Progressives can rebuild a better coalition and create positive change for all Americans
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal saved America in more ways than one. In 1932, the world was facing an economic crisis. That crisis paved the way for the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, but under FDR’s leadership, America went in a different direction, providing workers with governmental programs such as Social Security to help combat poverty, provide jobs, and stimulate the economy.
Many of these programs were legislated with the help of the New Deal Coalition — a partnership between different factions in the Congress who were united in their desire to end the Great Depression. However, FDR’s reliance on this coalition required him to make compromises that weakened the coalition and led to its demise 30 years later, setting the stage for the crisis America faces today.
A Fatal Compromise
One of the largest voting blocs in the US Congress of the 1930s was white Southern Democrats. These Democrats were proponents of Jim Crow laws and other systemically racist policies, and in 1934, this put them in direct conflict with FDR because Eleanor Roosevelt was working with the NAACP to put federal anti-lynching legislation in place.
FDR himself believed in the proposed legislation, but he refused to support it because of fear that the Southern Democrats would obstruct the Social Security Act and other vital programs if he did so. During a meeting at the White House, he told NAACP President Walter White that this was not the right time:
If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to
pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.
As a result, the Southern Democrats successfully used the filibuster to kill the anti-lynching bill and it died in committee. It was not until 2005 that the United States apologized for not acting on this bill and not until 2018 that the US Senate passed similar legislation.
FDR’s insistence on compromise with the Southern Democrats had consequences for African Americans. In the South, many African Americans did not get equal access to jobs programs, Social Security benefits, or anything else meant to help American workers get back on their feet following the economic crash. In addition, domestic workers and agricultural workers — who were mostly people of color — were excluded from most New Deal benefits, and African American workers were often barred from unionization or given lower priority when seeking jobs through federal jobs programs than white applicants to these programs.
Although the New Deal Coalition allowed Democrats to remain in power for the next thirty years, ultimately it failed. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of the Southern Democrats defected to the Republican party in protest of Lyndon Johnson’s support of this act, and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have capitalized on their racism to gain power.
Did FDR Have a Choice?
Arguably, FDR’s appeasement of the Southern Democrats led not only to the end of the New Deal Coalition some 30 years later, but also to the Democrats’ hard turn to the right during the Bill Clinton era and the serious problems America faces today.
Clearly this was a huge mistake that damaged FDR’s legacy as well as the American people as a whole. However, FDR felt he was making the best choice he could for the country given the circumstances. The Southern Democrats’ threats to block the Social Security Act and other New Deal legislation left the President believing that he had to choose between the economic security of all Americans and the safety of African Americans. And sadly, the choice he made didn’t provide either, since African Americans were mostly excluded from the New Deal.
An argument could be made that grassroots support might have been sufficient to overcome the threat the Southern Democrats represented. Certainly other aspects of the New Deal were accomplished with the help of grassroots activists. For example, FDR hurried to enact agricultural reforms after strikes and other protests by farmers caused him to fear an agrarian revolution, and the fight for Social Security began at the grassroots level.
There was massive outrage about lynchings, but no grassroots response strong enough to force FDR or the Congress to take a more courageous stand. Thus, while a people-powered movement helped shape the New Deal, anti-lynching legislation was left mainly to the President and the Congress to work out. (It is worth noting that Eleanor Roosevelt continued to work with the NAACP to fight for this legislation after its failure despite death threats and smear campaigns against her — her courage should not be discounted despite her failure to convince her husband to stand up to the Southern Democrats.)
Lessons for Modern Progressives
Progressives today face a similar problem to FDR. There is a schism in the Democratic Party between progressives and so-called moderates and both the Democratic and Republican parties are full of “representatives” who are beholden to corporate interests rather than to the people they are elected to serve.
Clearly, corporate-owned politicians comprise a major threat to progressive policy, just as the Southern Democrats were a major threat in the 1930s. The solution to this threat is not compromise — as Andrea Flynn and Susan B. Holmberg of the Roosevelt Institute argue, the Green New Deal can only succeed if it avoids the fatal mistake of enshrining racism into the final legislation. Instead, grassroots activists must intensify efforts to hold representatives’ feet to the fire regardless of how friendly the next office-holder is to progressive interests.
Coalition-building should be done with voters rather than with those currently in power. Demonstrating to former Hillary or Trump voters that they share important values with progressive candidates can help bring those voters into the movement, and hopefully get them to the polls to vote out obstructionists and replace them with progressives.
That is only the first step, however. The major lesson progressives can learn from the ultimate failure of the New Deal Coalition is that outrage is not enough. Many Americans in the 1930s were outraged at the way lynching victims were treated, just as many are outraged today at Congress’ inaction when it comes to ending mass shootings or the barbaric treatment of undocumented immigrant children at our Southern border. But not enough people channeled their outrage into activism to make a difference in the anti-lynching movement, and as a result the Southern Democrats got away with pitting suffering white workers against suffering black workers and enshrining racism into programs meant to help all workers.
Today, progressives get a do-over. Let’s create a coalition of voters and activists that can ensure fundamental change for the entire country.