Seventy-five years ago today, the American people rejected not just a president — Herbert Hoover — but a royalist vision of federal policymaking that had allowed tens of millions of citizens to suffer as the Great Depression swept across the land.
The election of November 8, 1932, is now generally accepted as one of the great realigning moments in U.S. politics, the point at which the country took the great leap forward from a past that favored limited federal and state involvement in economic affairs — except where it came to securing the interests of the wealthy — and embraced a more humane and democratic approach to governing.
To be sure, that approach has been under assault in recent decades. Yet, Social Security remains, as does the the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Fair Labor Standards Act and the minimum wage. Those of us with roots in small-town America still enjoy the benefits of Rural Electrification. And Americans of every region, race and religion retain at least a few of the liberties that were defined and protected by Roosevelt-nominated Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas, Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter. There’s still a Securities and Exchange Commission, which sometimes does its job, and a Federal Communications Commission, which could yet be redeemed by the appointment of a new chairman.
The agent of these reforms — and the fundamental shift in the American experience they embodied — was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrat who displaced Republican Hoover. But it is important to remember that Roosevelt, the most patrician of our nation’s many patrician politicians, did not compete in the 1932 election as the radical reformer that he became. The Democratic platform of that year was a cautious document, dictated by fear itself rather than the boldness that would later be associated with Roosevelt.
What made Roosevelt so remarkable, and so radical?
The results that were tabulated 75 years ago this evening influenced FDR to evolve his policies in a direction that was more egalitarian and democratic — his critics still use the term “socialistic,” and they are not entirely wrong. It was that evolution that redefined not just American politics but America.
Roosevelt won a stunning victory in 1932. He secured 57.4 percent of the popular vote, as compared with just 39.7 percent for Hoover. The Democrat carried 42 states, most by wide margins, while the Republican won just 6.
But those numbers do not begin to tell the whole story of what happened on that distant November 8. Roosevelt’s popular vote total of 22,821,277 was 52 percent higher than that received by Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in the election of four years earlier. The Roosevelt landslide was sufficient to create a coat-tail effect that dramatically increased a narrow Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and gave the party control of the Senate.