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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

An Earlier “Tea Party”


Lessons from the 1930’s

Both Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt began their presidency by inheriting a country in economic meltdown. Both were Washington, D.C. outsiders who had mobilized broad, new coalitions in order to reach the White House. Both achieved dramatic legislative successes in their first two years in office. Both engendered tremendous right of center opposition bordering on genuine hatred.

Obama spawned the Tea Party movement in 2009. FDR provided the catalyst for something called the American Liberty League in 1934. The two movements, separated by more than 75 years, have as much in common as the circumstances of the Obama and Roosevelt presidencies. The language each used – focused on the Constitution the Founders envisioned, the threat to the country from “socialist” policies, and the insidious hand of big government – is nearly interchangeable, at times eerily so.

In their book – All But the People – George Wolfskill and John Hudson described the leaders of the anti-FDR Liberty League as focused on the Constitution and private property and convinced that the country was bound for socialism or fascism, or both.

In the mid-1930’s, leaders of the Liberty League were convinced that FDR was trampling on the Constitution and, as Wolfskill and Hudson wrote in their 1969 book, the country was “on the brink of chaos, threatened by bankruptcy, socialism, dictatorship, and tyranny” there is a “trend toward Fascist control” of the economy and on top of all that the banking industry had been taken over by the federal government.

One Tea Party website today says: “In this current day and age of politics many of (our) freedoms and liberties have come under attack, and are in danger of being taken away altogether. The Constitution of the United States, which is the definitive document that governs all of America, is routinely violated, disregarded, and trampled on by the very persons we have elected to defend and uphold it.”

New Deal historian David Woolner has written: “In hundreds of published pamphlets, the (Liberty) League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President’s leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers.”

Hard times – in 1934 or 2010 – engender uncertainty and, yes, some chaos. It has happened before in our history. One thing that is different from FDR’s day to ours is that the Democratic president in 1934 had no hesitancy to take on those who came at him. The country didn’t dissolve, despite the overheated rhetoric, into “socialism” or “fascism” and the Constitution has survived. FDR fought back against his critics and, even with a new wave of New Deal revisionism underway, has been vindicated by history.

Roosevelt seemed to almost relish the battle with his opponents. He attacked the Liberty League as agents of Wall Street and he termed his well-funded opponents as the “malefactors of great wealth” who did not care about those less fortunate. When FDR ran for re-election in 1936 he famously said: “Never before in all our history have these forces (the anti-New Deal, Roosevelt forces) been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” Talk about a bring ’em on statement.

New Deal scholar Woolner noted recently, “President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November.”

Two lessons here. One, politics is a contact sport. If you are not pushing back on your opponents, you are most often loosing ground. Two, Americans reward conviction, not process.

Obama has a narrowing window to recast the last year or so as being about what FDR said in 1934, getting the country on sound footing and taking care of those Americans who don’t need a handout, but a hand up. Roosevelt vigorously defended his activist government as what was needed when the country faced enormous economic and social challenges.

Obama’s term so far has often been defined by “process” – the legislative process to write a health care bill, the process to find a path forward in Afghanistan, the process to cap an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Process isn’t politics. Emotion and conviction are.

Harry Truman said “the only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the American Liberty League in 1934 offers a playbook for the current president. Has he read the history?

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