By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
What made Franklin Roosevelt so nifty as a politician was his use of the radio. He used to make regular radio addresses nationwide. Radio was one of the rapidly developing technologies of the 1920s, and by the early 1930s, the president could reach, literally, a nationwide audience. He made speeches that became known as the ‘fireside chats’.
Power of Radio
The idea of using the radio was that a family would turn on its radio, and they could sit in their living room and listen to the president directly. Until then, the vast majority of citizens never actually heard or saw their own president, except possibly in a newspaper photograph. From then on, though, it was possible for the president to appeal directly to each voter.
This was a power of which Roosevelt made brilliant use. He understood, for example, that in trying to ‘sell’ one of his policies, he could appeal directly to the voters, and he could ask them to write to their congressmen, and put pressure that way on their representatives. Ever since then, American politicians have understood the power of the media—first radio, then television.
Social Security Act
The political innovations continued well into Roosevelt’s first administration. Perhaps one of the most important of all changes was the passage of the Social Security Act, in 1935. It transformed old age in America, and has continued to do so right up to the present.
Until then, old age had been a period of chronic uncertainty and anxiety. Having access now to a government pension, not a lavish one at first, but nevertheless, money that one could dependably get, made old age a far securer and happier time of life than it had ever previously been.
The Social Security Act also included the principles of unemployment insurance, paid for both by contributions from the worker and by an employer’s payroll tax.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
National Labor Relations Act
The National Labor Relations Act strengthened American trade unions. If one was a unionist, the chances were that they belonged to one of the ethnic Democratic voting blocks in the northern cities. Roosevelt recognized that these were the kinds of people who voted Democratic, that they were a permanent part of the economy, and that, therefore, it behooved him to look after their interests as well. He pressured recalcitrant employers to negotiate with the trade unions.
The National Labor Relations Act set off a wave of union organizing and membership increases, despite the fact that this was a period of high unemployment. Usually, in the past, unions had thrived in periods of high employment when employers had to accept a certain amount of union influence because it was a strong market for workers. Now, even though it was a weak worker’s market, nevertheless, they could make some headway.
New Deal Takes a Hit
By then, though, the New Deal had taken a hit because in 1935, the Supreme Court said that several New Deal programs were unconstitutional. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the the Agricultural Adjustment Agency (AAA) were both overturned by decisions of the Supreme Court in 1935 and 1936.
In 1936, Roosevelt was looking at reelection and campaigning, but he faced all sorts of interesting rivals who’d become critical of his policies and suggested superior alternatives.
One of the rivals was a Catholic priest named Father Charles Coughlin, who, like Roosevelt, was a very skillful advocate of radio, and had a weekly broadcast in which he advocated his own policies of social justice based on Catholic teaching.
At first, he’d been a supporter of the New Deal, but later he became convinced that Roosevelt was working hand-in-hand with the Jews. Consequently, his broadcasts took on a more and more venomous anti-Semitic cast, which led to his alienation from others.
Then there was Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana who’d become a U.S. senator, and was the state’s political boss, having transformed Louisiana politics over the preceding ten years.
Long had a plan called the ‘Share Our Wealth’ plan in which a guaranteed income for every family of $5,000 per year was offered to every family. Whether it could actually have been financed was another matter, but certainly, the promise of it made Long potentially an attractive presidential candidate.
He was a genius of political manipulation and wildly popular for his achievements in his home state, but really, from the point of view of Roosevelt, it was a source of relief when Long was assassinated by one of his many political enemies.
Another fascinating proposal for how to end the Great Depression came from Francis Townsend. According to the Townsend Plan, everyone over 60 ought to agree to retire so that jobs could be taken by younger people. In return for retiring, they’d be given a guaranteed $200 per month, on the understanding that they’d spend it that month. In other words, they mustn’t save it. They must spend it.
The idea was to pour money into the economy to stimulate production, which in turn would stimulate employment.
Common Questions about Roosevelt’s Political Innovations
The National Labor Relations Act strengthened American trade unions. It set off a wave of union organizing and membership increases, despite the fact that this was a period of high unemployment.
The New Deal took a hit because in 1935, the Supreme Court said that several New Deal programs were unconstitutional. The NRA, the National Recovery Administration, and the AAA, the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, were both overturned by decisions of the Supreme Court in 1935 and 1936.
According to the Townsend Plan, everyone over 60 ought to agree to retire so that jobs could be taken by younger people. In return for retiring, they’d be given a guaranteed $200 per month, on the understanding that they’d spend it that month. In other words, they mustn’t save it. They must spend it. The idea was to pour money into the economy to stimulate production, which in turn would stimulate employment.