Did a liberal central state emerge in the USA in the 1930s?

Essay, 2018

13 Pages, Grade: 67


To what extent did a liberal central state emerge in the 1930s?

Carolina Gerwin

Studying the history of the United States of America in the 20th century, the developments of the 1930s play a major role. Not only because of the Great Depression, but especially because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and the achievements of the New Deal, which introduced a new political era in the US and of which we can still see features today.[1] However, the degree of importance of the New Deal is controversial and while some historians are of the opinion that FDR’s political program shaped US political life enormously in the future, others argue that “(t)o the extent that the New Deal yielded an enduring political era, it is notable primarily for its limits.”[2] This academic debate leads to a discussion of how far a liberal central state actually emerged during the 1930s.

For Leuchtenburg, the New Deal was only a “halfway revolution”[3], Wolfinger in contrast uses the example of Philadelphia to argue that a “liberal ascendancy had arrived”[4] while for Chafe, race constituted the “Achilles heel of the liberal tradition, challenging its capacity to grow and to evolve organically in service to democratic values.”[5] While many scholars analyse the overall impact of New Deal programmes and agencies to examine US liberalism in the 1930s, I analyse them with a focus on race, especially African Americans, as this topic is underexplored in literature. But as the New Deal had an enormous impact on the lives of American citizens in general and African Americans in particular, this paper is an important addition to the existing literature. I argue that while the New Deal was indeed an important factor for improving the lives of many Americans during the Great Depression, racial problems of African Americans remained unresolved and many aspects of the New Deal were therefore highly illiberal regarding black Americans. The issue that civil rights for African Americans did not belong to the list of priorities of New Deal liberalists during the first years of Roosevelt’s presidency as civil rights were not seen as a part of their “programmatic liberal vision,”[6] plays a major role in this regard.

Regarding the outline of this paper, after explaining the relevant context, I focus on the National Recovery Administration (NRA) (in conjunction with the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA)) as well as Social Security because, as argued by Schickler, the NRA and Social Security are the two main aspects that determine the significance of the New Deal.[7] While I agree with him, I am of the opinion that the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) as the agricultural counterpart to the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA)[8] must also be examined. After analysing these major aspects of the New Deal, I conclude that their set-up and implementation permitted the discrimination and disadvantage of African Americans in the early 1930s.

Franklin D. Roosevelt became the President of the United States in 1933, at a “time of crisis and opportunity.”[9] After the stock market had crashed in 1929, the US experienced the greatest financial crisis in US history[10] and consequently, large parts of the American population faced a period of misery as the unemployment rate, for instance, rose to 25% and wages were cut.[11] However, the crisis also offered the opportunity of “redirecting American politics and public policy”[12] and Roosevelt’s New Deal marked indeed a turning point in American politics.[13]

Generally, the New Deal order was shaped by three characteristics: Firstly, it had an “ideological character,”[14] namely liberalism and for many Americans, this ideology was born in the New Deal era.[15] Secondly, the New Deal order had a “moral perspective.”[16] The state became the “guarantor of the people’s security”[17] as the federal government recognised the necessity of an activist and central state to establish socio-economic stability. The last characteristic was “a set of political relationships among policy elites, interest groups, and electoral constituencies that decidedly shaped American political life for forty years.”[18]

Regarding the New Deal itself, after Roosevelt’s election victory in November 1932, an article published in Barron’s stated that “the country as a whole has ‘gone hell bent’ for Governor Roosevelt with a loud bang, and it has done so with little or nothing in the way of a definite program offered by the Governor save, perhaps, in the matter of beer.”[19] Although this implies that the New Deal did not have a clear programme, scholars agree nowadays that it was based on three topics, namely Relief, Recovery and Reform.[20] As the Great Depression continued and an increasing number of people demanded help, Roosevelt launched a range of new programmes and agencies, such as the cases I look at, to provide relief for the unemployed, thereby clarifying his opinion that the government was responsible for supporting the poor.[21] Although Chafe believes that by creating new jobs and giving welfare benefits to millions of Americans, and due to Social Security benefits and insurances the goal of providing relief was achieved[22], this paper shows that this does not hold true for African Americans. Regarding the recovery of the economic system, the measures undertaken by Roosevelt are much debated: while Shlaes argue that the policies of Roosevelt’s administration prevented economic recovery and were responsible for the recession in 1937-38,[23] Kaufmann, for instance, is of the opinion that the New Deal was the basis for “a three-decade era of shared economic growth”, and created a “much-needed expansion of industrial democracy” to the employment market.[24] In terms of reform, it is argued that Roosevelt planned to reform American society.[25] The Wagner Act of 1935, some slightly advanced changes regarding the tax system, conversations about health insurance on a national basis, and, more importantly, Roosevelt’s utterances in 1936 and 1937 to concentrate on the bottom-third of the country that is “ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed” confirm this point.[26] However, in the end, the Congress, which consisted mostly of conservatives, hampered any systemically important changes regarding the American society in general and solving social issues in particular.[27]

Due to the above mentioned aspects, liberalism in the New Deal period is often characterised as representing the American working class and therefore the ‘the common man,’[28] as well as providing social security for the ‘forgotten man’.[29] African Americans clearly belonged to those forgotten as they suffered under the Jim Crow system, less than 5% had the right to vote, the faced lynching, physical attacks and segregation regarding jobs, schools and in social spaces.[30] However, as the following analyses of major New Deal agencies and programmes show, the early New Deal did not solve racial issues. Consequently, race continued to be seen as a “diving line” between black and white people in the US.[31]

