By William Deresiewicz
I recently read The Protestant Establishment (1964), E. Digby Baltzell’s classic study of the rise and fall of the WASP aristocracy. His chapter on Franklin Roosevelt’s battles with the entrenched interests of big business, represented especially by the Liberty League, includes the following passages:
“The cry of socialism,” [Al] Smith said … in 1928, “has always been raised by powerful interests that desire to put a damper upon progressive legislation.”
In 1935 … [the League] raised nearly as much money as both national committees combined … Fewer than half a dozen bankers, industrialists and businessmen contributed over half the League’s funds.
“To a philosophy that was at once a combination of Social Darwinism, laissez-faire economics, Old Testament apocalypse, and Constitution and ancestor worship,” writes George Wolfskill in his recent history of the League, “the Liberty League now often added a savage hatred of the man who came to symbolize their torment and frustration.”
The hatred of Roosevelt had far deeper origins than mere economics, as anyone who dined out in polite society at the time knows—anyone, that is, who remembers being called a Jew- or nigger-lover for making even a mildly favorable comment on “That Man, Rosenfelt.”
Some very respectable establishment money … went to support the work of William Dudley Pelley … Roosevelt, Pelley insisted, was really a Jew of Dutch ancestry who had been foisted on an unsuspecting electorate by the Elders of Zion.
I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by drawing the parallels to today’s situation. But what’s the lesson to be learned from them? That we’ve been here before, and came out okay? Hardly. The thing we seem to forget about FDR is that the New Deal emerged from a dense political and intellectual infrastructure. It was not the product merely of one man’s charisma and courage. Roosevelt’s program revived the impulses of the Progressive Era, after the return, in the ’20s, to laissez-faire. It built upon the foundation laid by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The progressive program throughout these decades rested in turn, as Baltzell explains, on the New Social Science of William James, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frank Boas, and others—a grand refutation of Social Darwinism in favor of the principle that character is shaped by social environment, and that we ought therefore to do something about the social environment.
Wilson and the Roosevelts were also pushed from below—by the unions, the socialists, the social reformers. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s famous exposé of the meatpacking industry, led Theodore Roosevelt, despite his hatred of the author, to sign the Pure Food and Drug Act, which ultimately led to the creation of the FDA. The year that Wilson was first elected, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate, received some 6 percent of the vote. The Liberty League accused FDR of being a Communist, but for many, the New Deal was the only way of keeping communism at bay. As Debs’ successor, Norman Thomas, put it, “Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”
Needless to say, nothing like this kind of groundwork, intellectual or organizational, exists today. If we are at the start of a new progressive era, as some have hastily and giddily proclaimed, it is only the start: 1882, let us say, not 1932 or even 1912. The road ahead is long; success is not to be expected soon. For now, there is only blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Meanwhile, other forces are in the ascendancy. The Liberty League, which had been formed in 1934 to oppose the New Deal, was crushed by Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936. Within four years, it had ceased to exist. We should not expect to be so lucky now.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.