New Deal Opposition & FDR’s Response
The New Deal, introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stands as one of the most ambitious and transformative policy endeavors in American history. Designed to alleviate the crushing impact of the Great Depression, it represented a seismic shift in the role of the federal government in economic and social life. Despite its sweeping impact and the immediate relief it brought to many, the New Deal was met with staunch opposition from a variety of sectors. This essay sets out to explore the myriad challenges to the New Deal, ranging from political and economic to social and cultural dissent, and examines the strategies Roosevelt employed to navigate and counteract this opposition.
Historical Context of the New Deal
To understand the magnitude of the New Deal, one must first consider the dire circumstances of the 1930s. The Great Depression had left the American economy in ruins, with widespread unemployment, failing banks, and deflated industries. The public, reeling from the economic shockwaves, was desperate for relief and stability. In response, Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its series of programs, projects, and reforms, sought to provide immediate economic relief, recovery, and reform to a beleaguered nation. It was against the backdrop of this unprecedented economic disaster that the New Deal emerged, aiming not only to revive the economy but also to reinvent the social contract between the government and its citizens.
Political Opposition to the New Deal
The New Deal, while innovative and bold, did not pass through the American political landscape without significant resistance. The first wave of opposition came from conservative circles, who viewed the New Deal’s expansive federal programs and regulatory overhauls as a threat to the capitalist system and the American way of life. Proponents of laissez-faire economics contended that Roosevelt’s policies were moving the nation towards socialism, encroaching upon the liberties and freedoms of individuals and businesses alike.
Perhaps the most formidable political challenge arose from the Supreme Court, which, in the early years of the New Deal, struck down several key pieces of legislation. This judicial resistance culminated in Roosevelt’s controversial Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, often dubbed the “court-packing plan,” which aimed to expand the number of Supreme Court justices and thereby change the balance of the Court in favor of the New Deal. The bill faced strong opposition and ultimately failed, but the political showdown led to a shift in the Court that resulted in more favorable rulings for New Deal legislation thereafter.
Opposition also existed within Roosevelt’s own Democratic Party. A coalition of conservative Democrats was deeply worried about the long-term implications of the New Deal, particularly regarding the expansion of federal power and the burgeoning national deficit. To address these intra-party divisions, Roosevelt engaged in a delicate balancing act, sometimes compromising with dissenting Democrats while at other times seeking to replace them with more supportive candidates during elections.
Economic Opposition and Critiques
Alongside the political obstacles, the New Deal also encountered fierce opposition from the economic sphere. Influential business leaders and industry groups organized against what they perceived as Roosevelt’s intrusive policies that, in their view, undermined free enterprise and inhibited economic recovery. The American Liberty League, comprising prominent business figures and conservative Democrats, emerged as a vocal critic, asserting that the New Deal infringed on property rights and personal freedoms.
The Liberty League was adept at rallying support, leveraging media and public relations to sway popular opinion against the New Deal. Their campaign highlighted the potential dangers of excessive government control and the risks of a planned economy. In addition to ideological arguments, they contended that New Deal policies, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), were ineffective at best and harmful at worst, impeding natural economic recovery by imposing burdensome regulations and taxes.
In response to such economic critiques, Roosevelt initiated the Second New Deal, which included more aggressive reforms such as the Social Security Act and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These measures aimed to further alleviate poverty and unemployment, while also attempting to quell the concerns of business leaders through regulatory adjustments. The establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the passage of the Banking Act of 1935 were part of Roosevelt’s strategy to stabilize financial systems and reassure industry stakeholders that the economy was on a path to recovery under the government’s watchful eye.
Opposition from the Far Left
While the New Deal was criticized for being too interventionist by conservative factions, it faced an entirely different set of critiques from the far left. Socialists, communists, and other left-wing groups argued that the New Deal’s reforms were too tepid and did not go far enough to address the fundamental inequalities and capitalist flaws exposed by the Great Depression. They advocated for more radical changes that would restructure the economic foundations of the nation towards a more egalitarian society.
