It’s 1936 all over again for the Republicans.
By the last year of President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, the party of business had seen the shape of the New Deal, and it was terrified. Tough new banking regulations were in force. Taxes on employers would help fund the new government-run retirement system for all workers, and some people would even get money when they couldn’t work. The government was paying a vast army of the unemployed to build roads and bridges, which was bad enough, but artists and actors and writers were also getting paychecks to do whatever it was they did, and all on borrowed money. Collective bargaining and wage-and-hour laws meant labor was a rising force. Factories couldn’t even hire children any more.
The Supreme Court had done the best it could, striking down incursions into central planning. It might yet strike down the Social Security Act. But the New Deal government was set on reshaping and improving life for the majority, and the people in the board rooms didn’t like it. The taps of wealth opened to deny FDR a second term.
The rich man’s anti-New Deal coalition called itself the Liberty League. It formed in 1934 with du Pont gunpowder and the Morgan banking money behind it. The league foreshadowed Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and Karl Rove “Super PACS.” The du Ponts alone poured almost a million dollars into the 1936 Republican campaign, money used in some cases to incite racism and facism. Then, as now, there were no effective limits on campaign contributions. Shadowy groups that acted on their own gave the league the cover of deniability. Officially, it promised an “unremitting” fight against “government encroachment upon the rights of citizens.” The script hasn’t changed.
Other distant echoes reverberate in this year’s campaign. Lammot du Pont argued that “all government regulation of business . . . should be abolished.” He pressed his case in millions of pamphlets and the new technology of radio, harnessed via nationwide broadcasts made on purchased time.
Irenee du Pont crafted an early version of the makers vs. takers case when he said, “The Roosevelt administration practices the socialistic maxim ‘work like hell so that the parasites may get the benefit of your labor.” When Roosevelt and the Democrats complained about the yawning gap between the richest Americans and all the rest, Republicans charged them with waging class warfare. That script remains the same as well.
Reading socialism or worse into the New Deal was standard fare. Worse was represented by Al Smith, the former New York governor and Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928. Now Smith had become reactionary in the extreme. On the eve of the 1936 election, he railed that Roosevelt was sowing the seeds for communist control of the United States. In a speech in Albany, NY, he said the New Deal was using taxpayers’ money “to train young men to go out and preach communism, to preach the gospel of ‘down with property, down with capital, down with government, down with church, yes, down with God.’”
“Down with government” is today’s Republican campaign in a nutshell. Otherwise, all of Smith’s 1936 accusations were voiced in the Republican primary campaign and are daily fare on Fox News and the rest of the right-wing talk machine.
The 2012 campaign is the latest front in an eighty-year war. Republicans see this year as the best chance they’ve had to do what they’ve been trying to do for all those years: take down the New Deal. Once again, they have unlimited cash with almost no restrictions on how to spend it, few serious foreign policy distractions, and an economy that (with their help) resists efforts to revive it. With the unions reeling, the double-speak narrative they’ve shaped that blames government for both overspending and a lack of jobs, and a Supreme Court that’s as conservative as any since the early 1930s, the GOP wants to use this election to alter what have been fundamental facts of life for most Americans for at least three generations.
But a growing youth and ethnic population means it may be the last attempt to roll back the social and financial progress enjoyed by the larger population since the Great Depression. That – and the money funneled into this campaign by those who want to return to what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “old order” – is the reason this is the most vicious, intemperate, thuggish campaign from the right since 1936.