Thunder From the Left – How Progressive Dissent Shaped the New Deal

(Bumped. Welcome home Tocq! – promoted by buhdydharma )

There has been much talk lately about the Great Depression, how it parallels our current economic crisis, and how passage of the New Deal might serve as a model for the Democrats and the new Obama administration in their attempts to rescue the economy.

But it is how the passage of the New Deal may serve as a model for the Progressive movement that I want to discuss here. For, as I will demonstrate, if it were not for the Progressive movement, and Roosevelt’s harshest critics from the left, we would have ended up with a very different New Deal – one which, arguably, would not have been much of a deal at all.

In what I like to call the Children’s History of America, FDR, elected on a reform agenda, swept into office and, within his first one hundred days, passed a bunch of bills that are known as the New Deal. Consequently, as the story goes, millions of people returned to work, the economy eventually recovered, and a new era of social security was ushered in that would last for decades. But this history is false. In fact, one cannot understand the passage of the New Deal, or FDR’s first term, without giving full consideration to the forces that rose up against him from the progressive, populist, and very angry left. For those forces did more to shape the New Deal, and ensure its success, than any other factor.

If you’re not a historian, chances are you don’t know that there was essentially a second New Deal – the sweeping set of programs enacted in 1935 – after the 1934 midterms and before FDR’s 1936 reelection campaign. Many historians even refer to this period as the Second 100 Days. In the children’s history, you don’t hear much about the “Second New Deal”. That’s a shame, for it was this set of legislative accomplishments that actually, more than any other, constituted what would be known as the New Deal. It is this set of programs that changed the country. Here is a partial list:

  • Emergency Relief Appropriation Act
  • Public Works Administration (PWA)
  • Works Progress Administration (WPA)
  • Formation of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
  • The Wagner Act
  • Public Utility Holding Company Act
  • Social Security Act

These programs, to a large degree, were the New Deal. The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, along with the PWA and WPA created the government works program which eventually put over 10 million people to work.

The NRLB and Wagner Act effectively created organized labor by ensuring, among other things, the right to unionize and to bargain collectively with employers.

The Public Utilities Holding Company Act broke up the utility monopolies and ensured local ownership of public utilities. This was no small deal. Until its partial repeal in 1993 under Clinton, which directly led to the Enron fiascoes in California, and its full repeal in 2005, the PUHCA had maintained a tightly regulated, highly stable system of energy delivery for seventy years.

And then there’s the Social Security Act. No other program of the New Deal has had a more enduring impact and affected more lives. Yet it’s easy to forget just how radical this idea was in the 1930s. Roosevelt actually opposed it as too costly and opted for just the unemployment insurance part.(1) But, as it was in 1935, politicians were going along with a lot of things they had originally opposed.

“The Populist Uprising “

By the spring of 1935, the New Deal was a failure. Not that some of the measures enacted in the first 100 days hadn’t helped. The economy had grown a little bit. Businesses started to feel a bit more confident. And a couple million people had gone back to work. But after two years recovery began to falter – the country was still in a depression and approximately 1/5th of the workforce was still unemployed. And to make matters worse, the Supreme Court had declared by unanimous consent that Roosevelt’s flagship program, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was unconstitutional. This was a devastating blow – the NIRA was not just another remedial government program. It was the remedial government program, a massive, very high profile national campaign that included a PR blitz, celebrity endorsements, and even a logo business participants could put in their windows. The administration had practically bet the farm on the NIRA and now it was dead.

But the Court was the least of Roosevelt’s problems that year. Public dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on the economy was reaching a fevered pitch. It appeared, from all sides, FDR was under siege.

The Hooverites and business leaders had opposed the New Deal from inception and thought Roosevelt had gone too far in his first hundred days. Many in High Society refused to even mention FDR’s name. (I don’t mean they wouldn’t talk about him. I mean they deliberately made a point of referring to him without mentioning his name.) But the real threat to FDR was from his own left flank. The Progressives, both Democrat and Republican, were deeply dissatisfied and thought FDR hadn’t gone far enough. They also believed he was far to favorable to the oligarchs, despite his having fallen from their graces.

