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Roosevelt’s New Party

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

The dictatorships of Russia, Italy, and Germany have given a new definition to the political party. In all of those countries the Party is the instrument by which the dictator executes the plan for high-speed social reconstruction in the name of which his dictatorship was established. It is a mobile and highly disciplined force, the all-powerful arm of the class, the nation, the race, that is to inherit the new society. Individual aims do not exist for its members, nor do its members permit them to exist for anyone else. The chaotic conditions preceding the Party’s accession to power gave its members an unbounded contempt for the liberal parliamentary institutions which they destroyed, particularly for the principle of government by consent and respect for the rights of minorities.

At each of these points the Parties of dictatorship differ from the parties of democracy as democracy has been practised for the last several generations in the North Atlantic area. The democratic parties came into being when the legislative rather than the executive branch of government was thought to be the important arm. They center on local elections; national policies are at one remove from the focus of their interest, and national leadership is far from synonymous with complete control. Party discipline has party patronage as its foundation: it depends upon the party’s answer to the question, What do I get out of this? And while the party machine may at times move rather swiftly, the party bandwagon is a lumbering vehicle, fashioned to satisfy the tastes of all the localities from which it takes passengers, incapable of more than a very moderate speed. The party platform suggests standing and talking rather than acting. The party moves less under pressure of circumstance than under pressure of votes.

With the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President, the United States became one of the nations in which a shift from legislative to executive government has occurred. On March 4, 1933, the national life was at a standstill. Roosevelt took over. But the American transition from par-liamentarianism to executive action differed from the transition in other countries in that no sharp break was made with the past. In his inaugural address Mr. Roosevelt said:

It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.

I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, with my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.

But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe. . . .

We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. . . .

Roosevelt was obviously not aiming at a dictatorship. The ideology of the New Deal was democratic. Far from taking over with a view to militant aggrandizement on behalf of a class or a, race, the President took over on behalf of the Forgotten Man. His intention was to build within the existing system. At the same time, he had no illusions about the extent of reconstruction necessary, or about the degree of discipline required.

Roosevelt came into office as the candidate of a party in the old-fashioned democratic sense of the word, Yet the popular mandate which had been given him was to do a job such as has been accomplished elsewhere only by means of a militant Party in the sense infused into the word by dictatorships. His initial problem, of how a popularly elected President could do the work of a dictator, has been simplified by the wide grants of executive power which Congress conferred on him during his first weeks of office and has since shown no tendency to take back. But the executive branch of government includes much more than the President. Unless Mr. Roosevelt can forge an executive instrument equal to current demands upon it, a break with the parliamentary past is assured. The crucial requirement of his present situation is consequently the transformation of a party into a Party while remaining within the democratic frame of government, the creation of a body of administrators free from the obstructive and parochial self-interest of the democratic parties, on the one hand, and from the ruthless intolerance of the Fascist and Communist Parties on the other; constructively capable of meeting a national crisis with a national policy, yet imbued with a respect for the personality of the human beings whom the crisis concerns.


The record of Roosevelt’s first year is, in respect to this transformation, a record of both progress and capitulations. One section of the instrument by means of which the President is governing exhibits all the novelties of a Party. The terse brevity of the Chicago platform augured action, though no one suspected that fourteen weeks after Mr. Roosevelt took office practically every concrete proposal of the platform would have been carried into law. A further innovation was the Brains Trust, whose preparatory examination of national problems on a national scale made the legislative record of those first weeks possible. The announcement of the names of the Cabinet showed that new principles of selection were at work in the administrative set-up.

The key Departments, since the emergency insured that precedence would be given to domestic issues, were the Interior, Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, and the Treasury, There was evidence that the last two had been filled according to the old rules. It was known that the President had offered the Treasury to the party’s financial expert of long standing, Senator Carter Glass, before giving it to Mr. Woodin, his own close friend who had been For Roosevelt Before Chicago to the tune of $10,000. It was understood that Mr. Roper’s appointment had given pleasure to Senator McAdoo, whose delegates, when released to Roosevelt, had insured the nomination at Chicago. The other three appointments constituted a new order. The selection of Miss Perkins was an affront to the A. F. of L., both because the giving of a responsible position to a woman emphasized the unwelcome issue of women representatives for women members within the trade unions, and because nomination to that post had long been regarded by the A. F. of L. as its private perquisite. Mr. Ickes and Mr. Wallace were not even deserving Democrats: the former had been a Progressive; the latter, a Republican. The sole criterion for their selection had apparently been ability to do the job. They were the stuff that a Party is made of. So was Mr. Walsh, though he did not live to prove it.