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) is a federal agency that was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933, which is seen by many Americans as the “most important piece of legislation in American history.”[32] The NRA was responsible for producing “wage and price codes” in cooperation with representatives from both businesses and labor in order to strengthen the economy.[33] While the system worked very well in the beginning, it soon collapsed due to several problems, in particular because it lowered production and wages while rising prices, which was the opposite of what the US economy needed.[34] However, as claimed in the Barron’s in 1935, President Roosevelt himself, in contrast to the above issues, “praised the gains in employment” through the NIRA.[35] What he also overlooked are the discrimination and disadvantages that African Americans faced: While white Americans benefitted from the New Deal and got jobs, many employers fired blacks on a regular basis instead of paying the minimum wages that the NRA prescribed.[36] As many New Deal agencies, such as the NRA, were to a great extent decentralised, local officials were responsible for the allocation of relief.[37] This was problematic as the majority of African Americans lived in the conservative South, where local officials consequently “reinforced the southern political and racial hierarchy.”[38] Consequently, next to point that black Africans were often fired, the discriminatory basis of the NRA can be seen by the fact that many black Americans were repeatedly displaced or had to tolerate wage differences.[39] Moreover, the legislation of the NRA allowed the exclusion of African Americans from craft unions where laws permitted higher wages.[40] And although blacks who worked in agricultural or industrial sectors were not included in the NRA codes and therefore did not benefit from higher wages, they still had to pay more money for goods and services mandated under the NRA.[41] These statements confirm Valocchi’s claim that the NRA promoted the economic gap between white and black workers by enshrining “common practices”, i.e. the discriminating acts against African Americans, in the national legislation of the US and in the implementation of it.[42] illustrating the issue that the meaning of liberalism in the early 1930s did not include the reinforcement of civil rights.[43]


[1] Alan Brinkley, „The New Deal Experiments,” in The Achievement of American Liberalism: The New Deal and its Legacies, edited by. William H. Chafe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 19.

[2] Gareth Davies, “The New Deal in 1940: Embattled or Entrenched?”, in America at the Ballot Box, edited by. Gareth Davies, Julian E. Zelizer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 153-54.

[3] William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (New York: Harper& Row, Publishers, 1963), 347.

[4] James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 56.

[5] William H. Chafe, “Race in America: The ultimate Test of Liberalism,” in The Achievement of American Liberalism: The New Deal and Its Legacies, edited by William H. Chafe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 179.

[6] Eric Schickler, Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016),27.

[7] Schickler, Racial Realignment, 35.

[8] Steve Valocchi, “The Racial Basis of Capitalism and the State, and the Impact of the New Deal on African Americans”, Social Problems, Vol. 41, No. 3 (August 1994): 353.

[9] Robert Westbrook, “The liberal agony: Why there was no new New Deal”, Christian Century Foundation (September 20, 2011), 22.

[10] Thomas Ferguson, “Industrial Conflict and the Coming of the New Deal: The Triumph of Multinational Liberalism in America,” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-80, edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 3.

[11] William H. Chafe, “Introduction”, in The Achievement of American Liberalism: The New Deal and Its Legacies, edited by William H. Chafe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), xii.

[12] Westbrook, “The liberal agony”, 22.

[13] Chafe, “Introduction”, xiii.

[14] Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, “Introduction,” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-80, edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), xi.

[15] Schickler, Racial Realignment, 42.

[16] Fraser and Gerstle, “Introduction,” xi.

[17] Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided, 47.

[18] Fraser and Gerstle, “Introduction,”, xi.

[19] Barron's,"The "New Deal",” November 14, 1932.

[20] Chafe, “Introduction”, xiv.

[21] Brinkley, „The New Deal Experiments,”, 4-5.

[22] Chafe, “Introduction”, xiv.

[23] Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (London: Pimlico, 2007), 9.

[24] Bruce E. Kaufmann, “Wage Theory, New Deal Labor Policy, and the Great Depression: Were Government and Unions to Blame?,” ILR Review 65, No. 3 (July 2012), 524.

[25] Chafe, “Introduction,” xiv.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. xiv-xv.

[28] Eric Schickler and Devin Caughey, “Public Opinion, Organized Labor, and the Limits of New Deal Liberalism, 1936–1945,” Studies in American Political Development 25 (October 2011): 188.

[29] Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided, 58.

[30] Chafe, “Race in America,” 162.

[31] Ibid., 161.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Brinkley, “The New Deal Experiments”, 11.

[34] Ibid., 12.

[35] Barron's, "News from Washington," January 07, 1935.

[36] Valocchi, “The Racial Basis of Capitalism and the State, and the Impact of the New Deal on African Americans”, 353.

[37] Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 19.

[38] Sklaroff, Black Culture and the New Deal, 19.

[39] Ibid., 19-20.

[40] Valocchi, “The Racial Basis of Capitalism and the State, and the Impact of the New Deal on African Americans”, 353.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Schickler, Racial Realignment, 27.

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Did a liberal central state emerge in the USA in the 1930s?
University College London
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USA, liberalism, New Deal, Great Depression, Roosevelt, race, African Americans, National Recovery Administration (NRA), Social Security Act, Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), discrimination, civil rights, Liberalismus, Große Depression
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Carolina Gerwin (Author), 2018, Did a liberal central state emerge in the USA in the 1930s?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/510902


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