New Deal . . . Conservatives?

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers a fireside chat from the White House, 1933 (National Archives)

I am second to none in my admiration for William F. Buckley Jr., but on matters of electoral politics his judgment was not exactly infallible. For example, he floated the idea of having former president Dwight Eisenhower join Barry Goldwater’s ticket as the vice-presidential nominee, which was possibly unconstitutional and certainly preposterous. Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton, pretending to correct my assertion that it is a mistake to call the segregationist Democrats of the Roosevelt era “conservatives,” correctly notes that WFB believed he had found a kindred conservative spirit in some of those Democrats and thought that they might be pried away from the Democratic party by the Republicans, among whom self-conscious conservatism was ascendant by the middle 1960s.

WFB did believe that and wrote as much. And—this is the part that you would think might interest a professor of history—he was wrong. With a tiny handful of notable exceptions (the grotesque opportunist Strom Thurmond prominent among them) the segregationist Democrats remained Democrats. Why?

The most obvious answer is that they believed what the Democratic party believed, and believes. This is probably why the so-called conservative coalition in Congress came to so little: The Republicans and the Democrats disagreed on the basics, from economics to foreign policy. They agreed mostly on not thinking much of the big industrial unions and big-spending urban-development programs.

WFB helpfully published a list of those Democrats he thought possibly ready to defect to the Republican party. You would have done well to bet against him. James Eastland? No. John McClellan? No. John Stennis? No. Sam Ervin? No. Herman Talmadge? No. Allen Ellender? No. Spessard Holland? No. John Sparkman? Strike . . . eight.

WFB also thought “liberals like Olin Johnson” might be recruited to the GOP. Strike nine.

While it is easy to get lost in the hurly-burly of lurching from one election to the next and from one supposed national crisis to the next, it is remarkable how far back the ideological-partisan lines of U.S. politics are at least partly visible and comprehensible. In the Wilson era, you have a Democratic party pursuing centralization and central planning, suspicious of free markets and competition, allied with academic elites, and pursuing an agenda of regimentation that Democrats presented as “scientific” and supported by dispassionate, empirical evidence. Against that, you have a Republican party allied with business interests, hostile toward taxes and redistribution, promising a restoration of an idealized prelapsarian American order—the “return to normalcy.”

Wilson, the godfather of American progressivism, was a plain and undisguised racist, backward and vicious even by the standards of his time: The progressive torchbearer resegregatedthe federal government. Teddy Roosevelt, the personification of progressivism in the Republican party, was a frank racist as well. There was, unhappily, plenty of that to go around for both parties. But the Republican opposition to the primordial welfare state is entirely familiar to the modern political ear, whether it was Frederick Hale describing FDR as a proxy of the Socialist party or Ronald Reagan a couple of decades later warning about socialized medicine. “Conservatism” in the sense we use the word in American politics is there to be seen.

There were conservative tendencies in American politics before the 1930s, but the modern conservative movement was founded on opposition to the New Deal. The segregationist Democrats, on the other hand, were for the most part eager supporters of the New Deal—provided it was administered in a way that would exclude African Americans from most of its benefits. You do not have to take my word for it—consider the votes: on labor reform, on entitlements, on financial regulation, etc. If the southern Democrats were “conservatives,” then the New Deal was passed on conservative support, which is a very odd claim to make. What do we call the Republican anti-New Dealers, then?

Professor Kruse offers WFB’s description of some southern Democrats as “conservative” as though this settled the issue. That’s an adolescent parlor game, and he knows it. But if you want to play it, here’s Franklin Roosevelt describing the impenitent racist Theodore Bilbo as “a real friend of liberal government.” That is not something dredged up from the shadows and margins: It’s from a Ta-Nehesi Coates essay titled “A History of White Liberal Racism, Continued.” Coates is not exactly a right-wing provocateur—or, as Professor Kruse likes to put it, a “denialist.”

Professor Kruse’s line here is something between error and intellectual dishonesty, i.e. willfully conflating the issue of policymaking in the 1930s with the question of how people talked about coalition-building politics a generation later. It certainly is the case that many New Deal liberals were by the 1960s alienated from the Democratic party by its embrace (or at least openness to) the radical elements of those years. These were not exclusively southerners: Ronald Reagan was one. (Reagan’s FDR hero-worship and his intellectual inconsistency regarding the New Deal did a great deal to soften conservatives who had once vowed to have the New Deal out root and branch.) And yet very few of those old Democratic bulls crossed the aisle.

As Ira Katznelson put it in Fear Itself, the southern progressives stuck by the Democratic party because, in the words of one contemporary observer, the New Dealers “fought the money power and the big industries.” (The rest of that quotation reads, in part, “so long as they were pro-farmer and did not stir up the n*****s.”) Banks and railroads were targets of particular ire. Again, the modern Republican-Democrat/conservative-progressive lines are already there, at least in part. And it seems likely that those real differences in values and loyalties go a long way toward explaining why those Democrats remained in the Democratic party: They were the Democratic party, to a considerable extent, and they fundamentally shared its progressivism. The southern Democrats who helped to create the modern welfare state were not about to join a Republican party whose conservative firebrands were promising to tear it down.

If the New Deal Democrats were in some meaningful sense “conservatives,” we are going to have to come up with a new word to describe those Republicans who opposed it, and who did so using language and arguments that remain familiar today.

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