The new principle was less apparent at once than it has since become. Mr. Roosevelt’s compliance with usual custom in giving the Post Office to his campaign manager reassured the patronage seekers. (The Southern and Western license plates which blossomed on the streets of Washington with the coming of spring served as a census of hope.) His Secretary of State incarnated the idealistic aspect of the party. Thus both the post which conferred the most traditional prestige and the post which vested the most temporal power appeared to old-style Democrats to be in safe hands.

The safety was only apparent. Under Mr. Hull in official ranking, but in actual fact far from subordinate to him, was the No. 1 Boy of the Brains Trust, Mr. Raymond Moley, whom Mr. Roosevelt promptly inserted into the State Department as an Assistant Secretary. Two threats to the patronage system made an equally early appearance. Mr. Roosevelt is too good a politician not to recognize the value of suitable rewards, but there was a sentence in his inaugural which showed that on the spoils system as well as on the economic system in its larger aspects, he occupies a position “slightly to the left of center”:

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit.

And while such a statement might be momentarily disregarded in the hope that it was merely inaugural window dressing (Had not Colonel Howe said in a public address, “You can’t adopt politics as a profession and remain honest”?), there was no blinking the hard fact that when Mr. Farley sent the usual party representatives to serve the new Secretaries as guides to worthiness in staffing their Departments, those assigned to Agriculture, the Interior, and Labor (the last two, traditional green pastures for party hacks beyond their service) were shown either a cold shoulder or the door.

The conflict so promptly started between the ideas of traditional Democracy and the ideas of the Brains Trust, the forces of patronage and the forces of efficiency, has broken out anew at successive points in the progress of the Administration.

In all of the countries where Parties have come into power, their primary object has been to supplant the tottering economic structure of laissez-faire capitalism by an integrated national economy, and Roosevelt’s case is no exception. It was inevitable that his Party should have something to say about the American tariff; for utter planlessness, tariff-making has been unsurpassed among Congressional activities.

Old-fashioned Democracy had a theory and a practice on tariffs. Theoretically, it was committed to free trade. Practically, its representatives joined eagerly in a general swapping of local votes to protect local interests. As a result, American tariffs have been totals rather than wholes. Their general effect, either on home industry or on foreign trade, has never been considered.

The Party looks at things on a national scale and as a whole. Beginning with a speech at Muncie, in November, Secretary Wallace launched a campaign urging a coherent tariff policy on the people of the United States, saying that there are but three possibilities: self-sufficiency, free trade, or a compromise position between the two. Each has its advantages; each will cause a certain amount of dislocation; but unless one of them is adopted, and American commercial policy moulded to its requirements over a period of years, the chaos of the late ‘twenties is bound to be recurrent.

The Party’s demand that the tariff be considered in terms of the total set-up of American production is unwelcome both to the idealist wing and to the patronage backing of the party. The practical politicians realize that it endangers the maintenance of their easy-going assumption that serving their constituents well is serving the nation well. The idealists are at a loss because the Party’s world strategy differs fundamentally from the old Wilsonian internationalism; the tension between Mr. Hull and Mr. Moley at the time of the World Economic Conference, and between Messrs. Hull and Roper and Mr. Peek at the time of the establishment of the Export-Import Bank, had this difference as its primary source.

