Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal
By David Pietrusza.
Diversion Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 544 pages, $34.99.
Reviewed by John Hendrickson.
David Pietrusza is both a gifted historian and storyteller. He is also the “Dean” of American presidential election history. His previous books focus on the elections of 1920, 1932, 1948, and 1960. All provide a rich narrative that explores the individuals, candidates, and political environment that shaped these important presidential elections, which have had lasting impacts on both the nation and upon international affairs. Pietrusza accomplishes the same with his newest book on the 1936 presidential election.
In Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal, Pietrusza provides a robust historical overview of this important, and often forgotten, presidential election that had far reaching implications upon politics and policy. Like his previous books, Roosevelt Sweeps Nation is a rich narrative that introduces the reader to a diverse cast of characters that shaped this crucial period in American politics. One of the strengths of Pietrusza’s writing is that his narrative tells a story that brings to life the individuals, issues, and events that shaped the 1936 campaign.
The 1936 presidential campaign was a referendum on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt had been elected in a landslide in 1932 when he defeated President Herbert Hoover. During the 1932 campaign, Roosevelt promised the American people a New Deal, which was vaguely defined. As a result of the Great Depression, along with massive unemployment, the nation rejected President Hoover and placed the blame for the economic crisis on the Republican Party.
President Roosevelt, as Pietrusza highlights, was a gifted politician and campaigner. Nevertheless, as his New Deal unfolded with its many “alphabet soup” programs and agencies during his first term, it failed to bring about economic recovery. In fact, as Pietrusza writes, any “recovery” was anemic at best with over 10.5 million still unemployed, numerous people still dependent upon relief, income levels still failing to recover, and many industries still not operating at full capacity.
In addition to the New Deal’s anemic “recovery,” Roosevelt was confronted with growing political opposition from both the left and the right. This is one of the great highlights of Pietrusza’s book, because he reintroduces us to individuals that are often forgotten today but had an impact on our politics and policy.
Roosevelt was a progressive Democrat, but he also started to see opposition from those on the political left who were even more radical. This included both socialists and communists. As an example, the muckraker Upton Sinclair was able to obtain the Democratic nomination for Governor in California and he ran on a radical socialist agenda. Pietrusza notes that even though Sinclair lost the election his popularity and agenda were enough to frighten both Democrats and Republicans.
Others on the political left included Dr. Francis E. Townsend, who claimed to have supported Hoover in 1932, and was a critic of Roosevelt’s policies. Townsend proposed what became known as the Townsend Plan, a forerunner to Social Security, which called for a $200 a month pension to Americans sixty years of age or older. “Millions of desperate Americans flocked to ‘Townsend Clubs’ supporting his scheme,” Pietrusza explains.
Townsend was joined by another non-politician, Father Charles Coughlin, whose sermons and later political and economic opinions were carried over the radio with his national program. Pietrusza described Father Coughlin as having “a flair for the dramatic, and a mellifluous delivery second only to Franklin Roosevelt’s.” Millions of Americans supported Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, which was a populist agenda that focused on economic issues such as monetary policy. An early supporter of Roosevelt, Father Coughlin soon turned into a harsh critic of the New Deal and used his radio program to advance his populist economic theories which were often critical of capitalism.
Beyond Townsend and Coughlin, Roosevelt’s fiercest opponent on the political left was Senator Huey Long of Louisiana. The “Kingfish” dominated Louisiana politics and Roosevelt viewed him as one of two of the most dangerous men in America, the other being General Douglas MacArthur. Senator Long was a reluctant supporter of Roosevelt during the 1932 campaign, but he grew more impatient with the New Deal and Roosevelt’s seemingly noncommittal support of Long’s desires of federal patronage.
In response, Senator Long introduced his “Share-Our-Wealth” plan in 1934, which was a radical wealth redistribution scheme that would provide $5,000 to each household, which, Pietrusza explains, would be enough to purchase a home, an automobile, and a radio. He also proposed an old age pension plan. Senator Long’s charisma was a concern for Roosevelt, but his opposition to the New Deal came to an end when he was assassinated in 1935.
Roosevelt’s critics from the political left were important because they forced his New Deal agenda to become more progressive. The passage of the Social Security Act was an example of Roosevelt moving his policy agenda further to the political left and creating the foundation for federal entitlement programs.
