By Robert Cohen
Were President Franklin D. Roosevelt alive today he’d have found nothing strange about Mitt Romney’s depiction of 47% of the American people as moochers who vote Democratic because they expect handouts from the federal government. Nor would it surprise him that those snide plutocratic views were aired by a wealthy Republican in remarks made to wealthy donors. These are, after, all the same elitist ideas that cranky conservatives, especially well heeled businessmen blasted him with in their angry anti-New Deal letters during the 1930s.
“The only votes you get by your methods and policies are those that are in the Government racket, and that I grant you is a majority” wrote the irate general manager of a New Jersey food packaging company to FDR in 1934, who lambasted the President for the New Deal’s “profligate spending beyond one’s income.” “No one wants charity except a lot of bums. And even they do not appreciate it,” wrote a right winger from Colorado that same year, who warned FDR that the relief programs designed to prevent starvation among the unemployed during the Great Depression were “building up a good crowd of moochers who never will work as long as money is given to them.” He urged FDR to stop worrying about these “clumsy louts,” cease spending federal funds on them and focus instead on “a balancing of the budget.” From Ohio a coal manufacturer urged FDR to “think of what you are doing – putting the burden of debt on generations to come for 1000 years to pay off the debt of a waste administrating money to some people who never worked and never will work again.” Infuriated by FDR’s rhetoric about remembering the “forgotten man” left behind by the Depression, a surgeon from Pennsylvania in 1935 fumed that the New Deal had remembered only “the shiftless, individual who believes the world owes him a living and is now getting it” from the government.
Like Romney the “victims” these anti-New Deal letter writers sympathized with were not low income Americans (“my job is not to worry about those people,” Romney said on the 47% tape) but businesses and corporations that were supposedly suffering from over-regulation and excessive taxation. The source of America’s economic distress suggested by the hostile letters to FDR in the 1930s, as with Romney today, centers on Big Government and the burdens it placed on free enterprise. “The average businessman is so harassed by government regulations and their attendant expenses that they fear to do anything, and if the agencies of government are permitted to continue as they are now going the end is not far off,” warned an Ohio accountant in 1934. A Missouri businessman complained in 1935 that the New Deal’s “dumb interference” with business via regulation was almost as damaging as its tax policies, “with more money spent then [sic] was spent in the 124 years before the World War – and for what? To throttle business and build up a vast army of bums and communists who will never work and must becarried on the rest of their lives. What will we pay taxes with to support this new leisure class of bums? Our washwoman, the man who waxed our floors and mowed our grass, all these are sitting around on Roosevelt’s Relief and we must do this work ourselves.” He charged FDR with fostering this dependency on federal aid only out of his own political self-interest, to buy their votes and “build up your big party machine.”
In their economic analysis blaming Big Government and its lower class dependents for hard times these Roosevelt haters also share with Romney a studied confusion about cause and effect. The economy crashed in the Depression era and in 2008 when government regulation of Wall Street and big business was weakest and tax policies the most regressive. They crashed when conservative Republicans were in the White House. That’s why FDR’s hostile letter writers almost never mention the crash or inquire into the roots of the Great Depression in the second half of the Hoover administration. That’s also why Romney, though a highly successful businessman and a candidate who boasts about his economic expertise, never pauses to inquire as to the causes of the crash of 2008. The name Herbert Hoover was absent from most anti-New Deal letters just as George W. Bush’s name is unmentioned on the Romney campaign trail (and Bush himself not invited to speak at this year’s Republican convention), and for precisely the same reason. When your economic polices are the same ones that were in place when the economy crashed it is best to keep your political rhetoric as a historical as your economics. That way you can blame the current president – be he FDR or Obama for an economic crisis that he did not create and which his policies had begun to reverse but not yet ended. You avoid facing up to the actual historical sequence that Hoover and Bush represent. When that sequence is recalled the effect can be devastating, as in former President Clinton’s convention speech last month, whose most powerful line hinged on invoking the historical memory of 2008, as he charged that in light of that crash the Republican campaign seemed to be saying: “We [Republicans] left him [Obama] a total mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”
For months the current generation of pundits aired doubts that a Democratic president facing an 8% unemployment rate could possibly be re-elected while being pounded by a Republican campaign that combined economic naysaying with Big Government bashing. They forget that FDR won re-election in 1936 in a landslide – losing only two states – despite an unemployment rate of 16%. Unlike the Roosevelt haters, a strong majority of voters were not angry about New Deal spending, but were grateful for the progress FDR made in battling the Great Depression and cutting the unemployment rate (over 23%) he had inherited from Hoover. The recent polls documenting a Romney fade seem to suggest that that he is headed towards this same political wilderness that his ideological soulmates -- the authors of all those anti-New Deal polemics -- landed in during the 1930s.
Robert Cohen is a professor of social studies and History at NYU and author of Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letter from Children of the Great Depression.