Among the most charismatic of these left-wing critics was Huey Long, a Senator from Louisiana, who proposed a “Share Our Wealth” program. Long’s plan promised to cap personal fortunes and provide a guaranteed income to all Americans, garnering significant public support. His proposals, echoing broader leftist discontent, pushed Roosevelt to incorporate more progressive policies into the New Deal framework, exemplified by the introduction of the Wealth Tax Act of 1935 that aimed to redistribute wealth more fairly.
Social and Cultural Opposition
The social and cultural fabric of America also presented resistance to the New Deal. Traditionalists and social conservatives feared that the New Deal, by promoting government aid and intervention, was undermining the traditional family structure and self-reliance. The increased role of women and minorities in the workforce and in New Deal programs was viewed by some as a departure from conventional societal roles.
In the American South, opposition took on a racial dimension. Many Southern Democrats, who held significant power in Congress, were supportive of New Deal economics but wary of any changes that might affect the racial status quo. They feared that federal programs that helped African Americans could undermine racial segregation and empower the black population. Consequently, many New Deal programs were administered in a racially discriminatory manner in the South, effectively maintaining the established order while still providing economic relief.
How Roosevelt Handled the Opposition
President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced the multifaceted opposition to his New Deal policies with a combination of political savvy, persuasive communication, and policy adaptation. He utilized the emerging power of the mass media, particularly through his Fireside Chats, to speak directly to the American people, explaining his policies and countering the narratives of his opponents. This direct engagement helped to bolster public support and undermine the credibility of his critics.
Politically, Roosevelt was a master of maneuvering and compromise. He was often willing to adjust his policies to placate certain groups or to ensure the passage of critical legislation. At other times, he took a more combative stance, particularly when campaigning for re-election, by openly challenging the entities that stood against his vision for America. This approach included supporting like-minded candidates to replace oppositional figures within Congress.
Despite these efforts, some opposition remained insurmountable, and Roosevelt was forced to retreat on certain issues. However, by strategically shifting policies and making calculated political moves, he succeeded in implementing the core of his New Deal agenda, fundamentally reshaping the American governmental landscape in the process.
The New Deal was a watershed moment in American history, marking a profound change in the relationship between the government and its citizens. It faced severe opposition from a wide array of political, economic, social, and cultural sources. These challenges were met by President Roosevelt with a mixture of direct communication, political strategy, and policy modification. The opposition to the New Deal ultimately played a crucial role in shaping the final form of Roosevelt’s policies and programs.
The legacy of the New Deal, despite the opposition it encountered, is evident in the modern American state, with its continued commitment to social security, workers’ rights, and economic regulation. Roosevelt’s handling of the opposition offers enduring lessons in political leadership, showing the importance of resilience, adaptability, and direct engagement with the electorate. It underscores how a leader can steer a nation through crisis and transform its political landscape, even in the face of formidable resistance.
- Alter, J. (2006). The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Leuchtenburg, W. E. (1963). Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
- Kennedy, D. M. (1999). Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Rauchway, E. (2008). The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Badger, A. (1989). The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Class Outline – What was the opposition to the New Deal and how did Roosevelt deal with it?
While the New Deal helped millions of American’s, it was not without challenge. In this lesson we will discuss those challenges and FDR’s reactions.
I. Challenges to the New Deal
A. What were some of the reasons the New Deal was challenged?
1. Created a very powerful president that led Congress, this was a violation of checks and balances.
2. It was a radical departure from Laissez Faire ideals. Created “big government” – bureaucracy.
3. Some acts appeared interfering and at worst unconstitutional.
4. Heavy debt burden – the United States was engaged in deficit spending and this was unhealthy for the economy in the long run.
B. How did the Supreme Court respond to New Deal legislation?
1. Schecter Poultry Corp. Vs The United States (The Sick Chicken Case)
a) Schecter Poultry was alleged to have sold unfit chicken to a butcher. Schecter and the butcher are both based in Brooklyn New York. Schecter did no out of state business. Schecter Poultry Co. was charged by the federal government which argued that under the National Industrial Recovery Act Schecter Poultry can be regulated by the federal government which under the NRA set up codes in cooperation with various industries that:
(1) set prices ranges.