The New Deal also brought concerns from Roosevelt’s fellow Democrats. Conservative Democrats and business owners were growing increasingly concerned over the radical turn of the New Deal. Pietrusza quotes Roy Howard, a Scripps-Howard newspaper publisher, who warned Roosevelt that “many businessmen who once gave you sincere support are now, not merely hostile, they are frightened.”
Democrats such as John W. Davis, who was the 1924 Democratic nominee for President, and former New York Governor and 1928 presidential nominee Al Smith became two of Roosevelt’s fiercest critics. These Democrats were concerned with Roosevelt’s “leftward, big-spending, big-deficit drift.” Both Davis and Smith would help in the formation of the American Liberty League, which also included members from corporate America. The American Liberty League opposed the New Deal and defended capitalism and constitutional limited government.
Of course, Roosevelt was also opposed by Republicans. In the aftermath of the 1932 election, the Republicans were looking not only for direction, but for a way to respond to the popularity of Roosevelt. Former President Herbert Hoover was considered the titular leader of the GOP and he officially broke his silence over the New Deal when he published his philosophical attack on the New Deal with The Challenge to Liberty. The Challenge to Liberty, published in 1934, was Hoover’s defense of what he called the “American System,” and he argued about the dangers of radical ideologies and philosophies that were undermining constitutional government and the rights of Americans. Republicans shared some similar concerns with members of the American Liberty League about the New Deal’s assault on capitalism and the Constitution.
Both the American Liberty League and Republican opponents of the New Deal failed to make their message resonate with the American people. But Roosevelt found a more formidable obstacle in the United States Supreme Court, which, with its strong conservative bloc, declared several New Deal programs unconstitutional. This included Roosevelt’s flagship program of the New Deal, the NRA (National Recovery Act).
Even with these critics from the left and the right, Roosevelt had reason to be hopeful for his reelection. In the congressional midterm elections of 1934 Pietrusza noted that “for only the second instance since the Civil War, the party in power actually gained congressional seats.” Further, Pietrusza wrote that Republicans only “retained a mere seven governorships.” The Democrats had decimated the Republicans and only 128 remained in both houses of Congress, and most were progressive Republicans.
The Republicans entering into the presidential campaign of 1936 did not have a clear frontrunner. President Hoover was still seen as “toxic” because of the Depression, and some considered him to be too conservative. Other possibilities included Senator William E. Borah, the “Lion of Idaho,” as a potential frontrunner. Borah was a progressive and an isolationist. Interestingly, other progressive Republicans who had previously supported former President Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose insurgency included the newspaper publisher Frank Knox and the Governor of Kansas, Alfred M. Landon. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who was one of the few, along with Landon, to survive the 1934 midterm elections, was seen as more conservative and a dark horse candidate.
The Republicans would nominate Governor Landon, who was known as the “Kansas Coolidge,” for his fiscal conservative budget policies, but as Pietrusza mentions he did not like this nickname because he considered himself a progressive Republican. Frank Knox was selected as his running mate.
One interesting story that Pietrusza tells from the Republican National Convention, which met in Cleveland, Ohio, was the keynote address given by President Hoover. Hoover had not been an enthusiastic supporter of Landon and he preferred former Secretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills or even Senator Vandenburg. As Hoover addressed the delegates at the convention, Pietrusza recounts that his speech “turned the hall into a screaming bedlam.” Further, Pietrusza wrote that the cheers for Hoover hit the maximum on the “demonstramoter,” which measured sound in the convention hall. The late Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, who served as an usher at the convention, would write about Hoover’s enthusiastic speech in his memoir In the Arena.
Pietrusza makes an interesting point that the Landon-Knox ticket was historic because it was a “quarter-century delayed victory for that old Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt.” Both Landon and Knox had been supporters of the Bull Moose Party in 1912. During the campaign Landon was critical of the New Deal, but he also took a more moderate approach, which upset some Republicans such as Hoover. Hoover would later reflect that Landon “was necessarily unfamiliar with the witches’ cauldron in Europe and the fumes from it which were infecting the Roosevelt administration and spreading over the United States” in reference to the radical ideologies influencing the New Deal.