There were others too, outspoken critics, often referred to as the demagogues, who, by late 1935 had grown so dissatisfied with FDR that they began to plot a third party run in the upcoming 1936 election. They too believed the New Deal was too protective of the banking interests and the wealthy and didn’t go far enough to help the poor. These included Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semite who railed against the bankers and the Jews, but none the less built up a following of as many as 40 million listeners to his radio show. He advocated nationalizing the banks and abolishing the Federal Reserve. And Dr. Francis Townsend, who advocated providing the elderly with a $200 a month income, had grown widely popular by mid-thirties.

Another threat to FDR was, and one that particularly caught his attention, was the a new progressive alliance in Wisconsin. Long a hotbed of progressive sentiments, Wisconsin had just elected a progressive Governor who actually ran as a “radical” telling voters, “I am not a liberal, I am what I want to be – I am a radical.” In the 1930 race for Wisconsin’s governor, Olson actually defeated his Republican opponent by an astounding 200,000 votes. Once in office, he introduced such progressive reforms as a progressive income tax, public unemployment insurance, and old age pensions. In 1935, he vowed to run against FDR unless he produced a more radical New Deal.

But it was Huey Long who posed the biggest threat. Despite his flamboyant, clownish demeanor, he was a lawyer and an incredibly astute politician. He had taken on the corrupt Standard Oil machine in Louisiana and won. This was unheard of. When elected governor of Louisiana, Standard oil owned that state’s politics. (This fact is often excluded by establishment historians’ accounts of Long’s own corruption. For all his faults, he entered a game that had few rules and adapted. As a result he was able to do an immense amount of good for the poor people of his state.)

Long’s popularity in the troubled years of the Depression had grown far beyond the borders of his state, however. And his ‘Share the Wealth’ program – where every citizen was guaranteed a base income of $2500, and every family would receive $5000 to buy a house, car and radio – was gaining immense support amongst the poor and working classes throughout the country. Democrats were concerned that if Long, who formerly had supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, was to launch a third party run in the 1936 presidential campaign, he could cost FDR the presidency.

And so, in 1935, as Franklin Roosevelt began preparing for his 1936 reelection bid, this was the environment he found himself in. A stalling recovery program, mass public dissatisfaction, and mounting opposition from his own left flank. The result was a dramatic shift to the left and the passage of a legislative coup that would have been unthinkable only two years earlier.

Stealing Huey’s Thunder

Now, while it would be convenient for my thesis to depict Roosevelt as a failed moderate who was too orthodox to rise to the occasion and so was destined to historical failure were it not for the populists coming in to set him on the right path and rescue his legacy, that simply would be incorrect. The truth is much more complex. For example, some measures enacted in 1935, like the National Labor Relations Board and the Wagner Act, had been under development in Washington for years. On the other hand, Social Security, with retiree pensions, was a direct response to Dr. Townsend. In fact, the whole idea had been dubbed the “Townsend plan”, though he was not the first to think of it.

And how precisely populist pressure affected Roosevelt is not wholly known. According to Raymond Moley, one of FDR’s top advisors, the president had confided in him that much of the Second New Deal was to “steal Huey’s thunder”.(2) And some hold the position that the threat of a Long presidency merely gave the president and the Democrats cover for programs they had always supported. Call it the “now make me do it” view.

Fortunately for my thesis, however, it doesn’t matter either way. The end result was that pressure from the left, often in the form of rage and condemnation of the president, moved this country dramatically in a better direction and either forced, or allowed, depending on which you prefer, Washington to enact progressive legislation that served the people.

