Modern history

The New Deal Moves to the Left

Facing criticism from within his own party about the pace and effectiveness of the New Deal, and with the 1936 election looming, Roosevelt moved to the left. He adopted harsher rhetoric against recalcitrant corporate leaders; beefed up economic and social programs for the unemployed, the elderly, and the infirm; and revived measures to redress the power imbalance between management and labor. In doing so, he fashioned a political coalition that would deliver a landslide victory in 1936 and allow the Democratic Party to dominate electoral politics for the next three decades.

Expanding Relief Measures

Even though the New Deal had helped millions of people, millions of others still felt left out, as the popularity of Townsend, Coughlin, and Long indicated. “We the people voted for you,” a Columbus, Ohio, worker wrote the president in disgust, “but it is a different story now. You have faded out on the masses of hungry, idle people. . . . The very rich is the only one who has benefited from your new deal.”

In 1935 the president seized the opportunity to win his way back into the hearts of the “forgotten Americans”—poor farmers, industrial workers, and marginalized minority groups. Although Roosevelt favored a balanced budget, political necessity forced him to embark on deficit spending to expand the New Deal. Federal government expenditures would now exceed tax revenues, but New Dealers argued that these outlays would stimulate job creation and economic growth, which ultimately would replenish government coffers. Based on the highly successful but short-lived Civil Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided jobs for the unemployed with a far larger budget, starting out with $5 billion. To ensure that the money would be spent, Roosevelt appointed Harry Hopkins to head the agency. Although critics condemned the WPA for employing people on unproductive “make- work” jobs and jibed that its initials stood for “We Poke Around”—a criticism not entirely unfounded—overall the WPA did a great deal of good. The agency constructed or repaired more than 100,000 public buildings, 600 airports, 500,000 miles of roads, and 100,000 bridges. The WPA employed about 8.5 million workers during its eight years of operation.

The WPA also helped artists, writers, and musicians. Under its auspices, the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Theater Project encouraged the production of cultural works and helped bring them to communities and audiences throughout the country. Actors staged plays, dancers performed ballets, and musicians held recitals outside the usual centers of high culture in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Writers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Clifford Odets, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Margaret Walker, and many others nourished both their works and their stomachs while employed by the WPA. Painters created elaborate murals on the walls of post offices and other government buildings. Historians and folklorists researched and prepared city and state guides and interviewed black ex-slaves whose narratives of the system of bondage would otherwise have been lost.

In addition to the WPA, the National Youth Administration (NYA) employed millions of young people. The NYA provided part-time work to 600,000 college undergraduates, 1.5 million high school students, and 2.6 million jobless youth who no longer attended school. Their work ranged from clerical assignments and repairing automobiles to building tuberculosis isolation units and renovating schools. Heading the NYA in Texas, the young Lyndon B. Johnson worked hard to expand educational and construction projects to unemployed whites and blacks. The Division of Negro Affairs, headed by the Florida educator Mary McLeod Bethune and the only minority group subsection in the NYA, ensured that African American youths would benefit from the programs sponsored by the agency.

Despite their many successes, these relief programs had a number of flaws. The WPA paid participants relatively low wages. The $660 in annual income earned by the average worker fell short of the $1,200 that a family needed to survive. In addition, the WPA limited participation to one family member. In most cases, this meant the male head of the household. As a result, women made up only about 14 percent of WPA workers, and even in the peak year of 1938, the WPA hired only 60 percent of eligible women. With the exception of the program for artists, most women hired by the WPA worked in lower-paying jobs than men.

Establishing Social Security

The elderly also required immediate relief and insurance in a country that lagged behind the rest of the industrialized world in helping its aged workforce. In August 1935, the president rectified this shortcoming and signed into law the Social Security Act. The measure provided that at age sixty-five, eligible workers would receive retirement payments funded by payroll taxes on employees and employers. The law also extended beyond the elderly by providing unemployment insurance for those temporarily laid off from work and welfare payments for the disabled who were permanently out of a job as well as for destitute, dependent children of single parents.

