The 'Tea Party' of the 1930s

The past year's tea party movement is not the first popular uprising against an overtaxing, encroaching, economy-stifling government. Though its past version seems not to have involved much in the way of street demonstrations, it may have been even stronger than the modern phenomenon, at least so far. As noted later, it will be difficult to exceed its electoral performance.

No less a luminary that Michael Barone rediscovered this largely forgotten history while creating his latest book, Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan. Barone, correctly described as "one of the most learned political observers of our time," was the first person to characterize the Obama administration's modus operandi as "Gangster Government" when he wrote in May of last year about how it bullied and shortchanged disfavored secured creditors during Chrysler's bankruptcy proceedings. His April 21, 2010, column ("Gangster Government becomes a long-running series") excoriates the so-called financial regulation bill currently under consideration in the Senate as "the channeling of vast sums from the politically unprotected to the politically connected." One look at the expected workings and powers of the Financial Services Oversight Council the bill envisions confirms Barone's assessment.

Visits to various items published during 1937 and 1938 reveal that the anti-New Deal sentiment Barone learned of had legs -- and impact.

President Obama's stimulus bill passed in February of last year is what ignited an initial storm of protest that has been followed by a growing wave of political activism. In 1937, the equivalent spark was newly reelected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's February 1937 proposal, buttressed by a March fireside chat, to pack the Supreme Court with six additional justices friendly to the New Deal's statism and hostile to the original intent of the Constitution. The fighting words from his address were these: "We have, therefore, reached the point as a nation where we must take action to save the Constitution from the Court and the Court from itself." He didn't lack nerve, did he?

It wasn't long before it became obvious that FDR had vastly overplayed his hand, as Obama would do 72 years later. After an initial lull, public reaction was furious. The proposal was denounced by much of the press, in letter-writing campaigns that ran 9-to-1 against, and even by Gallup polls that never showed majority support. This was a first for a president who had gotten his own way, except with the Court, during the previous four years. A formerly invincible politician had become a bit vulnerable, releasing more than a little pent-up frustration.

It's virtually impossible without having been there to determine which outrages most set off anti-New Dealers -- a group, by the way, that included plenty of Democrats as well as conservatives and Republicans. Here are a few that probably were near the top of the list:

  • There was the utopian community of Greenbelt, Maryland, which was promoted as a place where "the profit motive does not exist," and "Uncle Sam is everybody's landlord." In a foreshadowing of the current stimulus plan's cost per job "created or saved" excess, spending on the supposedly "low cost" project worked out to be more than $16,000 per house, or $250,000 in what's left of today's dollars.
  • The government had gone headlong into many industries, either co-opting or crowding out private players. A Victoria, Texas, newspaper in June 1938 noted that "10,000 WPA (Works Progress Administration) units are making clothing, and ... more than 100,000,000 garments have been produced." It was also going to extraordinary lengths to prop up markets, buying "31,500 tons of dried prunes, 500,000 cases of grapefruit juice, and perhaps even enough wheat to cut down somewhat the tremendous surplus that looms."
  • You want corruption? Apparently there was plenty of it. A Google News Archive search on ["New Deal" corruption] (typed as indicated within quotes) for 1937-1938 returns 246 items, many with dozens of "related" items. The Day of New London, Connecticut, carried an August 17, 1937, story by David Lawrence describing "'the Teapot Dome scandal' of the Roosevelt administration," where "everything possible is being done by the Democratic chieftains to prevent an investigation of the 'racket' by which corporations were shaken down and forced to pay tribute to the Democratic national committee in violation of the corrupt practices act."