Historians don’t all agree on the extent of the impact of this pressure. But one need no further illustration than the appeals of New York Times columnist Arthur Krock. Krock was a highly prominent and influential writer in his day. A sort of “dean” of the press corp in Broderian terms. He had won four Pulitzer Prizes and mostly towed the establishment line. So his warnings of the potential of Huey Long occupying the White house struck fear into the heart of the monied class. Here is an excerpt from one of Krock’s warnings:

In Washington; Roosevelt, Long or Townsend Our Social Security Choice

New York Times – Jan 18, 1935

“Nevertheless, as a glance at any Senator’s correspondence will demonstrate, many, many people–perhaps several millions–believe firmly in the practicability and justice of the Townsend plan. Mr. Long, on his oath as a tribune, gets “more than 50,000 letters a week, 99 per cent approving” his share-the-wealth formula.

Alternatives Less Cheerful.

“All this should tend to reconcile those who “wonder why the President is bringing up this utopian stuff now, when business is flat on its back.” It should convey to them that business could be a lot worse off than in its supine position.”

And so it was. The “utopian stuff” was passed and signed into law. Not out of the will of good men wanting to do the right thing. But out of fear. Fear that unless they were willing to give the people a little piece of the pie, the people would take the whole thing.

1. Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (pg. 342)

2. Raymond Moley, After Seven Years


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  1. Glad to be back home. This is something I was just finishing up when I was disappeared from Daily Kos. I am much happier posting it here anyway.



  2. I always enjoyed your stuff over at the big orange satan, Im glad I found you here.

    I also just want to point out that your exile, it is not only absurd but extraordinarily ironic considering said diary in question

    Keep it up

  3. Let me start by saying that I am not normally a kiss-ass. However, I think it was total BS what happened to you at Kos and with nearly 6,000 people voting for you to be unbanned I am certainly not alone. The first diary I ever read on Kos was by you and I was hooked. I signed up for an account not long  after I read it. I didn’t comment very much, mostly read but diarist after diarist that I admired has been purged from the site.

    I worked really hard for President Obama. I spent months walking the streets of Indiana for him. I had plenty of run-ins with republicans but even that was nothing compared to some of the venom that was shouted at me during the primaries from Clinton supporters (usually in front of my 4 and 5 year old children I brought along). I phonebanked and e-mailed. I got into fights with my own relatives who ran the spectrum from Bush to Edwards supporters. I did my part. It was a small part from just one person but Obama won Indiana.

    Now fast forward. I am not an Obama=Bush person but come on. Progressives busted their ass for him and I feel like we are being left behind. I don’t want much. A little fairness towards the middle-class/poor who are getting their asses kicked by the top few percent and some justice for the criminals that have practically destoyed our country over the last 8 (or 30) years. We obviously will get neither if we sit around trading “eye-candy” pics of Obama and his family. We need to fight. That’s where you came in. In your last few diaries you really spoke the truth. It is what people need to hear. I just don’t understand what people are so afraid of.

    Sorry, I am rambling. This is why I spend more time reading than writing. I just wanted to say thank you. You are a brilliant writer and a deep thinker and it has not been lost on everyone. I hate after what has happened to post a theory that I can not prove but I personally think your superior intellect and writing skills rubbed some the wrong way. Some people don’t like to be around others who are smarter than they are, makes them feel inferior. I am drawn to it because I always learn something, as I probably will now as I stop typing and go and read your essay.    

    • dkmich on May 19, 2009 at 11:38

    Sounds like the Obama WH to me.   I was never a supporter of his – too phony.   But, he wasn’t McCain so I voted for him – last time I make that mistake.  MI has been approaching the edge of a precipice since Clinton signed NAFTA, and Obama has pushed us over the edge. I think the only hope any of us have is that unions will get sick of being lied to and used and organize real opposition to the neoliberals and war mongers that have taken over the Democratic Party.

    Sorry about what happened to you at dkos.   I read your “infamous” diary, and you got a bad rap.  

  4. Awesome Diary! I expect nothing less.

    Glad I can still read you here.

  5.  There is one thing which nobody else will find ironic. And it isn’t a complaint just an observation.

    You have a footnote from Conrad fucking Black. I still don’t understand why he was so fascinated by FDR considering his own less than populist beliefs. Not a popular dude in Canuckistan, or at least among the great unwashed that I knew.

    Glad you’re here.