Cross-purposes between Party and party have been as frequent in the matter of appointments as in the realm of ideas. For diametrically opposite reasons, Party and party saw eye to eye about exempting from civil service requirements the governmental organs set up by the emergency legislation of the spring months. The Party knew that time was of the essence, and that the competitive examination system could not fail to be cumbersome and slow; in the interests of efficiency the Party wanted a free hand. The party, by contrast, rejoiced in the elimination of restrictions which in the past had sometimes made placement of its own people difficult: Congress prepared to return home laden with the promise of rich rewards. Both have had their day. The most clear-cut Party victory came with the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority: Mr. Morgan told the President in Mr. Farley’s presence that government operation of public utilities was on trial at Muscle Shoals, and that if the Authority provided soft berths for Democratic henchmen failure was assured; and the President backed him up. With the N. R. A., on the other hand, the party has come into its own. During the first weeks, many appointments were made from General Johnson’s personal friends; since then, applicants for jobs have not even been put on the “active” list unless they can produce proper endorsements from the Democratic powers in the states from which they come. Elsewhere, victories have been less one-sided. Time has mitigated the decisiveness of some of the early rebuffs to Mr. Farley’s men. In the Relief Administration, appointments on the basis of ability have been paralleled by cases of contractors’ graft and bossism in the traditional manner.


The Party in the N. R. A. and the C. W. A., moreover, is different from the Party in the Cabinet. In the European countries of dictatorship, the establishment of a social discipline has been prerequisite to successful carrying out of the Party program. In those countries, such discipline has been secured by force. How to secure it in the intermediate stage between democracy and dictatorship represented by the Roosevelt regime is one of the regime’s major considerations; it is a problem to which all of the Party members do not give the same answer.

In the social philosophy of a man like Dr. Tugwell, exper-imentalism is the essence of a successful technique for running modern society. He is the first to admit that the Administration’s methods are undoubtedly crude, that some of them will probably prove so inappropriate that they will have to be discarded, that others must certainly undergo major modifications. If what he calls the Industrial Discipline, or the Social Discipline which is Mr. Wallace’s extension of the word, is to become the order of the day of the American people, the preservation of an experimental attitude is essential, for the alternative to that discipline is the military and absolutely non-experimental discipline of dictatorship. The members of the Party who have the experimental attitude are the ones who have received most consistent Presidential support. The test of ability to preserve it has come in the branches of the Administration which are closest to the struggle for social power, in the organizations charged with putting the new policies across in the country, among the farmers, the unemployed, the industrialists. Mr. Wallace, with only one or two minor lapses, has exemplified the experimental way. The persuasiveness of his organization has brought a workable majority of the country’s traditionally most individualistic producers into co-operative action. Where mistakes have been made, as in the milk industry, he has said so. Where methods for the improvement of technique have been discovered, as in the substitution of output for acreage as the basis for crop reduction, he has favored them. And he has continually considered his immediate steps against the background of an integral view of American economy, which includes both its domestic organization and its relation to the other economies of the world.

The policy of General Johnson in dealing with industry has been a complete contrast to that of Mr. Wallace in dealing with agriculture. His battle cry of “Roosevelt or Ruin” is the antithesis of the experimental technique. Only in the fact that he has been a general without an army have his activities differed from what they would have been under Fascism. The war-time methods of making the Blue Eagle scream; the news reels of America mobilized behind the caption, “Where there is no Sign there is no Sacrifice”; the coining of the word “chiseler” to serve as “slacker” served in 1918 to rouse the boycott spirit which this generation has already experienced in the red hunts, prohibition politics, and the Klan—these are examples of an attitude which Mr. Roosevelt has approximated only in his castigation of “the unscrupulous money changers . . . rejected by the hearts and minds of men.” It is true that the General was given the toughest of possible assignments, that of leading the frontal attack on the best defended citadel in American society. His relative failure is due to many causes, chief of which is the crude fact of capitalist power. But it is worth inquiring whether the General, given comparable power, would use it along the lines of what the rest of the Party has so far regarded as an indispensable technique.

The minimal results yielded by the N. R. A. made the C. W. A. inevitable with the coming of winter. It is as yet too soon to tell what will be Mr. Hopkins’ policy at the third point of contact of politics with power. It is quite possible that the men and women who were designated during the campaign by Mr. Berle as industrial cannon fodder may come to exercise on the Party, as veterans of the war on depression, the same kind of successful pressure which the veterans of the other war exercised on the party, and which the party lacked the courage to resist. If so, a Jacobin wing may develop to challenge the experimentalists as its forebears challenged the Gironde.

