FDR Campaigned on Fiscal Restraint in 1932. He Delivered Just the Opposite

The 1932 election is perhaps the best example of the rule that prevails all too often in the political world: You get what you voted against.


With Labor Day upon us, the summer of 2022 is ebbing as the campaign season kicks into high gear. On November 8, American voters will decide the composition of the next Congress based largely upon what they hear over the next two months. Sadly, what candidates say when running often doesn’t look like what they do later when elected.

Such was the case 90 years ago in the year 1932, near the bottom of the Great Depression. All eyes focused on the presidential contest between incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat challenger Franklin Roosevelt. When the smoke cleared, Roosevelt won in a landslide with 57.4 percent; Hoover trailed with 39.6 percent; Socialist Party nominee Norman Thomas came in third, drawing a scant 2.2 percent.

If you were a socialist (or a modern “liberal” or “progressive”) in 1932, you faced an embarrassment of riches at the ballot box. You could go for Norman Thomas. Or perhaps Verne Reynolds of the Socialist Labor Party. Or William Foster of the Communist Party. Maybe Jacob Coxey of the Farmer-Labor Party or even William Upshaw of the Prohibition Party. You could have voted for Hoover who, after all, had delivered sky-high tax rates, big deficits, lots of debt, higher spending, and trade-choking tariffs in his four-year term. Roosevelt’s own running mate, John Nance Garner of Texas, declared that Republican Hoover was “taking the country down the path to socialism.”

Journalist H. L. Mencken famously noted that “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” If you agreed with Mencken and preferred a non-socialist candidate who promised to get government off your back and out of your pocket in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was your man—that is, until March 1933 when he assumed office and took a sharp turn in the other direction.

The platform on which Roosevelt ran that year denounced the incumbent administration for its reckless growth of government. The Democrats promised no less than a 25 percent reduction in federal spending if elected.

Roosevelt accused Hoover of governing as though, in FDR’s words, “we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible.” On September 29 in Iowa, the Democrat presidential nominee blasted Hooverism in these terms:

I accuse the present Administration of being the greatest spending Administration in peace times in all our history. It is an Administration that has piled bureau on bureau, commission on commission, and has failed to anticipate the dire needs and the reduced earning power of the people. Bureaus and bureaucrats, commissions and commissioners have been retained at the expense of the taxpayer.

Now, I read in the past few days in the newspapers that the President is at work on a plan to consolidate and simplify the Federal bureaucracy. My friends, four long years ago, in the campaign of 1928, he, as a candidate, proposed to do this same thing. And today, once more a candidate, he is still proposing, and I leave you to draw your own inferences. And on my part, I ask you very simply to assign to me the task of reducing the annual operating expenses of your national government.

Once in the White House, he did no such thing. He doubled federal spending in his first term. New “alphabet agencies” were added to the bureaucracy. Nothing of any consequence in the budget was either cut or made more efficient. He gave us our booze back by ending Prohibition, but then embarked upon a spending spree that any drunk with your wallet would envy. Taxes went up in FDR’s administration, not down as he had promised.

Don’t take my word for it. It’s all a matter of public record even if your teacher or professor never told you any of this. For details, I recommend these books: Burton Folsom’s New Deal or Raw Deal; Murray Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression; my own Great Myths of the Great Depression; and the two I want to tell you about now, John T. Flynn’s As We Go Marching and The Roosevelt Myth.

For every thousand books written, perhaps one may come to enjoy the appellation “classic.” That label is reserved for a volume that through the force of its originality and thoroughness, shifts paradigms and serves as a timeless, indispensable source of insight.

Such a book is The Roosevelt Myth. First published in 1948, Flynn’s definitive analysis of America’s 32nd president is arguably the best and most thoroughly documented chronicle of the person and politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Flynn’s 1944 book, As We Go Marching, focuses on the fascist-style economic planning during World War II and is very illuminating as well.