    • jamess on May 19, 2009 at 15:30

    Franklin D. Roosevelt Speeches

    Democratic National Convention (June 27, 1936)

    link to Audio

    It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction.


    For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor–other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

    Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.


    Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

    These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

    (emphasis added)


    Where is the FDR of this Generation?

  6. So his warnings of the potential of Huey Long occupying the White house struck fear into the heart of the monied class.

    Which I don’t think you could get away with saying on DK.

    • TomP on May 19, 2009 at 15:59

    It is why following Obama no matter what policy he chooses undermines the entire movement for change.

    He will make real change when he has no choice.  We have to force him.  

    • dmc on May 19, 2009 at 16:04

    I feel ashamed that I did not know about the “Second New Deal” until I read this. The relevance to today’s politics is crystal clear.  

  7. DK is becoming a disappointing atmosphere.  Some obviously did not understand the meaning of your last diary there.  

    We have to speak in hushed know.

  8. Thanks for doing the work and posting it.

    Modern politicos promise little these days and deliver even less. Huey Long on the other hand promised lots and delivered more.  How can some people hoard massive wealth while others suffer from extreme poverty right here in the United States?,…beats me, I don’t know how they can be so heartless. Whatever, Huey Long is still much loved in New Orleans my home town.

    Anyway, I like your new home here at docudharma,… so much so that I think I’m moving in with you, LOL,, no,… just kidding I’ll just come by from time to time for a visit and read and comment your posts.

  9. Glad you’re still at it! Please, Illegitimi non carborundum.

  10. Nice diary here.

    • robodd on May 19, 2009 at 20:23

    one can be banned for that!

  11. here which tells me that you should think of starting your very own would get plenty of support.

  12. Nice seeing you here.

  13. while over at DKos it seems more like an echo chamber based on social networking mentality, posing as “reality” in the world.

    As much as one tries to elevate and inform over there, it looks like the effort is futile.

  14. like most past presidents is hard to see in perspective when he is viewed though the lens of current politics. I grew up listening to heated arguments as my dad a Republican hated him claimed he wrecked the country, my mom a Democrat loved him and considered him a socialist saint. It’s easier to see the political elements which were at play during depression, when we once again face the same old circle of power, fear and greed once again defend itself from actual democracy and common good. Too big to fall or belief in markets that are anything but free, does not equate.

    I think FDR also had to convince the public at large as the fear of dreaded socialism was as rampant then as now. I saw a documentary about how he recruited photographers to document the plight of the hardest hit by the depression, which started in the rural areas and took longer to filter though to the urban centers. Googleing FDR is a pretty weird experience as you would think he was the devil himself and still a threat to the myths of capitalism =freedom. Hopefully he is.                

  15. please just don’t post any pootie diaries…

    • lmori3 on May 20, 2009 at 21:06

    I came over from DK to read your diaries. I was a long time lurker there and never really commented. You are one of my favorite writers and I was deeply upset by the decision, so I came over and opened an account!  I am glad to be here at Docudharma to read your fine work. Their loss, and I am totally sure you guys will be getting many newcomers in the next week or so! This was a great diary. I wonder if things will play out similarly under the current administration.

    All the best

    • Viet71 on May 21, 2009 at 00:17

    Dkos’s loss is this site’s gain.


    • sharon on May 21, 2009 at 00:54

    glad to see that you are still writing.  was feeling at a loss wondering how i’d get to read you again.  yay, bd, npk, otb and everyone else who made/makes dd happen. (btw, bd and edger, i’m back in the real world again.  semester ended yesterday.)

    fwiw, i was pleased to see you refute elise’s bs.  thank you for taking the time to write such cogent work – both this essay and the thoughts bd posted. i look forward to seeing more of it at dd and will check out your own blog.

  16. Don’t know if you saw my dairy here of day before yesterday, but if not, take a look.

    I am excited about DD, and plan on writing much more than I ever did at “that place I promised never to mention again”….

    You’ve got lots of fans here Toque, and with all the other talent, especially Budhy, this site is going to rock. Makes an old man’s heart smile.. (:  

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