The Social Security program had significant limitations. The act excluded farm, domestic, and laundry workers, who were among the neediest Americans and were disproportionately African American. The reasons for these exclusions were largely political. The president needed southern Democrats to support this measure, and as a Mississippi newspaper observed: “The average Mississippian can’t imagine himself chipping in to pay pensions for able bodied Negroes to sit around in idleness.” The system of financing pensions also proved unfair. The payroll tax, which imposes the same fixed percentage on all incomes, is a regressive tax, one that falls hardest on those with lower incomes. The regressiveness of the tax proved to be an additional handicap for immediate economic recovery because the tax payments took purchasing power out of the hands of workers, whereas pension payments would not begin for several years. Social Security also disadvantaged working women, who on average earned less than men; nor did it take into account the unpaid labor of women who remained in the home to take care of their children.

Even with its flaws, Social Security revolutionized the expectations of American workers. It created a compact between the federal government and its citizens, and workers insisted that their political leaders fulfill their moral responsibilities to keep the system going. President Roosevelt recognized that the tax formula might not be economically sound, but he had a higher political objective in mind. He believed that payroll taxes would give contributors the right to collect their benefits and that “with those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” Social Security also helped create a larger middle-class constituency for Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.

Organized Labor Strikes Back

In 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act for its leading sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. of New York. The law created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which protected workers’ right to organize labor unions without owner interference. During the 1930s, union membership rolls soared from fewer than 4 million workers to more than 10 million, including more than 800,000 women. At the outset of the depression, barely 6 percent of the labor force belonged to unions, compared with 33 percent in 1940.

Government efforts boosted this growth, but these spectacular gains were due primarily to workers’ grassroots efforts set in motion by economic hard times. Workers in key industries—automobiles, steel, rubber, and textiles—took the lead. The number of striking workers during the first year of the Roosevelt administration soared from nearly 325,000 to more than 1.5 million. Organizers such as Luisa Moreno traveled the country to bring as many people as possible into the union movement. The most important development within the labor movement occurred in 1935, with the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which consisted mainly of craft unions, rejected a proposal by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers to incorporate industrial workers under its umbrella, Lewis and representatives of seven other AFL unions defected and formed the CIO. Unlike the AFL, the new union sought to recruit a wide variety of workers without respect to race, gender, or region.

In 1937, two years after its founding, the CIO mounted a full-scale organizing campaign. More than 4.5 million workers participated in some 4,700 strikes, strangling mass-production industries. Unions found new ways to protest poor working conditions and arbitrary layoffs. Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW), a CIO affiliate, launched a sit-down strike against General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan, to win union recognition, higher wages, and better working conditions. Strikers refused to work but remained in the plants, shutting them down from the inside. Workers felt a new sense of power and confidence, a belief that they were more important than machines. “We learned we can take the plant,” one striker gloated. “We already knew how to run them.” When the company sent in local police forces to evict the strikers on January 11, 1937, the barricaded workers bombarded the police with spare machine parts and anything that was not bolted down. The community rallied around the strikers, and wives and daughters called “union maids” formed the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which supplied sit-downers with food and water and kept up their morale. Neither the state nor the federal government interfered with the work stoppage, and after six weeks GM acknowledged defeat and recognized the UAW. Most of the other auto companies soon followed, though Henry Ford’s was one of the last.

Despite some setbacks in 1937, especially in the steel industry, most strikes were settled in the union’s favor, and by the end of the decade “big labor,” as the AFL and CIO unions were known, had become a significant force in American politics and a leading backer of the New Deal. However, this big labor/big government alliance left out non-unionized industrial and agricultural workers, many of whom were African American or other minorities and lacked adequate bargaining power. Employers often passed on the burden of higher industrial wages to consumers in the form of higher prices.