In Philadelphia, the Democrats met and renominated President Roosevelt. “Franklin Roosevelt could point with pride to a recovery that had clearly begun,” writes Pietrusza. Nevertheless, Roosevelt had to balance his progressive New Deal reforms while trying to weaken his more leftwing radical critics and not scaring away some of the more centrist elements such as business owners. Roosevelt, in Pietrusza’s view, campaigned as an optimist with the glass half-full.
The nation was still fighting the Depression, but the New Deal was working to bring both relief and more economic stability to the economy. Pietrusza, like other historians, mentions Roosevelt’s charisma, that “he oozed charm and reassurance.” Americans had responded to Roosevelt’s ability to communicate through his fireside chats and they connected with his optimism. Plus, as Pietrusza correctly points out, people identified with the progress being made by the various New Deal programs and they saw the physical evidence with the building of roads, bridges, post offices, among other projects. Roosevelt could also point to the passage of the Social Security Act as a positive reform.
In his address to the Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt talked about defeating the “economic royalists,” and he argued that they “seek to hide behind the flag and Constitution.” Both the American Liberty League and Republicans made the Constitution an issue and charged that Roosevelt and his New Deal were usurping constitutional government. Roosevelt reassured Democrats and the nation that he would continue to pursue recovery and reform initiatives. Pietrusza mentions that Roosevelt “loved playing the underdog—and bashing the press—later famously whining that 85 percent of the papers were opposed to him,” which was an exaggeration. Nevertheless, Roosevelt and the Democrats were not completely certain that they would cruise to victory.
Perhaps the most notorious part of the 1936 election was public opinion polling, especially the Literary Digest poll. Throughout the book Pietrusza highlights various public opinion polls and he even provides an overview of public opinion polling. The Literary Digest poll stands out because it predicted a Landon victory. In 1936, Literary Digest found that 62 percent of almost two million poll respondents did not approve of Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Further, Pietrusza noted that George Gallup warned that if Roosevelt lost three or four states such as New York or Michigan it “could spell FDR’s doom.”
The result of the 1936 election was a landslide victory for Roosevelt and the Democrats. Roosevelt won 27,747,636 (60.8 percent) votes to Landon’s 16,679,543 (36.5 percent). In the Electoral College, Roosevelt won 523 votes to Landon’s 8 votes. The only states to vote Republican were Maine and Vermont. Landon even lost his home state of Kansas. Hoover described the 1936 election results as leaving the “Republican Party thoroughly demoralized.”
The Republican arguments that the New Deal failed to bring about recovery, was fiscally reckless, and threatening constitutionalism failed to resonate with the American people. Out of the election came not only a mandate for Roosevelt’s New Deal, but a strong political coalition. The New Deal coalition would exile the Republican Party into the political wilderness. The 1936 loss was especially hard on conservatives within the GOP and it would not be until 1964 that the Republicans would nominate a conservative candidate for president. Republicans would look to moderates such as Wendell Willkie, Thomas E. Dewey, and Dwight D. Eisenhower rather than conservatives such as Robert A. Taft.
Pietrusza mentions that Roosevelt’s victory resulted in “remarkable results with certain economic strata, taking over 60 percent of the Northern-Protestant lower-income vote.” “The lower the income level, the greater his vote: 42 percent of upper-income voters; 60 percent middle-income; a whopping 76 percent of lower-income voters,” writes Pietrusza. In addition, Roosevelt received 71 percent of the African American vote, which would become part of the New Deal coalition. Pietrusza does note that Southern Democrats started to pull away from Roosevelt. Even though Southern Democrats remained a part of the New Deal coalition, the 1936 election results showed Roosevelt receiving less support in the South.
During his second term, President Roosevelt would continue his New Deal and use most of his political capital from the election to attack his greatest adversary, the Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s Court Reform Plan or Court packing scheme would fail, but it would also result in the Supreme Court shifting and supporting New Deal legislation. Roosevelt would later appoint his own justices after the conservatives slowly retired, which resulted in what some constitutional scholars refer to as a constitutional revolution.
Roosevelt’s victory in 1936 was a triumph for progressive liberalism and the liberal ideal. David Pietrusza’s account is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how this important election helped shape the government that we have today.
John Hendrickson is policy director of the Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation.
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