Friday, July 5, 2013

Roosevelt’s Volte Face

Roosevelt’s volte face was basically this: in the 1933 election he had campaigned as a kind of fiscal conservative in favour of a balanced federal budget, and that can be seen in the Democratic Party Platform of 1932:
“The Democratic Party solemnly promises by appropriate action to put into effect the principles, policies, and reforms herein advocated, and to eradicate the policies, methods, and practices herein condemned. We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government. And we call upon the Democratic Party in the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.

We favor maintenance of the national credit by a federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues, raised by a system of taxation levied on the principle of ability to pay.”
Democratic Party Platform, 1932
Austrians and libertarians make a big deal of this, yet when one reads the rest of the policy platform one finds somewhat progressive stances as well, such as the following:
“We advocate the extension of federal credit to the states to provide unemployment relief wherever the diminishing resources of the states makes it impossible for them to provide for the needy; expansion of the federal program of necessary and useful construction effected [sic] with a public interest, such as adequate flood control and waterways.

We advocate the spread of employment by a substantial reduction in the hours of labor, the encouragement of the shorter week by applying that principle in government service; we advocate advance planning of public works.

We advocate unemployment and old-age insurance under state laws.”
In short, the Democratic Party Platform of 1932 was a mixed bag, but there is no denying its concern with eliminating federal deficits.

I suspect that most American voters really paid very little attention to the “fiscally conservative” rhetoric Roosevelt was using in 1933. Most Americans were sick and tied of three years of deflationary depression and voted against Hoover by voting for his major opponent.

Once Roosevelt got into office he abandoned his immediate concern with fiscal conservatism until he turned to it once again in 1937 and actually nearly balanced the budget in a move that induced another recession in 1937–1938.

But, above all, before this second recession induced by austerity the American people had voted Roosevelt into office again, re-electing him, and giving the vote of confidence in his shift to intervention in the election of 1936:
“The United States presidential election of 1936 was the most lopsided presidential election in the history of the United States in terms of electoral votes. In terms of the popular vote, it was the third biggest victory since the election of 1820, which was not seriously contested. The election took place as the Great Depression entered its eighth year. Incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt was still working to push the provisions of his New Deal economic policy through Congress and the courts. However, the New Deal policies he had already enacted, such as Social Security and unemployment benefits, had proven to be highly popular with most Americans … Although some political pundits predicted a close race, Roosevelt went on to win the greatest electoral landslide since the beginning of the current two-party system in the 1850s, carrying all but 8 electoral votes. Roosevelt carried every state except Maine and Vermont.”,_1936
So it is quite clear that Roosevelt’s New Deal and volte face on fiscal policy won him the election of 1936!


  1. Lord Keynes,

    Good post. People generally do not like governments that support austerity. The recent election in Italy is a good example of this with Mario Monti’s faction getting trounced at the polls.

  2. The volte-face can be overemphasized.(Roosevelt was always two-faced? :-) ) Amidst a lot of deficit-hawkery, in his main 1932 campaign address on the budget is:

    "At the same time, let me repeat from now to election day so that every man, woman and child in the United States will know what I mean: If starvation and dire need on the part of any of our citizens make necessary the appropriation of additional funds which would keep the budget out of balance, I shall not hesitate to tell the American people the full truth and ask them to authorize the expenditure of that additional amount."

    October 19, 1932 Campaign Address on the Federal Budget at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

    Got this from Philip Harvey's The New Deal's Direct Job Creation Strategy: Providing Employment Assurance for American Workers - note his quote from FDR's first Inaugural Address too.