Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009

The Populism of the FDR Era

Populist impulses — emotional demands for systemic change, waged in the name of the common man, demonizing Washington or Wall Street elites — are always rattling our politics. It's a tendency with roots in Andrew Jackson's swaggering mass-democratic appeals and attacks on the Bank of the United States; it crested with the currency-obsessed, debt-strapped farmers of the late 19th Century People's Party. Its standard-bearers today occupy no clear ideological home — self-styled leaders of recent vintage range from Jim Webb to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Pat Buchanan.

For decades, liberals and conservatives have championed dueling populisms: the left beating the drum for economic fairness, the right targeting the power of the federal bureaucracy and the cultural elite. The surge of populism induced by last fall's economic collapse, though, looks closer to that of the 1930s, when anti-government, anti-finance, anti-elite sentiment burst the boundaries of party and region.

During the Depression, citizens of all stripes joined in an inchoate but potent critique of society — raising fears that capitalism and democracy might be moribund. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt was worried. Elected overwhelmingly in 1932 on the strength of the public discontent, FDR found himself jarred into action by recurring waves of dissent. Like Roosevelt after his triumphant hundred days, Barack Obama seems for now to have tamed the populist outbursts of his early presidential days. But like FDR, he also must remain vigilant, lest he find himself on the receiving end of the demand for change.

Roosevelt's challenge wasn't the number of populists unreconciled to his leadership but their intensity and variety. He had to act boldly and effectively enough to satisfy the outrage. Yet he also had to establish himself as the cooler alternative to demagogues who often generated among the populace as much fear as hope.

The most troublesome nemesis was the ruthless Huey Long of Louisiana, since immortalized as Willie Stark by Robert Penn Warren in All the King's Men. With his wild curly hair, fleshy face, garish dress, and constant sense of motion, Long looked very much the rabble-rouser — though he also had a record of hard achievement that gave him credibility with the dispossessed. Having helped Roosevelt secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932, Long soon raised the opposition banner. In 1934 he took to the airwaves to tout his "Share Our Wealth" plan-a naive, untheoretical plan to radically redistribute wealth and income, presented in terms as accessible as they were unworkable. "Share Our Wealth" Clubs sprang up around the country, demanding sweeping change.

A critic of capitalism who also hated communism, a demagogue and authoritarian, Long defied classification as left or right. So did Father Charles Coughlin, the so-called Radio Priest, who denounced wicked financiers as the cause of the Depression on his top-rated weekly broadcast, calling for currency inflation as a panacea. Coughlin's outre, moralistic speeches, heard by up to 40 million listeners, generated tens of thousands of letters a week, many tendering donations. He too moved from support to rebuke of Roosevelt, causing worry in the White House, although he eventually alienated himself with an increasingly fervid anti-Communism, doctrinaire Catholicism, and anti-Semitism. The fascist label became increasingly apt.

Many more "voices of protest," as the historian Alan Brinkley has termed them, emerged, some offering totalizing visions, others preferring quick-fix policy solutions, radical critiques, or eccentric alternatives to the New Deal. The Communist party quadrupled its ranks in Depression's first years, claiming a disproportionate slice of the intelligentsia and the labor movement. In 1932, its presidential ticket drew support from a constellation of great minds, from the novelist Theodore Dreiser to the critic Edmund Wilson. The novelist Upton Sinclair ran for California governor in 1934 on a platform called End Poverty in California (EPIC), calling on the state to seize unused factories and farmland to house and employ the destitute. Francis Townsend, a 67-year-old Long Beach physician, won fame with a plan to give all Americans over 60 a monthly stipend of $150, funded by a national sales tax. Pension advocates later rallied behind a kindred scheme called "Ham and Eggs," which made its way onto the state ballot as a popular initiative.

For all their demagoguery and for all the dangers they posed, these sundry movements were helpful in keeping Roosevelt's feet to the fire. "I am fighting communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism," the president despaired at one point. To his aide Raymond Moley he vowed to "steal Long's thunder."

