By 1936, with working-class voters providing massive majorities for the Democratic Party and businesses large and small bitterly estranged from the New Deal, politics reflected class divisions more completely than at any other time in American history. Conceptions of freedom divided sharply as well. Americans, wrote George Soule, editor of The New Republic, confronted “two opposing systems of concepts about liberty,” reflecting “the needs and purposes of two opposing [parts] of the population.” One was the idea of “freedom for private enterprise,” the other “socialized liberty” based on “an equitably shared abundance.”
A fight for the possession of “the ideal of freedom,” reported the New York Times, emerged as the central issue of the presidential campaign of 1936. The Democratic platform insisted that in a modern economy the government has an obligation to establish a “democracy of opportunity for all the people.” In his speech accepting renomination, Roosevelt launched a blistering attack against “economic royalists” who, he charged, sought to establish a new tyranny over the “average man.” Economic rights, he went on, were the precondition of liberty—poor men “are not free men.” Throughout the campaign, FDR would insist that the threat posed to economic freedom by the “new despotism” of large corporations was the main issue of the election.
As Roosevelt’s opponent, Republicans chose Kansas governor Alfred Landon, a former Theodore Roosevelt Progressive. Landon denounced Social Security and other measures as threats to individual liberty. Opposition to the New Deal planted the seeds for the later flowering of an antigovernment conservatism bent on upholding the free market and dismantling the welfare state. But in 1936 Roosevelt won a landslide reelection, with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. He carried every state except Maine and Vermont. Roosevelt’s victory was all the more remarkable in view of the heavy support most of the nation’s newspapers and nearly the entire business community gave to the Republicans. His success stemmed from strong backing from organized labor and his ability to unite southern white and northern black voters, Protestant farmers and urban Catholic and Jewish ethnics, industrial workers and middle-class home owners. These groups made up the so-called New Deal coalition, which would dominate American politics for nearly half a century.