John T. Flynn was a successful and influential journalist with a reputation for candor and first-rate research. He was neither a shill for Big Government nor a puppet of Big Business. He railed against both when they conspired to undermine the Constitution, erode our freedoms, or suck the nation into foreign entanglements. He saw right through the public relations job depicting FDR as a valiant crusader for noble causes.

Was FDR a man of principles, a man guided in his thinking by a fixed set of lofty and non-contradictory ideas? Far from it, Flynn proves, in what is an important theme of the book. FDR’s thinking and behavior show him to be a real-life exemplar of an old Groucho Marx wisecrack: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others!”

FDR was less of an ideologue than he was a shallow opportunist capitalizing on the public’s demand for “action.” With the gift of an orator’s tongue, he could sell just about anything to a desperate public. As a candidate in 1932, he sold the antidote to the poison he later injected. Usually, these things are done in reverse order.

The depression that FDR inherited was still very much with us after two terms in the White House. He zigged and zagged from one Rube Goldberg policy contraption to the next. His elitist brain-trusters covered for his failures and cooked up new schemes, in what Flynn called “the dance of the crackpots.”

H. L. Mencken saw the events of the 1930s in similar fashion and could be even more sarcastic. He described FDR’s New Deal as “a political racket,” a “series of stupendous bogus miracles” with its “constant appeals to class envy and hatred,” promoting government as “a milch-cow with 125 million teats” and marked by “frequent repudiations of categorical pledges.”

Flynn’s critique of the Mussolini-inspired New Deal’s two main hallmarks—the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA)—remains one of the most devastating ever penned. The “crazy antics” of the NRA put a New York tailor behind bars for pressing a suit of clothes for 35 instead of 40 cents. With the AAA, “we had men burning oats when we were importing oats from abroad on a huge scale, killing pigs while increasing our imports of lard, cutting corn production and importing 30 million bushels of corn from abroad.”

Flynn’s view of FDR’s coterie of planners was right on target, each “a kind of little man who will tell you that he can’t hit a nail straight with a hammer, but who loves to spread a big country like the United States out before him on top of a table, pull up a chair and sit down to rearrange the whole thing to suit his heart’s content.” The result of all his interventions was to lengthen the Great Depression by seven years, according to economists Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian.

In 1939, Roosevelt was well into his second term when his Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau let something slip that no historian should forget:

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong … somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. … I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. … And an enormous debt to boot.

Flynn’s As We Go Marching and The Roosevelt Myth leave the reader with a sense of distaste that the liberties and the pocketbooks of a nation were placed in the hands of so beguiling a schemer as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Given the lingering deification of FDR, John T. Flynn’s two books are relevant and necessary today as they were so many decades ago. Americans who prefer their history not be twisted to serve statist ends or sanitized by the politically correct should be sure to stock their libraries with these classics. No one who reads them with an open mind will ever think of Roosevelt the same way again.

As a final note, another fascinating book on the same subject is Hell-Bent For Election by FDR’s financial advisor James Warburg, who regarded the president poorly in hindsight. Warburg observed that FDR was “undeniably and shockingly superficial about anything that relates to finance.” He was driven not by logic, facts, or humility but by “his emotional desires, predilections, and prejudices.”

In the world of economics and free exchange, the rule is that you get what you pay for. The 1932 election is perhaps the best example of the rule that prevails all too often in the political world: You get what you voted against.

For Additional Information, See:

Media Still Peddling Great Depression Myths by Lawrence W. Reed

The Great Crash 90 Years Later by Lawrence W. Reed

The First Government Bailouts: The Story of the RFC by Burton Folsom

FDR’s Financial Advisor Explains What’s Wrong with His Client by Lawrence W. Reed

Cal and the Big Cal-Amity by Lawrence W. Reed

Hell Bent for Election by James Warburg

AUTHOR

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is FEE’s President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is author of the 2020 book, Was Jesus a Socialist? as well as Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on LinkedIn and Like his public figure page on Facebook. His website is www.lawrencewreed.com.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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