A historian delves into American liberalism's original Big Idea.
President Herbert Hoover clashed with successor Franklin Roosevelt over the latter's New Deal agenda.
President Herbert Hoover clashed with successor Franklin Roosevelt over the latter's New Deal agenda.
Chin-Yee Lai for Basic Books

Modern American politics was born in the winter after the election of 1932. As President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt battled with lame-duck President Herbert Hoover over the nascent New Deal agenda, Americans discovered new ways to fight about their government.

Hoover’s no-holds-barred efforts to block Roosevelt’s program redefined the Republican Party, while the plans that FDR ultimately implemented became the bedrock of 20th-century American liberalism. Domestic political debate has largely operated within these parameters ever since.

That’s the thesis of University of California, Davis historian Eric Rauchway’s latest book, “Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt And The First Clash Over The New Deal” ― an engaging, character-driven tour through the philosophical debates and political knife-fighting at the nadir of the Great Depression. HuffPost spoke to Rauchway about the changing intellectual consensus surrounding the New Deal and its lessons for today’s Democratic Party. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Why write a book about the early stages of the New Deal in 2019?

I think it’s important to get into this question of how Roosevelt defined the New Deal when he was asking people to vote for him ― and why it was important in his view to ensure that he didn’t give in to Hoover or the blandishments of bipartisanship or cooperation, and instead made good on the promises he made on the stump. Because this was a time when the world and democracy were in peril.

Roosevelt felt it would be an essential illustration of the workings of democracy if he did what he said he was going to do. He believed democratic government was facing a very serious test, and that if he failed, the result would not just be fascism in Europe, but fascism at home. And so he put forward a massive public works agenda, new social insurance programs, a program to raise prices and incomes, and some trammeling of the Wall Street banks.

He did that on the campaign trail. It wasn’t slapped together when he was in office. And then of course after the election, there was a period of months in which it was impossible to do these things because the Hoover administration remained in office until March of 1933.

So why now? We hear a lot about the New Deal these days, through things like the Green New Deal, which like Roosevelt’s New Deal is under vigorous assault from vigorous ideological opponents. As we come into the 2020 campaign, it’s going to be vital to understand how Roosevelt’s New Deal succeeded both electorally and as a deliberate policy program.

This is a book about a presidential election and its transition. Do you see overtones for today?

There are a number of levels in which the parallels you’re suggesting between the early 1930s and today hold true. The least important one right this second is the practical effect of the New Deal, which is the recovery from the Depression. We’re not currently in a recession, let alone a depression. But why it’s vital for proponents of a Green New Deal to use that phrasing is that it rallies Americans to a sense of shared national purpose that recently has been ceded to the political right.

We’ve forgotten how successful Roosevelt and other politicians of the ’30s and ’40s were at creating a progressive sense of common purpose. And that’s certainly important for people on the left today.

And the other is the history of neoliberalism. There’s a long history within the Democratic Party, beginning at least with Jimmy Carter and going all the way through Barack Obama, which concedes to the right the idea that the market is the best way to organize the resources of society, that the best government can do is fiddle with or adjust the social outcomes created by the free market.

The Roosevelt era dawned with an acknowledgment that the market really screwed up. And that what we were calling “the market” was really a system that Republicans had built up to aid rich people and businesses. It wasn’t a market in any conventional sense. For young people who grew up in the Great Recession, there are similar lessons.

How did Hoover view the rise of fascism? Did he imagine his own politics in relation to the Nazis?

Hoover was largely indifferent to that threat, like most mainstream Republicans of the day. Roosevelt was uniquely attuned to the threat of Nazism for a mainstream politician. It was a stroke of luck for the United States that he was. Even down to December 1932, smart people were saying, “The Germans will never let Hitler take office. The real conservatives will stop him.” And many people believed that right until he became chancellor. Then the narrative changed. Now smart people insisted he wasn’t going to govern as brutally as he had promised. And of course, he did. Even today, there remains a reluctance to examine the way Hitler looked to the United States as both a model for and a threat to his success.

Hoover didn’t think this was the real thing. When Hitler did come to power, Hoover didn’t think he was going to be a real threat, even down to when the war started. He just wasn’t really concerned with the threat that Hitler posed. And like a lot of Republicans in the latter part of the ’30s, he was an isolationist. He opposed aid to France and Britain because he didn’t think the United States needed to be involved in another European war. He didn’t even think we should be involved on the Japanese front. He viewed Pearl Harbor as Roosevelt’s fault, which was a fairly mainstream view at that time.

How did Hoover change over the course of the Depression? During World War I, he was widely admired as a great humanitarian.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Hoover hadn’t yet been in electoral politics. His career in electoral politics only begins in the Harding administration. Something else he says in Paris in 1919 is that Germany is either going to fall into Bolshevism or Reaction if we don’t keep them out of depression. Which was obviously quite prescient. So he does have a grasp of this at some point.

But in 1932, after four years of depression, he feels beleaguered and underappreciated. He kind of campaigns on, “I’ve done more for you than you realize,” which is no way to win an election. And I think he believed, largely without justification, that if only people had done what Herbert Hoover wanted, the Depression would have ended. He was committed to staying on the gold standard and absolutely refused federal relief for unemployment. If he had backed down on either of those, he might have been more successful.

There’s an enormous faction of self-identified Republican progressives at the time, and a lot of them end up with the Roosevelt administration because they have no home in the Hoover Republican Party. [Interior Secretary] Harold Ickes, [Labor Secretary] Frances Perkins ― they’re all progressive Republicans, and they’re massively frustrated with the Harding-Hoover Republican Party.

I typically think of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive Republican Party as being very distinct from FDR’s progressive Democratic Party.

