The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A stronger welfare state is the key to saving democracy from extremism

Democrats’ policies aim to address societal problems to make fascism and socialism less attractive.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first radio “fireside chat” in Washington in March 1933. Roosevelt's New Deal was a try-anything moment during the Great Depression that remade the role of the federal government in American life. (AP)
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Republicans frequently charge that Democratic ideas are socialist or radical. But there is deep irony in these charges: Democrats are trying to grow and strengthen a social safety net that dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. And far from being radical, the New Deal aimed to save the United States from the growing popular allure of undemocratic extremist philosophies such as Italian fascism. This history offers a blueprint for President Biden at another moment when undemocratic philosophies, specifically those tied to Donald Trump and his proteges, entice Americans.

During the 1920s, government became increasingly disconnected from the American people because of its inability to deal with the transition to an industrial economy. Rural Americans suffered the most, since mechanization on farms led to mounting debts and falling prices. Congress debated farm relief throughout the decade but couldn’t reach an agreement.

According to observers such as New York Times journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick, legislators’ lack of expertise was part of the problem. It left them floundering over complex issues such as subsidies and surpluses. This poor governance, in turn, made for apathetic citizens. Less than 50 percent of eligible voters had gone to the polls in 1920 and 1924 because Americans viewed elections as a spectator activity that lay outside “the class of major sporting events,” McCormick wrote.

Higher turnout in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover faced Democrat Al Smith, didn’t alter McCormick’s conviction that democracy was defunct. Irrational prejudices drove many votes that year. The journalist quoted a Montana farmer who said she would vote against Smith, who was Catholic, because he would “bring every one of them lazy Catholic Mexicans into this country.” Elections required more information and intelligence than most voters possessed, McCormick suggested.

The Great Depression laid bare the inadequacy of government-as-usual. The Senate debated an entertainment fund for diplomats in 1931 while McCormick sat in the visitor’s gallery, aghast. “We are living in the midst of maladjustments that will probably be the constant factor of life for fifty years. And so far as you can see and hear, no real sense of these events has penetrated the capital,” she wrote.

Hoover personified the disconnect between government and the people. Elected when many businesses were booming, the president hesitated when the crisis hit, imagining that the economy would right itself. McCormick described a leader who was in his element conferring with “business men in all parts of the country over the long-distance telephone,” but who struggled to show ordinary Americans that he cared.

McCormick’s views on the state of American democracy were representative of a broad swath of opinion in the 1920s and early 1930s. The vast majority of Americans were disenchanted. Many turned inward and avoided politics entirely.

McCormick bluntly summarized the problem: the “fuse that made the contact between Government and everyday life” was “burned-out.”

And she and others who still cared about politics, such as Richard Washburn Child, the U.S. ambassador to Italy in the early 1920s, saw the solution in Italian fascism. Child thought that dictators such as Benito Mussolini addressed “the really significant social and economic questions which industrialism thrusts increasingly into the faces of mankind.”

In contrast to the mediocre members of Congress, unelected fascist lawmakers claimed expertise, which enabled them to craft complex legislation. Herbert Schneider, a Columbia University professor of moral philosophy, praised laws — from rural credit to agricultural education — that helped Italians adapt to a modernizing economy.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the differences between Italian efficacy and American inaction seemed even more pronounced. Italy launched a “spectacular” program of public works to construct roads, produce hydroelectric power and build suburban homes, McCormick reported in 1931.

Good governance made for popular government, according to these American fans of fascism. Political rallies were big in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of people met in piazzas and chanted “Viva il fascismo! Viva Mussolini!” Fascism represented “the true will of the people,” Child wrote. While Italians did not vote in free and fair elections, they endorsed the regime wholeheartedly, he thought.

Many Americans shared in this celebration of fascism. In the early years of the Depression, newspapers across the United States praised Mussolini as a defender of the poor who listened to Italians and responded to their needs. McCormick described him as the one leader who was fully “alive in a world peopled by the half-dead.”

But this rosy gloss belied a far darker reality. The Italian regime forced farmers to mass-produce wheat and neglect nutritious crops. Italians went hungry. This was not expert government — it was state-sponsored exploitation. Popular expressions of enthusiasm were rarely spontaneous, since access to jobs and welfare depended on them. Mussolini was good at posing for photographs with ordinary people. But he made their daily lives worse.

Child, McCormick and Schneider yearned for activism and empathy in government. Since they were unable to find it in the United States, they fantasized about its existence abroad and fetishized Italian fascism.

Enter Roosevelt. In 1932, the New York governor defeated Hoover on the promise of a New Deal. Roosevelt drew on his own experience in government, as well as the expertise of economists, social workers and business leaders to implement pragmatic policies. In his first 100 days as president, he pushed through bills for public works, farm relief and rural development, among other major reforms.

Americans who sympathized with Italian fascism loved Roosevelt. Child launched a League of Republicans for Roosevelt. McCormick championed the president’s policies in the New York Times. Schneider traveled to Rome to lecture on the successes of the New Deal.

It might be tempting to imagine that American fans of Mussolini supported Roosevelt because the New Deal was a form of fascism lite, as ex-president Hoover charged. In reality, Roosevelt knew that inequality, insecurity and ineffectual governance created conditions in which fascism flourished. He understood that the New Deal needed to demonstrate democracy’s worth to ward off fascism’s appeal.

And it did: Child, McCormick and Schneider gradually lost interest in Italian fascism because Roosevelt made democracy meaningful once more.

With empathy rather than condescension, Roosevelt translated technical policy issues into terms that most Americans could understand. The president invited citizens to criticize the New Deal, aware that public opposition distinguished democracy from dictatorship.

Traveling through the Midwest and South in 1934, McCormick noticed that conversations were “livelier, more critical” and “better informed.” She heard plenty of objections to New Deal policies, but even critics liked feeling that their government cared.

Schneider appreciated that the New Deal prevented families from going hungry in the short term while stabilizing agricultural production and protecting workers’ rights in the long term. Child simply admired the “courage” in Roosevelt’s approach.

In short, Roosevelt reconnected the “fuse” between government and everyday life by responding effectively to a crisis and enabling the transition to a modern industrial economy. Communicating his policies directly to Americans and welcoming differences of opinion, he cultivated a capacious public sphere and dashed the appeal of fascism. Roosevelt offers a blueprint for Biden, who can reinvigorate American democracy and stave off the threats confronting it with policies that help Americans deal with economic dislocation. Just as importantly, he can bring back empathy and remind all Americans that their government is there for them.

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