He did. In 1935 he passed his own Revenue Act — shamelessly dubbed the "soak the rich" tax — on gifts, estates, and corporate and investment income, demonstrating his egalitarian commitments. Prodded by the Townsend plan and old-age pension agitation, he engineered the passage of the Social Security Act, providing an income floor for the elderly as well as the unemployed, the widowed and the orphaned.

Into 1936, Roosevelt famously denounced, in his address to the Democratic convention, the "economic royalists." Some of his phrases in that speech — "Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right"; "Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine" — came straight from the People's Party phrasebook. Not for nothing did FDR's policies of 1935, often called the "Second New Deal," earn a reputation as more radical than the first.

The populist factions, meanwhile, failed to cohere. Long was assassinated in 1935. His follower Gerald L.K. Smith — a frothing anti-Semite with a narrower base than the charismatic "Kingfish"-joined with Coughlin and Townsend to challenge FDR in 1936 with th "Union Party," but their union rested mainly on a common dislike of Roosevelt. With an undistinguished North Dakota congressman heading the ticket, they went nowhere. Many leading dissidents, such as Upton Sinclair, endorsed FDR. He had, after all, stolen their thunder.

The current surge in populism resembles that of the 1930s in many ways: its indiscriminate anger, its unseriousness about policy, even its toleration, in some quarters, of old taboos like anti-Semitism. And compared to other recent expressions of anti-elite sentiment — Ross Perot's balanced-budget monomania in 1992 or Howard Dean's antiwar grandstanding in 2003 — today's discontent is both more radical and more dangerous. The right's "tea parties" have seethed with a bare-fanged anger that startled many leading Republicans. On the left, a younger generation has shown a receptivity to once-fringe ideas; according to a Rasmussen poll, the under-30 crowd is split on whether it prefers capitalism or socialism.

As in the 1930s, these impulses need to be contained, at least when they take the form of conspiracy theories or calls to blow up the system. But if untamed sentiment poses an inherent danger to democracy, wise leaders like FDR have always understood the need for populism in measured spoonfuls. Without populism, conservatism hardens into plutocracy, and liberalism calcifies into soulless technocracy.

Barack Obama — who as president has shown an uncanny instinct for playing it safe — has declined to imbue his policies with any populist marrow. There have been gestures: a gentle credit card-reform bill, a cap of sorts on pay for executives at companies taking federal largesse. But the president has neither promoted nor signed onto anything radical. Even the newly introduced financial regulatory reforms, billed as "a transformation on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression," amounts to a tightening of supervision, not a fundamental fix.

It's possible that just as Americans in the 1930s ultimately channeled their populist energies into FDR's reform efforts, so Obama is successfully marshalling the public's diffuse, intermittent anger at the system he now leads. He surely appreciates, too, that even many of his noisiest critics are still hope somehow to recapture the good old 1990s, with a bull market and expanding opportunities — not to enter a brave new uncertain economic world. Most of us aren't keen to plunge into socialism, or, for that matter, communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, or Townsendism.

All the same, Obama must be careful. In contrast to FDR, economic issues have never been dear to his heart. He centered his campaign on an upper middle-class vision of racial harmony, political reform, and benign American leadership in the world; he embraced kitchen-table issues only when he had to, and then in vague terms. He seems more at home extolling Sonia Sotomayor's life story than trashing economic royalists.

If Obama wanted to follow FDR's lead, he could ram through Congress a truly bracing economic measure — a Civilian Conservation Corps for the cities, or a law capping every executive's salary at ten or twenty times what his company's lowest wage-earner makes. But even if the president recoils from such strong medicine, he would still do well to find his inner populist. Indeed, too much resistance to the populist idiom could quickly resurrect the stereotypes that nearly doomed Obama's presidential candidacy a year ago — the arugula-eating elitist contemptuous of working-class concerns — only with more potent economic teeth. After all, Franklin Roosevelt tamed populism by appropriating its most constructive aspects even as he defended — as thankless a task as it can be during turbulent times — the system itself.

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image and other works of 20th-century American politics.