A Half Deal for Minorities

President Roosevelt made significant gestures on behalf of African Americans. He appointed Mary McLeod Bethune and Robert Weaver to staff New Deal agencies and gathered an informal “Black Cabinet” in the nation’s capital to advise him on matters pertaining to race. He also reversed the racial segregation policy his Democratic predecessor Woodrow Wilson had initiated in federal offices and facilities. The Roosevelt administration established the Civil Liberties Unit (later renamed Civil Rights Section) in the Department ofJustice, which investigated racial discrimination. Eleanor Roosevelt acted as a visible symbol of the White House’s concern with the plight of blacks, a role that culminated in her public support for the black singer Marian Anderson. In 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt quit the Daughters of the American Revolution, a women’s organization, when it refused to allow Anderson to hold a concert in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Instead, the First Lady brought Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an integrated audience of75,000 and to millions more on the radio.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Franklin Roosevelt’s impact on African Americans came when large numbers of black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in 1936, a pattern that has lasted to the present day. “Go turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall,” a black observer wryly commented after the election. “That debt has been paid in full.”

Yet overall the New Deal did little to break down racial inequality. President Roosevelt believed that the plight of African Americans would improve, along with all downtrodden Americans, as New Deal measures restored economic health. Black leaders disagreed. They argued that the NRA’s initials stood for “Negroes Ruined Again” because the agency displaced black workers and approved lower wages for blacks than for whites. The AAA dislodged black sharecroppers, a problem later ameliorated somewhat by New Deal programs such as the Farm Security Administration. New Deal programs such as the CCC and those for building public housing maintained existing patterns of segregation. Both the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act omitted from coverage jobs that black Americans were most likely to hold. When members of Congress did propose legislation to combat lynching and eliminate the poll tax on voting, Roosevelt offered only lukewarm support for fear of alienating his southern Democratic allies; consequently, these bills went down to defeat.

This pattern of halfway reform persisted for other minorities. Since the end of the Indian wars in 1890 (see chapter 15), Native Americans had lived in poverty, forced onto reservations that offered few economic opportunities and where whites carried out a relentless assault on their culture. By the early 1930s, American Indians earned an average income of less than $50 a year—compared with $800 for whites—and their unemployment rate was three times higher than that of white Americans. For the most part, they lived on lands that whites had given up on as unsuitable for farming or mining. The policy of assimilation established by the Dawes Act of 1887 had exacerbated the problem by depriving Indians of their cultural identities as well as their economic livelihoods. In 1934 the federal government reversed its course. Spurred on by John Collier, the commissioner of Indian affairs, Congress passed the indian Reorganization Act (iRA), which terminated the Dawes Act, authorized self-government for those living on reservations, extended tribal landholdings, and pledged to uphold native customs and language.

The Indian New Deal John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs under President Roosevelt, favored a New Deal for Native Americans. An advocate for Indian culture, Collier implemented reform legislation that replaced the policy of Indian assimilation with that of self-determination. In this 1935 photograph, Collier watches his boss, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, sign the Flathead [Montana] Indian Constitution as tribal leaders look on. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Although the IRA brought economic and social improvements for Native Americans, many problems remained. Despite his considerable efforts, Collier approached Indian affairs from the top down. One historian remarked that Collier had “the zeal of a crusader who knew better than the Indians what was good for them.” The Indian commissioner failed to appreciate the diversity of native tribes and administered laws that contradicted Native American political and economic practices. For example, the IRA required the tribes to operate by majority rule, whereas many of them reached decisions through consensus, which respected the views of the minority. Although 174 tribes accepted the IRA, 78 tribes, including the Seneca, Crow, and Navajo, rejected it.

Twilight of the New Deal

Roosevelt’s shift to the left paid political dividends, and in 1936 the president won reelection by a landslide. His sweeping victory proved to be one of the rare critical elections that signified a fundamental political realignment. Democrats replaced Republicans as the majority party in the United States, overturning thirty-six years of Republican rule. While Roosevelt had won convincingly in 1932, not until 1936 did the president put together a stable coalition that could sustain Democratic dominance for many years to come.

