Opposition to the New Deal

For all the credit Roosevelt has been given for the success (or otherwise) of the New Deal, there was opposition in America to both what he was doing with regards to his economic policies to combat unemployment and to the beliefs he was perceived to have held.

Though Roosevelt had enormous success in the elections of 1936, 1940 and 1944, this success is somewhat disguised by the structure of America’s elections whereby a presidential candidate can win a state with the bare majority of votes but win all of what are called Electoral College seats for that state. Once a presidential candidate has a majority of Electoral College seats for the states that have announced their election result, they win the election and any state that has yet to announce its results does so to go through formalities.

Roosevelt’s own social class was horrified by the actions of the president. The president had been born in to a privileged family who lived a rich lifestyle on the east-coast of America – Roosevelt had been born at Hyde Park in New York State and spent his summer holidays at Campobello Island where the family had a summer holiday home.  

To finance his first New Deal, Roosevelt had introduced higher taxes for the rich. They felt that he had betrayed his class and he was expelled from his social club for letting down “his people”.

Roosevelt’s response was typically blunt claiming that the policies he was pursuing would tread on the toes of the few while the majority benefited.

The New Deal also faced a lot of opposition from the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court took its stance from a legal viewpoint and in 1935 it effectively declared the National Recovery Administration (NRA) illegal.

In the following year it declared the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) unconstitutional thus killing off the AAA. The point made by the Supreme Court was that any efforts made to help farmers etc. should come at a state level and not federal level and that these parts of the New Deal went against the powers given to the states by the Constitution.

11 out of 16 of the Alphabet Laws were decreed unconstitutional in cases heard by the Supreme Court. The argument of the Supreme Court was that Roosevelt had tried to impose the power of the federal government on state governments – and this was unconstitutional. If a state deemed that there was a crisis is farming then it had the right to tackle this crisis as laid down by the Constitution but the federal government did not have the right to impose its decisions onto states.

Some politicians realised that the New Deal was not overwhelming popular with all the people and that there was a chance to make political capital out of this. The 1936 election result certainly showed that there was mileage in such an approach.

The most famous opponent of the New Deal was Huey Long, a Senator from Louisiana. He criticised Roosevelt for not doing enough for the poor. His alternative to the New Deal was called “Share Our Wealth”. By the standards of the time, Long was politically left of centre and his unpopularity was such that he had to surround himself with a gang of ‘heavies’ to protect him – and to deal with any hecklers he might come across at public meetings.

Long promised to confiscate any personal fortune over $3 million and that he would use this money to give each family in America between $4000 to $5000 so that they could buy a home and a car. Long also promised a national minimum wage, old age pensions and cheap food for the poor. Long also promised to make all education free in America.

Within Louisiana, Long essentially ran the state. Opponents were suitably dealt with; local elections were fixed and the police were bribed. In the state he was known as the “Kingfish“.

However, he had his enemies and in 1935 he was killed, ironically by one of his bodyguards who shot a man who was planning to kill Long. A bullet fired at the would-be assassin by one of the bodyguards, missed its target, ricocheted off of a corridor wall and hit Long in the stomach. Whether Long’s views would have had any appeal to the voters of 1936 (if he had stood for president) we will never know. He was, in fact, targeting the one group, the poor, whose input into elections has historically been poor. Those who he planned to attack financially, the better off, historically vote the most at elections, so it is highly improbable that Long would have beaten Roosevelt in the 1936 election.

Another vocal opponent of Roosevelt was a Catholic priest called Charles Coughlin. He set up the National Union for Justice and used his weekly radio programme to attack Roosevelt for being “anti-God”. Coughlin wanted the less well off to be paid what he described as a “fair wage”. He teamed up with Frances Townsend who also opposed the New Deal. Townsend wanted the federal government to give all citizens aged 60 and above $200 a month to be financed by a 2% sales tax. These 2 men allied themselves to Gerald Smith, Huey Long’s successor, and the three of them planned in 1936 to tap the voting strength of the less well off in America.

The 1936 election result showed that a substantial number of people voted against Roosevelt.  

In November 1936, Roosevelt got 27 million votes while his Republican opponent, Alf Landon, got 16 million votes. Landon’s support represented 37% of the total number of voters. Roosevelt’s victory was described as a landslide, which it was in electoral terms as he only lost the states of Vermont and Maine, but 16 million voters clearly were not convinced by the New Deal. This election obviously took place after the “100 Days” of what the first New Deal. That over 1/3rd of voters voted against Roosevelt gives some indication that not all of America was behind him.

However, Roosevelt brushed aside this with the comment

“Everybody is against me except the voter.”

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