Michael Barone's Tenditious History

Electoral historian and Fox News commentator Michael Barone, having long since made the trek from mainstream liberal to standard-issue conservative, is now endeavoring to pull the whole of American history along with him. In today’s Financial Times, he argues that Franklin Roosevelt never really won majority support for his key New Deal programs. Those programs now stand on the chopping block should Mitt Romney be elected president next Tuesday, Barone writes, and they lack popular support even if Barack Obama should prevail.

As Barone sees it, “even in straitened economic circumstances, most Americans do not want and will not reward politically a vast expansion of the size and scope of government.” Since he is advancing a general thesis here, not merely an analysis of the Obama administration’s alleged overreach, he extends this argument backward to the 1930s. Roosevelt’s landslide re-election of 1936, in which he won 61 percent of the popular vote and carried every state save Maine and Vermont, came one year after FDR signed the two bills that were the centerpiece of the New Deal, the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. But Roosevelt’s landslide, Barone contends, shouldn’t be taken as in any way a landslide of support for those measures.

The results of ’36 were close to the results of ’34, with Democrats extending their majorities in cities while doing a little less well in rural areas. So in actuality, Barone concludes, the landslide was simply a continuation of support for FDR’s pre-1935 National Recovery Act efforts to bolster the economy, not for the more redistributionist Social Security and NLRA. The proof of Barone’s pudding is the election of 1938, when Republicans picked up 80 House seats.

That’s a rather stunningly selective reading of history. First, Social Security was explicitly an issue in the ’36 presidential race. Republican nominee Alf Landon termed the act “unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed.” It’s not as if voters that year weren’t presented with a choice on Social Security, and their choice was to support it and the president who championed it. Second, the Republican comeback of 1938 had many causes, chief among them the steep recession into which the economy plunged in 1937 when Roosevelt, at the behest of his anti-Keynesian Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau, balanced the budget while unemployment was still well in the double digits. Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme—his thwarted effort to expand the number of Supreme Court justices to get more liberals on the bench—also cost him the support of many centrist voters. Barone may be on firmer ground by arguing (which he does only implicitly) that there was some backlash against the union activism of 1937-8 that the NLRA made more possible, but that hardly confirms his larger thesis.

A more dispassionate assessment of Americans’ historic support for government programs would acknowledge that beginning in the mid-‘60s, much of the white backlash against such programs was rooted in the largely mistaken belief that government programs were intended chiefly, if not only, to help racial minorities. That was certainly the way Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers campaigned against Obamacare: That a program to help the uninsured mainly helped minorities, which was reason alone to oppose it.

The racist roots of anti-government sentiment are nowhere to be found in Barone’s account of the perils of the American semi-welfare state. Instead, he finds only that Americans have always been wary of expansive government programs, and that a President Romney will have plenty of support when he axes them. The first finding is flat-out wrong, and the second—if we do indeed have a President Romney—is likely to be as well. 

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