At the 1936 election, Party and party may appear in still sharper contrast. The test vote at the opening of the 1934 Congress, when eighty-four Democrats voted with the Republicans to narrow the Administration’s majority to a perilous five, registered party disappointment that the greatest popular victory in the nation’s history had yielded so little spoil. The Party which has relegated the bandwagon to the past has still to deal with the machine. But even if the machine can be dismantled, the Party will not have finished with the problem of that type of social organization which expresses itself through the legislature.


The recent transfer from a legislative to an executive emphasis took place in the United States, as in all of the countries where it has occurred, under enormous economic pressure. It has long been obvious that a democratic polity and an oligarchic economy co-exist side by side in America. It has more recently become clear that the democratic polity, as formerly organized, was impotent to deal with the economic phase of the national life; and that the oligarchic economy, built on the motif of individual or corporate profit, was only indirectly concerned with the welfare of the community as a whole, either in respect to its resources or its human needs. In championing the Forgotten Man, the Party is championing the common citizen of an economy whose members it desires to make more equal.

How to arrive at that measure of equality without falling before the forces of either the Jacobins or the Fascists is its first problem. The change effected in American capitalism by the codes has not extended into the realm of social power. If recent monetary changes do not lead to inflation as Germany had it in 1923, in the course of time reduction of the value of the dollar may be recognized as a quiet form of capital levy; but otherwise there have been no drastic steps. The elimination of the small business man with few reserves and the relaxation of the anti-Trust laws under the codes are facilitating concentration of industry in a manner most favorable to efficient Fascist action. The adoption by the Republicans of the tactics of watchful waiting does not mean that war will not be declared in the end.

The difficulties which Fascism would face in America are up to a point comparable with the difficulties which Communism is facing in Russia. The Fascists would begin as a city group, just as the Communists did. To maintain themselves in power, they would have to undertake the domina-tion of the country, just as the Communists did. The areas of Russia and the United States are comparable; over such square mileages the task is wholly different from that of the Fascists in Italy or the National Socialists in Germany. And the American farmer is not a peasant. It is true that the Klan, in the early 1920’s, had a large country membership committed to terrorist methods. It is true that the American Legion has a large country membership which has proved willing to accept a city-made program. But within the range of immediate possibility, nation-wide dominance of an American Fascism backed by manufacturers’ associations seems improbable. The attempt may be made, but there are formidable odds against its success.

The possibility of a proletarian dictatorship seems even slighter. The weakness of the trade union movement, both in central organization and in strategy, suggests that if a proletarian revolution comes it will be more in the nature of a spontaneous outbreak of violence than a, movement by a Party with a plan. The equipment of the armed forces of a modern state annihilates the chance of mass violence converting itself into control so long as the soldiers remain with the government; and the American army is not exactly a hotbed of Communism at this time.

The union of American worker and American farmer is hardly less remote than the union of worker and soldier. Since the war, repeated attempts to form a farmer-labor party have yielded minimal results. Under the New Deal, such an alignment seems even less probable than before. The Department of Agriculture in itself embodies more completely than any other branch of the Administration the change from party to Party which has occurred; it is more completely staffed with men free from personal ends and committed to social experiment on a nationwide scale. The consent which it has obtained for the social discipline which it advocates is the result of an active and positive policy. It is consequently less likely than the N. R. A. or the C. W. A. to be faced by a large-scale revolt of the group with which it is dealing.

Because no one of the special groups in the nation is as yet capable of establishing a dictatorship in its sole interest, there is still time—a short time—for the American government to be reconstituted in a form both suitable to the exigencies of the age and representative of the interest of the whole. If the present Administration is not to be supplanted, it must accomplish three things. It must transform its party into a Party: at that task, considerable progress has been made. In the chaps of a capitalist depression it must find the main lines of an economic order which will give “the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life”: at that task, with uneven success, work has been begun. Beyond these lies a third and indispensable task which has so far been left largely untouched because its immediacy is general where the immediacy of the first two is specific. In his inaugural address Mr. Roosevelt said, “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy.” If the social discipline which he proposes is to be based upon consent rather than force, its relation to what is essential in democracy must be defined. The definition cannot be long postponed.


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