Hoover and FDR: Liberal or Conservative?

I just watched This Week with George Stephanopoulos (click here to see it). In the second half of the program (for which I cannot find a transcript), people were claiming that Herbert Hoover was the liberal whereas Franklin Roosevelt was the conservative. Someone asserted that Franklin Roosevelt dramatically cut government spending when he came into office, and George Will then pointed out that Herbert Hoover had increased it by over 40 per cent when he was President. George apparently heard Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner agree with this particular scenario of history, for he referred to Geithner’s claim in the first half of the program that FDR “put the brakes on too early” in the early years of his Presidency, thereby worsening the Great Depression (see Transcript).

Many deem the late 1920’s and early 1930’s to be relevant for today, for people look to the past for guidance on what (or what not) to do about our current economic crisis. Conservatives and liberals alike offer different narratives, with conflicting portrayals of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

Here are two liberal narratives:

1. Herbert Hoover believed in free markets and less government, an ideology that ultimately led to the Great Depression. The Depression only got worse under his watch, and his callous Administration did nothing to assist those who were suffering. The economy only got better when FDR became President and instituted programs to help people. You hear this point of view today, as many blame laissezfaire for our current economic mess and propose massive government intervention (e.g., regulation, spending) to ameliorate it.

2. FDR was actually a conservative, whose draconian budget cuts only made the Great Depression worse. Communists, socialists, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, etc., asserted that Roosevelt’s New Deal did not go far enough, and that FDR was in bed with big business interests rather than the American people. The “FDR was too conservative” approach was what Timothy Geithner promulgated on This Week. However, neither Obama nor Geithner want to go as far as communists, socialists, or extreme leftists desire.

Here are three conservative narratives:

1. The economy was actually getting better near the end of Hoover’s Presidency, but FDR’s New Deal prolonged the Depression and made it worse, as unemployment climbed during FDR’s first two terms. In this narrative, what ended the Great Depression was America’s involvement in World War II, not the New Deal. John Stormer presents this view in his landmark 1964 classic, None Dare Call It Treason. On pages 262-265, he offers documentation for these claims.

Today, many conservatives make this argument in response to Liberal Narrative # 1 (see above). As Obama is portrayed as the second FDR, conservatives are ready to respond that the first FDR wasn’t that hot, and that a laissezfaire approach (a la Hoover) is the best way to get the economy moving again.

2. Hoover was a liberal and FDR was a conservative. Hoover increased taxes, government spending, and tariffs, causing America to sink deeper into the Great Depression. FDR, by contrast, reduced government spending and embraced free trade. And, sure enough, America recovered on his watch.

John McCain made this argument in the second 2008 Presidential debate, as he argued that Herbert Hoover’s taxes and protectionism made the Great Depression worse. He made this claim to undermine Obama, who had tax increases and protectionist ideas as part of his platform. And, although Ronald Reagan once quoted a historian who said that FDR got his New Deal idea from Fascism, he also appealed to the conservative FDR. Reagan often said that he did not leave the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party left him. In part of his mind, FDR was actually an advocate for less government.

3. Both Hoover and FDR were big government liberals. Hoover increased taxes and government spending, and FDR continued that trend, in violation of his 1932 campaign promises. Moreover, FDR’s taxes, spending, and regulations hindered the economy and prolonged the Great Depression, which only ended because of American involvement in World War II. For documentation of these claims, see William P. Hoar’s article, A Bad Deal Revisited — Obama and FDR. William P. Hoar is a John Bircher, but he quotes historians who maintain that FDR increased government spending and that unemployment worsened on his watch.

Who’s right? Can all of them be right, in some way, shape, or form? Maybe FDR cut and increased government spending at various points of his Presidency. Perhaps Hoover embraced laissezfaire in some areas but not in others. As far as the Great Depression is concerned, most agree that it lasted for a long time, but we eventually got out of it. Should we celebrate FDR for getting us out of the Depression, or should we castigate him for its length?

I’ve encountered these questions often in my life, largely in the eccentric things that I’ve read (e.g., the Communist Party Platform of 1936, John Birch books, a biography of Huey Long, etc.). Now these questions are part of America’s political mainstream, as leaders ponder how to get America out of its current economic crisis.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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