Opposition to the New Deal from the Right and the Left

By 1934, the New Deal was encountering opposition from both ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives argued that Roosevelt had done too much. FDR’s most powerful conservative opponents, prominent industrialists and financiers such as Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors and the DuPont family, organized the American Liberty League in August 1934 to oppose the President’s policies. (http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/?p=8034)) Democrats such as 1924 presidential nominee John W. Davis, 1928 presidential nominee Alfred Smith, and former party chairman John J. Raskob joined the corporate leaders. At its height, the Liberty League claimed 125,000 members.

The Liberty League attacked the New Deal as a socialistic experiment.  The group railed against “regimentation” and claimed attacks upon individual liberties. The League’s posturing, in advance of the 1936 presidential election, provided FDR’s campaign plenty of fodder for its attempts to portray him as the ally of ordinary Americans.  Politically ineffective, most Liberty Leaguers had to content themselves with simple rage against New Deal policies and personalities.  Many wealthy critics labeled Roosevelt a “traitor to his class.” (http://tdl.org/txlor-dspace/bitstream/handle/2249.3/164/04_rctns_nw_dl.htm?sequence=7)

America also experienced some other more radical, right-wing, fascist-bent organizations during this period. One such right-wing popular leader was Father Charles E. Coughlin, known as “The Radio Priest.” He had a radio show out of Detroit that was called “The Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower.” Father Coughlin’s radio show had 35-40 million listeners weekly, a greater share of the weekly broadcast audience than modern broadcasters Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey and Larry King combined. In the early 1930s, Coughlin was, arguably, one of the most influential men in America. (http://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html)

Father Coughlan would mix a little religion with a lot of politics. His enemies were FDR, international bankers, communists, and labor unions. He blamed the depression on greedy bankers, calling FDR a tool of the moneyed interests. He eventually became anti-Semitic and blamed the Jews for all kinds of problems. He formed an organization called the Christian Front to advance his positions. The Christian Front was a militia-like organization that promised to defend the country from communists and Jews. (Id.) Coughlin and his Christian Front defended the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime, arguing that Kristallnacht (see discussion on section on WW II) was justified as retaliation for Jewish persecution of Christians. (Denning, p. 127; http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005516.)

In 1935, Father Coughlin formed the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ) as a political action group to represent the interests of his listeners in Washington, D.C. Through the NUSJ, Coughlin promoted fascist dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism. He associated with fascist leaders and known anti-Semitic thinkers in Great Britain and the United States. (Id.) By the 1936 presidential election, the NUSJ had over one million paying members. The NUSJ selected William Lempke from North Dakota, as the party’s candidate in the 1936 presidential election, but he won only 882,479 votes compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt (27,751,597) and Alfred Landon (16,679,583). Lempke polled 13 percent of the vote in North Dakota but less than 6.5 per cent in other areas such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where he was expected to do well. (Id.) With the onset of World War II, his pro-fascist leaning proved to be Coughlin’s undoing.

The Depression was also a time when a significant number of Americans flirted with leftist movements and ideas, commonly known as the “Popular Front” or “The Old Left.” The Popular Front had a proletarian focus. Part of that mindset, although not the central core, was the notion that Marxist Communism was the model for a more humane society. (Eyerman and Jamison, p. 64-65.) “As a social movement, the Popular Front expressed it’s collective identity not merely through political tracts, strikes and demonstrations, but also, and perhaps more significantly, through art, music and ritual.” (Id.)

As explained by Maurice Isserman in his book, If I had a Hammer…The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, the Communist Party in the United States (CPUSA) was little more than an organization beset with infighting among various factions from different points along the socialist continuum. “American Communists from 1936 to 1939 entertained a strange hybrid of democratic and anti-democratic ideas….The Popular Front, with its emphasis on the defense of existing democratic rights against fascism, restored a measure of democratic content to the Communist ideology….” (Isserman, p. 13.)