Roosevelt’s big public works agenda has a clear antecedent in things like the Panama Canal, these national greatness projects that Teddy Roosevelt was very much in favor of. And environment conservation efforts like the Civilian Conservation Corps ― they’re not that far removed from Teddy Roosevelt’s sportsman-naturalist vision of conservation.

And after his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt did move farther into advocating for unemployment relief and welfare state policies that weren’t really part of his presidency. There is some link.

The other element of the New Deal is William Jennings Bryan-style Democratic Party politics. The soft money stuff, the low tariffs, the aid to farmers ― that is not something that would have been at home in Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican Party. There’s a welding together of those constituencies in Roosevelt’s Democratic Party.

Hoover drives away Republican progressives. Hoover also drives away black voters. It’s not Hoover alone ― there’s a couple generations of Republicans involved ― but he’s not attentive to his black constituents, and they revolt. The Roosevelt Democratic aides launch what they call a “crash program” to pick up the black vote, and it works.

There’s been a strain of left-wing criticism of the New Deal that emphasizes Roosevelt’s compromises with the Jim Crow South. There are different versions, but the essential idea is that the New Deal is a bad model for change because it was irredeemably racist. What do you make of this critique, and how do you understand Roosevelt and race?

There’s a whole chapter on this issue in the book. Roosevelt wanted the black vote. But he wanted the black vote without threatening support in the Jim Crow South. He wanted the black vote in the North and the West. So he would not challenge Jim Crow directly, but he would make the case that black Americans would benefit from the programs he was proposing. So this strategy is largely successful electorally and it’s largely successful at bringing black America in the North and the West into the New Deal.

At the same time, as people including Kamala Harris have pointed out, Roosevelt absolutely fails to pass an anti-lynching bill. [New York Sen.] Robert Wagner and the Northern Democrats are for it ― it passes the House, but it dies in the Senate.

Roosevelt is fundamentally at odds with the machinery of Jim Crow while deeply desiring to maintain the support of the Democrats down south. It’s hard to pin Roosevelt down. He talks out of both sides of his mouth. But ultimately the New Deal opens the way for a politics where working people and minorities can defend what they’ve got and demand more out of government. This is what [economist] Gunnar Myrdal says ― for all that the New Deal failed to deliver for black America, it opens the door for black America to make new gains.

Roosevelt is always opening up space on his left. There’s a famous, maybe apocryphal story of him talking to [civil rights activist] A. Philip Randolph, where Roosevelt says, “I know what you want to do is right. Now make me do it. You keep it up, you put pressure on me. I can’t say this myself, but I can make concessions to you.” So he then goes out in negotiations with Congress and says, “If we don’t make a concession here, we’ll have anarchy and the crazies will take over.”

That was his style. To provide space to voices farther out on the left in the debate, which would give him room maybe not to get that far out, but to move some.

How does the Obama presidency fit into the New Deal legacy?

On the one hand, Obama’s presidency was the beneficiary of the New Deal in very direct ways. That is to say, to the extent that they diverted a second Great Depression, it was in large part because of the actions taken by the FDIC and the Federal Reserve Board, which acquired the powers to do what it did during the New Deal. So the banking authorities who prevented a total banking collapse were exercising New Deal powers.

At the same time, the relief programs that the Obama administration deployed to ease the severity of the recession resembled the strategy pursued during the later years of the Hoover administration more than they did the Roosevelt approach.

After a tough election in 1930, Hoover is forced to take some action. They bail out the railroads using the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. It’s very much a trickle-down program. If you bail out the capitalists, it will trickle down to all of us. And it doesn’t work. Or it doesn’t work fast enough.

I think the Troubled Asset Relief Program unfortunately looks very much like that. Relief to the banks, not so much relief to the homeowners or the ordinary workers. And when the Obama administration did give us a Recovery Act targeting ordinary workers, it’s never big enough. And that’s a lesson that the New Deal should have taught us ― that you have to go big right away. And they didn’t learn that lesson.

A more intangible lesson of the Roosevelt experience was the need to make a conspicuous effort to create a collective sense of purpose and responsibility. In every county, there’s some entity established to talk about the New Deal and how great it is. The Obama administration is very reluctant to do this. They’re more interested in the Cass Sunstein nudge model where you stand back and let people choose for themselves. So where they did do things that were effective, they didn’t take credit for it.

Figures from the Obama administration repeatedly say that they didn’t want to do what Roosevelt did. They wanted to cooperate with Republicans. This was something they thought was an important core value. And in retrospect, I think we can say that this wasn’t a good strategy. The Republicans weren’t trying to cooperate. Neither was Hoover.

Roosevelt made people believe that government was good for them, that participating in government was good for them. And we didn’t get that line from the Obama administration. We got different versions of “It could have been worse.”

What do you make of the newfound popularity for the term “socialism” in the years since the 2008 financial crisis? How does the New Deal fit in with a socialist worldview?

Bernie Sanders says that he’s a socialist and that he loves the New Deal. He doesn’t see any discordance there, and neither do a lot of people who support him.

There’s a famous story that was told when I was growing up about a politician who is asked about his position on whiskey. And he says, “If by whiskey we mean the drink we enjoy to celebrate happy events and toast our friends, I’m for whiskey. But if by whiskey we mean the demon liquor that drives families apart, I’m against whiskey.”

That’s where I am. If by socialism, you mean the New Deal, then by golly I’m in favor of it. Obviously, the New Deal shaded into socialism or social democracy, if you will. But in many ways, it’s a foolish argument, because we have socialism for the rich everywhere. Nobody is actually trying to keep the government out of the market. At least, nobody in Herbert Hoover or Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

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