March 4, 1933, was a cold, cloudy spring day in Washington, D.C., with a few glints of sun and a noontime temperature that barely broke 40 degrees. At 3 p.m., Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated at the Capitol, the 32nd president of the United States.
“The crowds were so tremendous, and you felt that they would do anything – if only someone would tell them what to do,” Eleanor Roosevelt said. The country was on the brink of something and almost no one was sure what.
Four years before, Herbert Hoover, the Republican, had been inaugurated amid frothy satisfaction with America’s economic expansion. Hoover, a mining engineer who had organized global relief efforts and served as the secretary of Commerce, might have been the most qualified man ever elected to the presidency after George Washington. He had the laissez-faire capitalist mindset of his party. In 1928, no one had much reason to conceive an alternative to it.
But between 1929 and 1933, unemployment broke 20%. GDP was off by 30%. Industrial production fell by 46%. As Hoover campaigned for re-election, people threw things at him. FDR, promising a vague “New Deal,” won in a landslide. He had a mandate to do something, anything; and what that had to mean, in contrast to Hoover, was a statist intervention in the economy – a great structural change.
He came to the White House an experienced leader and administrator, having spent 1929 to 1933 as governor of New York, where he had undertaken to do at the state level what he and others thought Hoover had failed to do: provide relief for the poor and the impoverished, the ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished. He had a small, strong team of advisors and administrators whom he used as the nucleus of a much bigger one.
People today will say the New Deal is the foundation of modern American liberalism, which is true. They will also say it was socialism, to suit other, contemporary purposes – which is also true but with some explanation.
FDR was not an ideologue; not a red, not a convinced socialist. He was not even so much a deep thinker as a happy warrior with an agile mind, a generous spirit and a common touch. But he had socialists in his inner circles and took their advice because, in 1932, it was sound. He was not adverse to conservative ideas, either, and entertained many of them; about the ideals of free enterprise, for example. The New Deal was not socialist in the sense that it hoped to replace capitalism. It was a liberal program to bandage capitalism until it cyclically recovered.
What finally lifted the U.S. out of the Depression was the mobilization for World War II (which is sometimes called war socialism). After 1945, with the U.S. economy rapidly expanding, there was little more talk of socialism in the high reaches of the federal government. If one thought about it at all, it was as something we had used when we needed it, and now we did not, although with it came some of the underpinning of a welfare state, like Social Security, which has been popular ever since.
In the U.K., where a nation emerged from the war broke and rubble-strewn, Winston Churchill, the triumphant bulldog, was voted out lickety-split and replaced by the Labour Party and its socialist program – which bears strong resemblances to the program of Bernie Sanders today. Yet when its proper heirs, the Labour followers of Jeremy Corbyn advanced something like it late last year, they were trounced by Boris Johnson, a populist conservative.
Today, Johnson and Trump are like Hoover in high cotton – just arguably less able.