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Saturday, March 19, 2011

In the last crisis

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.


Anonymous said...

Despite the fact that it was French war planes
which launched the first attacks, it's clear that this
early phase of the operations is an overwhelmingly
American affair - all but a very small number of
cruise missiles have been fired from American ships
and submarines.

Only they have the capability to inflict the sort of
damage to Libya's air defences that's needed before
a no-fly zone can be safely patrolled, a point
alluded to by President Obama even as he repeated
the limits of American involvement.

President Obama has launched these attacks with
great reluctance and seems anxious that this not be
interpreted as yet another American-led foray into
the Arab world.

But for all his desire to be seen to take a back seat,
he and everyone else knows that this sort of thing
doesn't happen unless Washington is deeply

Paul Adams
BBC News, Washington

Anonymous said...

We have no confidence in our government because it deserves no confidence...well, maybe it does, but every attempt it makes to solve a problem seems to just make it worse.

No New Deal this time, or in the 2020'3, 2030's or 2040's. Nothing but the dead and the dying on the Left, and the whole Progressive movement has passed its time.

I always thought of myself as a Moderate, and proudly voted for Obama, but have now come to realize that the Conservatives are right. Not about everything...man-made global warming is real and dangerous...but the solutions from the Left are no solutions at all.

The best thing for the states, in the long run, is the complete and permanent elimination of public employee unions.

Bozon said...


Many thanks for a great capsule of polls on key issues in the 30s.

Another wonderful use of what we called sadistics, back in the MBA program.)

I had suspected some of these outcomes, thought they would be greater magnitudes in some cases.

I am curious how closely Roosevelt 'followed' poll data, back then.

We have long had politicians, not statesmen, who have built careers on 'following' public opinion.

That has not been so good for Americans, generally, partly because public opinion has been shaped in great measure by private institutions, news and entertainment, whose agendas, sometimes closely associated with a particular party or candidate, but always in the background, have also usually been, especially lately, either marketing of entertainment or marketing of news, but 'marketing', rather than nonpartisan enlightenment or insight, either way.

all the best,

partisan said...

I wish the polls indicated what you think about the weakness of racism. But I'm afraid they only deal with easy questions. The KKK had after all passed its peak a decade ago, and was also virulently anti-Catholic. And lynching is an attack on the rule of law, which by itself does not guarantee the justice of that law. I suspect that polls dealing with Jewish refugees, miscegenation or housing segregration would not nearly be as heartening.

Anonymous said...

Harvard Isn’t Worth It Beyond Mom’s Party Chatter:
Book by Amity Shlaes


I had known that all along and sent my child
elsewhere. One just needs to see the people
Harvard produces at work not to want any part
of it.

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered your amazing writings. Thank you for your gifted inisghts to the truths. Lookikng forward to reading all your past posts.

Anonymous said...

Yes, politics has gone downhill.

People of my age (I'm in my 40's) may not admit it, but they find the idea of a government agency working competently and producing its desired effects as hard to imagine as the idea of walking out the door and falling up! It's not that we object to government programs that work...it's just that we believe such a thing is impossible in this universe.

This leads me to think that it will take a long, long, long time for the current Unraveling to "re-ravel" and for trust in institutions to return to our society. More than the 20 years of this crisis...more like 50 years!

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

If the US government were simply a business, and we citizens were simply its customers, how many of us over the past 90 years would have defected to a new vendor?

For an answer by proxy, consider the fate of the original 1917 "Forbes 100" list of largest American companies. By 1987, 61% had ceased to exist, only 18% managed to stay in the top 100, and only two--General Electric and Eastman Kodak--outperformed stock market averages over the entire period.[1]

In other words, customers changed, but most companies didn't. Citizens changed too.

The key to organizational survival is the ability to acquire and maintain resources.[2] If a company wants to survive, it needs to acquire and maintain customers and capital. If a government wants to survive, all it really needs is capital, since citizens cannot practically defect like customers can.

By extension, the key challenge for our government today is how to secure capital from sources other than citizens. The president who solves this problem peacefully will deserve a monument even larger than Roosevelt's.

With respect and affection,
Jude Hammerle

(1) Foster & Kaplan, Creative Destruction, 2001, pp 7-9.
(2) Pfeffer & Salancik, The External Control of Organizations, 1978, p.2.