The Popular Front was ”…the extraordinary flowering of arts, entertainment and thought based on [a] broad social movement… that emerged out of the [economic] crisis of 1929, and it remained the central popular democratic movement over the following three decades….” (Denning, pp. xvi-xix.) Associating the Popular Front with communism and the CPUSA has been criticized as overly simplistic. (Id.) Many Popular Front supporters were never members of the Communist Party, but rather were “fellow travelers,” i.e. “generic communists, using the term with a small ‘c’ ” as with generic “socialists,” “feminists” or “radicals.”(Id., pp. 4-5.)

According to Denning, during the Popular Front period, labor and working-class themes entered into American film, literature, music, and art; working-class people became “artists” who generated works depicting their own lives; and artists became laborers themselves as exemplified by strikes of cultural workers such as cartoonists employed at the Walt Disney Studios. (http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/the-almanac-singers.html)

Popular Front analysis, with its themes of class conflict and the failures of capitalism, had a wide influence on the era’s thought and writing.  Moreover, alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe, many otherwise uncommitted people followed the Popular Front because the Soviet Union was vigorously antifascist. (Denning, pp. 4-5.) A common pattern for intellectuals, especially the young, was a brief flirtation with leftist organizations, including in some instances, communism as an alternative to an American system that appeared mired in exploitation, racial inequality, and human misery. (Id.) Some writers of the era joined the Communist Party believing it to be the best hope for social revolution. Negro writers, such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes, who were attracted by the Communist Party’s militant opposition to lynching, job discrimination, and segregation, briefly joined the party or found their first supportive audiences there. Although there was some left-wing influence, relatively few Americans became Communists in the 1930s. At its height, the Communist Party of the United States had perhaps 100,000 members, and many of these remained active for only a brief time.

Roosevelt and the New Deal had political opponents from the left, too. Huey Long, “The Kingfish,” earlier governor of Louisiana and U.S. Senator during the New Deal, was Roosevelt’s strongest threat from the left. Long thought FDR was too conservative; he railed at the New Deal for not doing enough. Long was the determined enemy of Wall Street, bankers and big business, and he believed Roosevelt was too beholden to these powerful forces.

Long favored the redistribution of wealth in the society. His slogan was “Everyman a King.” He wanted the government to confiscate the wealth of the nation’s rich and privileged and give it to the less well-off. He proposed to accomplish this goal through his “Share Our Wealth” program, which would enact laws confiscating all estates worth more than a million dollars and guarantee income of at least $2,500 a year, so that people could have the necessities of life, including a home, a job, a radio and an automobile. He also favored limiting private fortunes to $50 million, legacies to $5 million, and annual incomes to $1 million. Long further promised that everyone over the age of 60 would receive an old-age pension. Share Our Wealth clubs were formed in every state in the nation. By 1935, the movement claimed 27,000 local clubs with 7.7 million members.

The flamboyant, self-promoting Long wrote his own theme song called “Every Man a King, (1935), which is performed by Randy Newman. (https://youtu.be/JqFhDK0uueg).

Why weep or slumber America
Land of brave and true
With castles and clothing and food for all
All belongs to you

Ev’ry man a king, ev’ry man a king
For you can be a millionaire
But there’s something belonging to others
There’s enough for all people to share

When it’s sunny June and December too
Or in the winter time or spring
There’ll be peace without end
Ev’ry neighbor a friend
With ev’ry man a king

Randy Newman also wrote and sung the song “Kingfish, a biographical sketch of Huey Long. (1974) (https://youtu.be/ZmFQu_8u1TU)

There’s a hundred-thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans
In New Orleans there are Frenchmen everywhere
But your house could fall down
Your baby could drown
Wouldn’t none of those Frenchmen care

Everybody gather ’round
Loosen up your suspenders
Hunker down on the ground
I’m a cracker
And you are too
But don’t I take good care of you

Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built your schools?
Who looks after shit-kickers like you?
The Kingfish do

Who gave a party at the Roosevelt Hotel?
And invited the whole north half of the state down there for free
The people in the city
Had their eyes bugging out
Cause everyone looked just like me

