, elected Obama, didn’t get it, and is angry at Washington and now is voting for more change. One can understand that unable to obtain work, with funds draining away, desperation in ordinary people is rising like water in a glass. But is Washington the problem? Why is it there is so little outrage at the Big Business Community that came the closest to toppling the whole U.S. capitalist system? Obama didn’t enact bail-outs for the auto industry or pass stimulus packages because he was a socialist but to avoid a financial collapse that he had little part in starting.
What most badly needs to change is not the membership of Congress, but the obtaining of a clear picture of cause and effect, which the fringe confuses almost every time it speaks. The Tea Party views of reform are a confusion of incompatibles: Government has to step in to create jobs, yet the ability of the government to do this by spending money on programs must be crushed. The government must act to rescue the stricken middle class of the nation, but federal power must first be cut in size and made impotent financially before this can be done.
The real villain in all this manages to escape hostile scrutiny. As John Flynn said in his Graft in Business, businessmen had fastened on business a parasitic structure of graft that sapped its vitality and ruined its ability to pursue sound economic goals. Abuses included secret profits of directors who manipulated holding companies, dummy corporations, executive bonuses, rebates and reorganizations, wash sales of stocks, pools and a dozen other devices businessmen used to fleece each other as well as the public. Flynn was not an eccentric. He wrote his book in the early 1930s, and some of his suggestions for reform were taken up by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations at the time.
The American business system was rotten, full of grafting insiders, but its chief failing was overlooked – it could not lead. It has never been able to lead, not in 1929 or in 2008. The chastened bankers who came on their private jets to Washington pleading for compassion and government help from Obama had been there before. As FDR said of businessmen in the 1936 contest, “I know how the knees of all our rugged individualists were trembling four years ago, and how their hearts fluttered. Washington did not look like a dangerous bureaucracy to them then. Oh no, it looked like an emergency hospital. All the distinguished patients wanted two things – a quick hypodermic to end the pain and a course of treatment to cure the disease. They wanted them in a hurry.”
The words still sting today, yet here we are, decades later, with little having changed.
I don’t think we can escape the conclusion that when the fringe threatens to become the majority and thinks itself the Center, blind to what really is, then the event must prompt a sense of thorough alarm.