On the election that solidified the New Deal.
Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal by David Pietrusza (2022, Diversion Books), 544 pages.
It’s no easy task to write an authoritative book on something as large and complex as a United States presidential election. That is what David Pietrusza has done. His sixth and latest book, Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal, chronicles the electoral mandate that catapulted Franklin Delano Roosevelt into a second term and permanently entrenched the New Deal as part of the American political and economic system.
The year began with an unemployment rate of over 20 percent, which would drop to 13.9 percent by election day. Critical industries were functioning at half capacity, and “the real income of the average family remained thirteen percent below that of 1929.” Desperate masses, some of them in economic freefall for over half a decade, searched for any kook, crank, or demagogue who promised a magic solution.
Third-party movements and other eccentrics take-up over a third of the book, arguably receiving more attention than Roosevelt’s real electoral opponents, Alf Landon and Frank Knox. There is Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, whose prophesied showdown with Roosevelt ended with an assassin’s bullet; Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest” of Royal Oak, Michigan, whose voice instructed ten million listeners with hatred of capitalism, communism, and Franklin Roosevelt; and the featherbrained Dr. Francis Townsend, whose budget-busting pension proposal made this dull septuagenarian a savior to millions of elderly.
Together, Landon and Knox formed the weakest, most lackluster Republican ticket of the twentieth century. After a lucrative business career as an oilman in the 1920s, Alf Landon was miraculously elected and re-elected governor of Kansas in the Democratic landslides of 1932 and 1934. His balanced budgets, efficient management, and “quiet friendliness” made him the clear Republican front-runner, not that there was much competition. Frank Knox had served in both the Spanish-American War and the First World War and had developed himself as a successful (if humorless) newspaper editor and general manager, including of the Chicago Daily News.
Both self-identified as progressive Republicans, having bolted the party in 1912 to support the ambitions of Theodore Roosevelt. “Harding-Coolidge-Mellon style conservatism was dead (or hibernating so soundly no one could tell the difference),” writes Pietrusza. Their electoral pitch was not New Deal repeal but a New Deal better administered.
“Both of these guys are fairly new to politics,” explains Pietrusza in an interview with TAC. “Franklin Roosevelt has been doing this since 1910, running for office. He’s been in New York, he’s been in a big state. Landon has two terms of two years each, in a small state. And that’s his electoral experience. Frank Knox has no electoral experience.”
Even with the death of his longtime confidant and campaign manager, Louis Howe, Roosevelt knew his best strategy for 1936. Four years earlier, he had swerved between sounding either more progressive or more conservative than Herbert Hoover depending on the polls and his mood. But in 1936, he would launch an aggressive battlecry against any fellow bluebloods who opposed his economic experimentation.
“He picks the right opponents. He doesn’t waste time attacking the radicals on the left, whether they’re socialists or populists. He doesn’t talk about them,” Pietrusza explains. “But he wages essentially a class warfare starting from the December 1935 State of the Union address. And so he’s ripping on the guys with the silk hats, and the Wall Street ‘economic royalists.”
Roosevelt’s campaign concluded with a Madison Square Garden speech whose language shocked even some of his admirers. “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
According to Brain Truster and central-planner wannabe Rexford Tugwell, Roosevelt “saw no alternative, in the long run, to creating a new force. A new progressivism…one capable of succeeding where that of Bryan, of Wilson, of La Follette the elder, of Uncle Ted, had failed.”
The results on election day shattered records: “27,747,636 votes for FDR; 16,679,543 for Landon; 60.8 percent of the vote for FDR; a pathetic 36.5 percent for Landon; and, most famously, 523 electoral votes for FDR; an even more pitiable eight for Landon.”
Downballot was the same. Republicans continued to lose seats in the House of Representatives, dwindling to a moribund 88. They were reduced to just 16 senators, their smallest since before the Civil War. And the GOP only claimed success in four out of 34 available governorships, barely inching out third parties, which took three.
Roosevelt Sweeps Nation gives several reasons for this historic pummeling. Landon was a monotonous and ill-equipped public speaker. John L. Lewis, president of United Mine Workers, described him as “empty, inane, and innocuous as a watermelon…boiled in a bathtub.” In contrast, writes Pietrusza, Roosevelt “oozed charm and reassurance.”
But the biggest factor was money. Officially, the Democratic Party spent over $5 million during the campaign. Some estimations put Republican expenditure as high as $12 million. But that doesn’t take into account the billions spent by the administration in what amounted to bribes with the public treasury.
“New Deal programs put people on the payroll—people who would look upon FDR as their savior and their friend, who would vote not just for him but for the entire Democratic ticket. And so would their families. In 1936, New Deal agencies such as the WPA, PWA, CCC, and NYA employed over 4 million persons,” Pietrusza summarizes. “Few receiving a government check cared whether that check was constitutional or not. Many more resented hearing that it wasn’t from folks they suspected of having crashed the economy in the first place.”
“The elections would have been much closer,” admitted Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, “had my party not had a four billion, eight hundred million dollar relief bill as campaign fodder.”
In a September address to New York Democratic county chairs, Postmaster General Jim Farley, a key dispenser of patronage, confidentially instructed the assembly to have Works Project Administration foremen advise their workers the day before the election that if Roosevelt is defeated, they would all be made unemployed. Adding insult to injury, the White House funneled WPA money into Kansas, drubbing Landon in his home state by an almost 8 percent margin.
For the first time in American history, blacks voted majority Democratic, an estimated 71 percent. They have been supporting the party ever since.
“When you have 40 percent of the black population receiving either government employment or relief, that’s going to influence them,” Pietrusza tells TAC. “In 1936, the older black population remains Republican. They still see that it’s the party of Lincoln and the Democratic Party as the party of the south. But all the younger people, who are probably in those work programs and such, they see what the New Deal is doing and they flip over substantially to Roosevelt and the New Deal.”
The most apropos description of voters’ motivation, applicable to both 1936 and today, was given by the Nation’s Ben Stolberg: “The American people do not crave New Deals, which they cannot understand, or Epics or Utopias or technocracies. They just want more money.”
Pietrusza spreads this lesson throughout Roosevelt Sweeps Nation, along with his usual inclusion of short stories, quick asides, and small details that never cease to enrich his narratives.
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Landon’s walloping in 1936 ensured that even a future conservative ascendancy would not threaten New Deal creations like Social Security, and it would pave the way for the longest presidency in American history—with global consequences.
As results piled in on election night, and the size of the landslide became apparent, a crowd of supporters gathered outside Roosevelt’s mother’s home in Hyde Park, carrying torchlights and enduring the evening’s light rain. The victorious candidate addressed them as flashbulbs snapped. “This has been my sixth election experience. There was 1910, 1912 [sic], 1928, 1930, and now 1936.” Someone from the crowd shouted back, “And there’ll be 1940, too.”
The Chicago Tribune reports that FDR “beamed.”