Here comes the Kingfish, the Kingfish
Everybody sing
Here’s the Kingfish, the Kingfish
Every man a king

Who took on the Standard Oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised he’d do?
Ain’t no Standard Oil men gonna run this state
Gonna be run by little folks like me and you

Here’s the Kingfish, the Kingfish
Friend of the working man
The Kingfish, the Kingfish
The Kingfish gonna save this land

Dr. Francis E. Townsend, a retired Long Beach, California physician, was also a liberal critic of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Townsend devised a plan known as the Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan, or the “Townsend Plan” for short. The Townsend Plan challenged the New Deal Social Security program as the most popular retirement benefit plan for older Americans. Dr. Townsend published his plan in a local Long Beach newspaper in early 1933 and within about two years there were 7,000 Townsend Clubs around the country with more than 2.2 million members actively working to make the Townsend Plan the nation’s old-age pension system. The 7,000 “Townsend Clubs” collected 10 cents from each member for lobbying and other promotions. (http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/eras/the-new-deal-part-ii/)

Robert Earl Clements, a young real estate broker signed on with Townsend as promoter and fund-raiser and on New Year’s Day 1934 the two opened the first headquarters for their new “Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd.” In short order, the Townsend movement emerged as a political force with which to be reckoned. By September 1934, their office in Long Beach was averaging two thousand letters a day from interested people. By 1936, a presidential election year, the organization claimed to have more than three and a half million members, and it obtained more than 20 million signatures on petitions calling for congressional approval of the Townsend Plan. (Id.)

“Youth for work and age for leisure” was the slogan of the Townsend Plan. The Plan called for a $200 monthly pension for each person over the age of sixty. The money would have to be spent within one month, thus restoring what Dr. Townsend called “the proper circulation of money.” The monthly pensions were to be financed by a two percent federal sales tax. Townsend and his followers were bitterly disappointed with Social Security: it did not promise immediate payments in 1935; the benefits Social Security promised were small compared to the $200 per month that Townsend wanted; and, people had to work under the Social Security program to earn a payment. But, with the passage of the Social Security Act, interest in the Townsend Plan faded away.

“Old Age Pension Check,sung by Roy Acuff (1939) (https://youtu.be/Qa8YzXylswY) is about the “Old Age Pension” movement spearheaded by Dr. Charles Townsend of California.

When our old age pension check comes to our door,
We won’t have to dread the poor house anymore.
Though we’re old and thin and gray,
Good times will be back to stay,
When our old age pension check comes to our door.

When her old age pension check comes to her door,
Dear old grandma won’t be lonesome any more.
She’ll be waiting at the gate,
Every night she’ll have a date,
When her old age pension check comes to her door.

Grow a flowing long white beard and use a cane,
‘Cause you’re in your second childhood, don’t complain.
Life will just begin at sixty,
We’ll all feel very frisky,
When our old age pension check comes to our door.

Powder and paint will be abolished on that day,
And hoop skirts will then be brought back into play.
Painted cheeks will be the rage,
And old maids will tell their age,
When their old age pension check comes to their door.

All the drug stores will go bankrupt on that day,
For cosmetics, they will all be put away.
I’ll put a flapper on the shelf,
Get a grandma for myself,
When her old age pension check comes to her door.

There’s a man that turned this country upside-down
With his old age pension rumor going ’round.
If you want in on the fun,
Send your dime to Washington,
And that old age pension man will be around.

Although the New Deal programs changed forever the way that the federal government would react to serious economic downturns, it was the start of WW II and the resulting war economy more than the New Deal that brought an end to the Great Depression. “The war seemed to be proving British economist John Maynard Keynes right: Massive government spending was the answer to the Depression, not austerity. By 1942, a third of the nation’s economic activity was war-related; by 1943 federal spending alone had exceeded the total production of the entire 1933 economy and the American standard of living was on a rapid rise.” (Jennings and Brewster, p. 247.)