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.
A total of 97 new Democrats were elected to the House, most of them young and left-leaning. Their numbers were augmented by five members of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, who made no apologies for their radicalism. Thus, 73 percent of the seats in the House (313 out of 435) were held by members who had been elected on pledges to alter the economic equation to favor Main Street over Wall Street. Even some Republicans, especially from New York state and the upper Midwest, espoused a progressive vision that was to the left of what Roosevelt advocated while campaigning in 1932.
Nine Republican senators were defeated that year by the Democrats, who also won three open seats. This shifted control of the chamber from 48-47 Republican to 59-36 Democratic with one Farmer-Laborite. A half dozen “insurgent” Republican senators stood with Roosevelt or to his left on economic issues.
The congressional majorities would free Roosevelt to move steadily to the left, knowing that if he did not make the shift Congress would force his hand on a host of relief measures and related economic initiatives. And Roosevelt was inclined to move. It was not just the size of the Democratic landslide that influenced him. It was the clear evidence that many American voters were looking to the left of new president and his party for responses to the economic crisis.
On November 8, 1932, more than a million Americans — almost three percent of the electorate — cast ballots for presidential candidates who proposed far more radical changes than “a new deal.” Socialist Norman Thomas won 884,885 votes, for a 230 percent improvement in his party’s total. Communist William Z. Foster won 103,307 votes, for a 112 percent increase in his party’s total — and its best finish ever in a presidential race. And southern populist William Hope Harvey, who had helped manage Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 presidential campaign, secured another 53,425 votes.
Roosevelt was conscious of the fact that, in a number of states outside the south, the combined vote for the Socialists and Communists edged toward 5 percent of the total. Shortly after the election, the president-elect met with Thomas, a former associate editor of The Nation, and Henry Rosner, a frequent contributor to The magazine who had authored the Socialist Party’s detailed 1932 platform and who would go on to be a key aide of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
The new president did not adopt the whole of the Socialist platform. But, as historian Paul Berman observed, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt lifted ideas from the likes of Norman Thomas and proclaimed liberal democratic goals for everyone around the world…” FDR’s borrowing of ideas about Social Security, unemployment compensation, jobs programs and agricultural assistance from the Socialists was sufficient to pull voters who had rejected the Democrats in 1932 into the New Deal Coalition that would sweep the congressional elections of 1934 and reelect the president with 61 percent of the popular vote and 523 of 531 electoral votes in 1936 — the largest Electoral College win in the history of two-party politics.
As for Norman Thomas, he ran again in 1936, conducting what Time magazine would refer to as “a more civilized and enlightened campaign than any other candidate.” But he amassed only 187,910 votes, for 0.4 percent of the total.
Thomas would joke that, “Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.” That was a slightly bitter variation on the old Socialist’s acknowledgment that FDR had read the results of the 1932 election right.
That process began 75 years ago this evening, when Franklin Roosevelt recognized that, while Americans had chosen him as their president, they signaled their intention that America should turn left.