In 1936 Roosevelt trounced Alfred M. Landon, the Republican governor of Kansas, and Democrats increased their congressional majorities by staggering margins. The vote broke down along class lines. Roosevelt won the votes of 80 percent of union members, 81 percent of unskilled workers, and 84 percent of people on relief, compared with only 42 percent of high-income voters. Millions of new voters came out to the polls, and most of them supported Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of the poor, farmers, urban ethnic minorities, unionists, white southerners, and African Americans.

The euphoria of his triumph, however, proved short-lived. An overconfident Roosevelt soon reached beyond his electoral mandate and within two years found himself unable to extend the New Deal. In 1937 Roosevelt asked Congress to increase the size of the Supreme Court through a court-packing plan. He justified this as a matter of reform, claiming that the present nine-member Court could not handle its workload, much of it generated by the avalanche of New Deal legislation. Roosevelt attributed a good deal of the problem to the advanced age of six of the nine justices, who were over seventy years old. Under his proposal, the president would make one new appointment for each judge over the age of seventy who did not retire so long as the bench did not exceed fifteen members. In reality, Roosevelt schemed to “pack” the Court with supporters to prevent it from declaring New Deal legislation such as Social Security and the Wagner Act unconstitutional.

The plan backfired. Conservatives charged Roosevelt with seeking to destroy the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. They portrayed the president as a “dictator,” which, although a distorted characterization, touched a nerve in those concerned with the rise of tyrants in Germany and Italy. In the end, the president failed to expand the Supreme Court, but he preserved his legislative accomplishments. In a series of rulings, the chastened Supreme Court approved Social Security, the Wagner Act, and other New Deal legislation. Nevertheless, the political fallout from the court-packing fight damaged the president and his plans for further legislative reform.

Roosevelt’s court-packing plan alienated many southern Democratic members of Congress who previously had sided with the president. Traditionally suspicious of the power of the federal government, southern lawmakers worried that Roosevelt was going too far toward centralizing power in Washington at the expense of states’ rights. Southern Democrats formed a coalition with conservative northern Republicans who shared their concerns about the expansion of federal power and excessive spending on social welfare programs. Their antipathy toward labor unions, especially in the wake of the sit-down strikes, further bound them together. Although they held a minority of seats in Congress, this conservative coalition could block unwanted legislation by using the filibuster in the Senate (unlimited debate that could be shut down only with a two-thirds vote). The coalition could not defeat Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which established minimum wages at 40 cents an hour and maximum working hours at forty per week, but after 1938 these conservatives made sure that no other New Deal legislation passed.

Roosevelt also lost support because the recession of 1937 overlapped with the Supreme Court fight. When federal spending soared after passage of the WPA and other relief measures adopted in 1935, the president lost his economic nerve for deficit spending. He called for reduced spending, which increased unemployment and slowed economic recovery. At the same time, as the Social Security payroll tax took effect, it reduced the purchasing power of workers, thereby exacerbating the impact of reduced government spending. This “recession within the depression” further eroded congressional support for the New Deal.

The country was still deep in depression in 1939. Unemployment was at 17 percent, with more than 11 million people out of work. Most of those who were poor at the start of the Great Depression remained poor. Recovery came mainly to those who were temporarily impoverished as a result of the economic crisis. The distribution of wealth remained skewed toward the top. In 1933 the richest 5 percent of the population controlled 31 percent of disposable income; in 1939 the figure stood at 26 percent.

Against this backdrop of persistent difficult economic times, the president’s popularity began to fade. In the midterm elections of 1938, Roosevelt campaigned against Democratic conservatives in an attempt to reinvigorate his New Deal coalition. His efforts failed to purge the conservatives he hoped to unseat and upset many ordinary citizens who associated the tactic with that used by European dictators who had recently risen to power. As the decade came to a close, Roosevelt turned his attention away from the New Deal and increasingly toward a new war in Europe that, like World War I twenty-five years earlier, threatened to engulf the entire world.


• Why and how did the New Deal shift to the left in 1934 and 1935?

• Despite the president's landslide victory in 1936, why did the New Deal stall during Roosevelt's second term in office?

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