(2) set up minimum wages and maximum hours.
(3) abolished child labor
(4) recognized the rights of unions to organize
b) Schecter Poultry argued that the NIRA was unconstitutional because the federal government had no right to regulate intrastate trade.
c) The Supreme Court citing Gibbons v Ogden as the precedent reversed the lower courts decision in Schecter and struck down the NIRA as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court thus said reaffirmed the fact that the federal government may not regulate intrastate trade only interstate trade.
d) NIRA replaced with National Labor Relations Act, NLRA, which created the NLRB, set fair work standards and with the Fair Labor Standards Act, passing the first minimum wage per hour, 20 cents, maximum work week, 44 then 40 hours, and banned 16 year olds and younger from factory jobs.
2. United States v Butler
a) Suit is brought in attempt to have the Agricultural Adjustment Act declared unconstitutional. The federal government, which had done little in the 1920s to help farmers, initiated remedial programs with the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which provided payments to farmers in return for agreements to curtail their acreage or their production of wheat, cotton, rice, tobacco, corn, hogs, and dairy products. Payments were financed from taxes imposed on processors and these taxes were then sent directly to farmers as reimbursement NOT to grow food. Butler, a processor, refused to pay the tax and the Federal government brought suit against him. In his defense Butler claimed that tax may not be used to transfer wealth directly from one person to another.
b) The Supreme Court agreed with Butler and struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The next year Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1934 which taxed processors and then placed the money into the governments general fund. Then farmers were paid out of the general fund not to grow food. The laws had the same effect, its just that the later version was done legally.
D. How did Roosevelt respond to the Courts attack on the New Deal?
1. Introduced Constitutional Amendment to enlarge the size of the court. This is referred to as his “Court packing” scheme.
2. Congress did not pass the amendment. It is regarded as a dark spot on FDR’s record because it represented an attempt to subvert the process and alter the system of checks and balances.
II. How did Radicals Oppose the New Deal?
A. What about the Communist Party appealed to many Americans during the Depression?
1. Earl Browder and William Foster
2. Preached equal division of wealth, all would be equal.
3. Attracted union leaders, intellectuals, entertainment stars.
B. Why did Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana appeal to many during the Depression?
1. Share Our Wealth crusade.
2. Tax rich, guaranteed $2500 dollar a year income, housing, college education.
3. Long was assassinated while running for nomination to run on the Dem. Line.
C. What was the message of Father Charles Coughlin?
1. Michigan radio priest.
2. Called for a mix of socialist and populist programs. Coughlin often argued in favor of a benevolent dictator to run the government without opposition. He felt unions should be destroyed as they would be a threat to this national power.
3. Later, when ignored by Roosevelt, denounced New Deal as communistic.
4. Coughlin, despite great support from his radio listeners eventually appeared more and more radical as he opposed Roosevelt.
D. What was the message of Francis Townsend?
1. Concocted a pension plan that would appeal to older Americans. Under this plan older Americans would receive a set monthly pension, approximately $200 a month.
2. Those receiving the pension would be forced to spend all or some of the money.
3. Townsend believed that this would help all Americans by helping older Americans to survive and by creating spending to speed up the economy.
4. Townsend eventually joined forces with Father Coughlin and formed the Union Party. The put up a candidate named Earl Lemke. Lemke never gained much support despite Coughlin’s promise of 9 million votes. Lemke, Coughlin and Townsend at that point were considered fringe element right wingers.
E. Why did Norman Thomas oppose Roosevelt.
1. Thomas was the socialist candidate and had run for office several times.
2. He was more committed to world socialism then to eliminating Roosevelt. He was considered a left wing radical.
F. Why didn’t these radical ever gain power?
1. While reactionary leaders took power in Germany, Italy and Japan, America has a stronger history of democracy. These radicals all appeared to be part of the lunatic fringe and were eventually dismissed by the American people.
2. Roosevelt was a strong democratic leader whop inspired confidence and trust.