We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible | The Nation


We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible

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The Battles for the New Deal

How can progressives help put an end to this legislative gridlock? What can we learn from the experience of the Depression and the New Deal?

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Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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The popular image of President Franklin Roosevelt is that of a progressive hero whose New Deal agenda changed the way Americans think about the role of government. These include the minimum wage; Social Security; the rights of workers to unionize; bank regulation; unemployment insurance; the eight-hour day; subsidized affordable housing for working families; cash assistance for the poor; and public works programs that not only created millions of jobs but also built libraries, parks, roads, energy facilities and conservation programs.

But in his recent book Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, Adam Cohen points out that when FDR was elected in November 1932, and even after he took office in March 1933, his ideas about what to do were very unclear.

He promised Americans a "New Deal," but he had very few specifics. In fact, FDR was in many ways a cautious, even conservative, politician. The one clear idea he had in mind when he took office was to cut the federal budget, and the person he hired to do that job was his budget director, a conservative Congressman from Arizona named Lewis Douglas. He was also initially reluctant to use the power of government to regulate business practices, create jobs or to support union organizing or struggling farmers. He was clear from the beginning, however, that core values were at stake--articulated in his first Inaugural Address. That is what created the ground--and support--for his pragmatic experimentation.

Cohen's book describes an ongoing battle for FDR's heart and mind that took place both inside and outside the White House. Inside the White House, FDR's progressive cabinet members and advisers--including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace and top advisers Harry Hopkins and Rexford Tugwell--duked it out with moderate and conservative advisers. Outside the White House, grassroots organizations (including labor unions, community groups, veterans' organizations and groups of small family farmers like the radical National Farmers Union) were pitted against an array of business groups (including banks, manufacturers, the real estate industry and corporate farmers).

As Cohen recounts, "Farmers who stayed on the land were responding to their bleak circumstances with extreme politics and lawlessness." Across the Farm Belt, hundreds of farmers would show up and stop a foreclosure sale by the force of numbers. Some farmers threatened to call a national strike if Congress didn't act. In Sioux City, Iowa, farmers put wooden planks with nails on the highways to block agricultural deliveries. Cohen writes that in Nebraska, a group of farmers "showed up at a foreclosure sale and saw to it that every item that had been seized from a farmer's widow sold for five cents, leaving the bank with a total settlement of just $5.35."

These protests by farmers, Cohen explains, "increased the sense of urgency in Washington." Henry Wallace and progressive Democrats in Congress kept FDR aware of these protests, which helped them outmaneuver their more moderate colleagues. This combination of outside protest and inside maneuvering led to passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, which, Cohen says, "radically changed the economics of American farming."

This same dynamic played out in the big cities among veterans, tenants, the unemployed, workers and the elderly.

In the spring and summer of 1932, protest erupted among veterans of World War I, many of whom were out of work and hungry. More than 20,000 of them from across the country joined a Bonus Army march on Washington. The veterans held government bonus certificates for their military service, which were due more than a dozen years in the future. They demanded that Congress pay their bonuses immediately. Most of them camped in makeshift huts on the Anacostia flats, across the Potomac River from the Capitol. President Hoover ordered the Army to evict the veterans, which led to a bloody scene with horses, tear gas and machine guns in which two veterans were killed.

After FDR took office, the veterans returned to Washington. In contrast to Hoover, FDR invited the Bonus Marchers to camp at a nearby Army fort and provided them with meals, medical care and entertainment by the Navy band. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the veterans and listened to their complaints. FDR didn't restore their bonuses, but he did issue an executive order setting aside 25,000 places for veterans in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first of the New Deal public works programs.

In the 1930s, the United States was a nation of renters. As the Depression worsened, there were huge waves of evictions, because tenants didn't have the income to pay rent. Utility companies shut off electricity and heat. In many cities, when word spread that a family was being evicted, a crowd would gather--sometimes ten people, sometimes a few hundred. The police would remove the furniture from the house and put it out in the street, and the crowd would bring the furniture back. This happened so often that some police officers would refuse to evict or arrest people. These protests set the stage for the New Deal's housing programs, the first time that the government provided subsidies to create affordable housing.

In January 1933, several hundred jobless Americans surrounded a restaurant just off Union Square in New York City, demanding that they be fed without charge. In Seattle in February 1933, about 5,000 unemployed people occupied the County-City Building demanding jobs or relief. These and similar protests around the country set the stage for the nation's first cash assistance program for struggling families.

Through the 1930s, workers engaged in massive and illegal strikes and sit-down protests in factories and retail stores throughout the country. In 1934, 1.5 million workers--including longshoremen, teamsters, factory workers and retail clerks--went on strike. In San Francisco, 130,000 workers joined a general strike.

In Michigan--where workers had taken over a number of auto plants--the sympathetic Democratic governor, Frank Murphy, refused to allow the National Guard to eject the protesters even after they had defied an injunction to evacuate the factories. His mediating role helped end the strike on terms that provided a victory for the workers and their union.

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