In connection with my current research on the U.S. entry into the Second World War, I picked up a weighty volume of Gallup polls from 1936 to 1948. The results regarding foreign policy are full of surprises, but I will save most of them for the book. The opinions revealed about domestic policy are extremely revealing about the profound changes in American opinion that have taken place in the last 75 years.
By the years 1937-9 the glory days of the New Deal were pretty much over. Roosevelt's first initiative of his second term--his plan to enlarge, or pack, the Supreme Court--turned the public (which immediately opposed the plan, albeit by a relatively narrow margin) and the Congress decisively against him, and only one significant piece of domestic legislation, regulating wages and hours, passed Congress in 1937-39. Yet the philosophy of the New Deal commanded broad support. In March 1937 53% of respondents favored a Constitutional amendment "granting Congress greater power to regulate industry and agriculture." (For most of this period Gallup simply eliminated respondents who had no opinion from his results.) A poll in April 1937 explicitly favored progressive income tax rates, albeit rather low ones, ranging from 1% for an income fo $3000 to 10% for an income of $100,000. In July of that year 63% of respondents thought Congress should remain in session rather than adjourn "to consider new Deal legislation on wages and hours, housing, farm tenancy, and the Supreme Court." 69% agreed that government regulation of stock exchanges had helped investors. In 1938 59% supported the pending wages and hours bill. Large majorities thought the government should cut taxes on companies that distributed some of their profits to their workers and advocated allowing workers to elect a member of the board of directors. Roosevelt had not, however, converted the country to the idea of deficit spending, about which he remained deeply ambivalent. Despite the new recession,more than 60% of respondents repeatedly opposed increased government spending as a solution, and FDR's decision to adopt it anyway in the nest year may have contributed to the big Democratic losses in the 1938 Congressional elections. In addition, while 75% of the nation favored labor unions generally, big majorities opposed the sit-down strikes that eventually began the organization of the auto industry in early 1937, and majorities disliked the militant C.I.O and the closed shop and favored more regulation of unions. The country, meanwhile, both supported a larger Army and Navy in the late 1930s (although not to fight in a European war), and was more than willing to pay higher taxes to support it.
The country also showed remarkable confidence. Unemployment was beginning to rise again in the spring of 1937 but two-thirds of respondents thought that "the unemployment problem can be solved." It also trusted, by and large, its leadership. FDR's approval rating never fell below 55% in this period, and a similar majority said that Congress was doing a good job.
Despite the false picture that has no been painted by Boomer historians, racist attitudes did not dominate the United States as a whole in the late 1930s. When Hugo Black of Alabama was revealed to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan after his appointment to the Supreme Court, 59% of respondents called for his resignation if the accusation proved true. It did, but after Black's radio address disclaiming any continuing connection with the organization, a majority swung over to his side. A substantial majority of Americans supported anti-lynching legislation. 67% of respondents praised Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization refused to rent Constitution Hall to the great black singer Marian Anderson. Sexist attitudes, however, did. Eleanor Roosevelt's approval ratings were very high, but in early 1937 large majorities of both men and women said they would not vote for a woman for President, and Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, was nearly the most unpopular member of the cabinet. Only 22% of respondents (and 25% of women) approved of married women with employed husbands "earning money in business or industry" themselves.
Most of today's social issues were not yet on the radar in the late 1930s, but polls revealed very different attitudes on certain questions that those today. In April 1938 84% of respondents agreed that "all owners of pistols and revolvers should be required to register with the Government." In the midst of a desperate recession, a bare majority opposed the use of state lotteries to raise money, and larger majority opposed the use of games of chance by churches to raise money. Large majorities, on the other hand, rejected a return to Prohibition. And in a chilling reminder that attitudes towards human life remained quite different, in the spring of 1939 46% of respondents favored "mercy deaths under Government supervision for hopeless invalids"--including a bare majority of respondents 21 to 29 years of age, that is, the heart of the GI or "greatest" generation.
One interesting set of results commands particular attention. Roosevelt and the New Deal did practice class warfare--albeit with limited objectives--and the public knew it. In the spring of 1939 the President was generally approved b y 38% of upper income people, 54% of middle, 74% of low, and 82% of "reliefers," those receiving public assistance. Huge majorities of the upper and middle income groups opposed a third term for the President; huge majorities of the two poorer groups supported one. In 1940 professionals professed a Republican rather than a Democratic affiliation by 44% to 27%, as did businessmen by 48% to 29% (a full 19% of the country declared themselves independents.) All other occupational groups, however, favored the Democrats.
The American people in the late 1930s were far worse off than they are now and lived far more difficult lives, but they had a much greater belief in their leaders and their institutions than they do now--and with good reason. They had a much stronger sense of fiscal responsibility, both personally and as a nation, but they believed in a strong government role in the economy and they believed in labor unions. Interestingly enough, the New Deal's public works programs topped the lists of both the best and worst things that Roosevelt had done. Outside the South white Americans were clearly far less racist than commonly supposed, but most Americans shared the belief that women's place was in the home. Most of my friends would agree that we have gained in some areas and lost in others since then, but sadly, I must conclude that overall, our political system has lost far more ground than it has gained--and it shows.