From New International, Vol.4 No.5, May 1938, pp.131-133.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Old Two-Party System in the United States Is Dying – The Significance of the Rifts in the Loose Coalition That Brought the Roosevelt New Deal Into Office – The Anti-Roosevelt Bloc in Congress and the Wages-Hours Bill – Roosevelt, Back to Where He Started, Proposes a New Spending Program – The Timid Lochinvar from Wisconsin and the Impending Political Regroupment in the US
FOR THREE QUARTERS of a century, the Democratic-Republican “two-party system” has provided an adequate framework for United States politics. New party forays, as in the case of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort in 1912 or the elder LaFollette’s in 1924, spurted momentarily on a national scale, but were rapidly engulfed. The Progressive Party endured as a family domain in Wisconsin; the Farmer-Labor Party held on from the Non-Partisan League’s sowing in Minnesota; but no new organization took root in national politics.
True enough, the “artificiality” of the two-party system has, since the war, been more and more widely recognized and admitted. No dominant issues any longer divided the Democratic and Republican parties. Their programs, leaders, and memberships did not represent important divisions in social and class forces. Their electoral campaigns were to a large extent simply bureaucratic struggles for the spoils of office. Nevertheless, while United States capitalism continued on the ascendant, while the illusions of American exceptionalism and the dreams of the new era held in their grasp all sections of the people, the system held well enough together. The brutal hammering of years of unrelenting crisis was required to knock out its props.
We are now witnessing the collapse of this traditional framework of United States bourgeois politics. The Democratic and Republican parties, maintained along the old lines, are no longer sufficient to hold within bounds the straining social forces. Names and labels are secondary; the name of one of the parties may be kept by what will be in actuality a new party. But that the old two-party system is dying, is on its death-bed, is now clear beyond question.
Indeed, it was really not the old Democratic party that won the 1936 election. It was Roosevelt and the New Deal that won. Roosevelt was in fact the candidate of a coalition, a coalition which utilized the emblem of the Democratic party for electoral purposes. This coalition comprised the ultra-reactionary Southern groups – the permanent backbone of the Democratic party, the unscrupulous and efficient city-machines of the North (Tammany, Hague, Pendergast ...), the proletariat brought in through the trade union bureaucracy, and a large percentage of the farmers enlisted through the New Deal agricultural subsidies. The fact that Roosevelt was a coalition candidate, and not the candidate of the old relatively unified Democratic party, was shown during the campaign in a number of ways. Roosevelt himself made his own personal campaign, in comparative independence of the party. Many influential, one hundred percent Democratic stalwarts, like Alfred E. Smith, John W. Davis (both former Presidential candidates of the party), John J. Raskob (formerly chairman of the National Committee), broke with the coalition and supported Landon. The city machines likewise conducted their own campaigns, often with an entirely different political content from Roosevelt’s. The labor bureaucrats organized their section of the vote in their own way, going so far in New York as to found a new party organization.
IT WAS A FOREGONE conclusion that this loose coalition, formed under the label of the Democratic party, an amalgam of incompatible social forces, could not hold together under the pressure of crucial events. The honeymoon was brief indeed. The enormous nominal Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress crumbled last year at the first severe test: the Court Reorganization Bill. In the struggle over this Bill, a more natural lineup – with the Southern Democrats and the bulk of the Republicans on the one side, the New Deal Democrats and a few progressive Republicans on the other – emerged. In the Special Session, this division was deepened and clarified.
In the current session, the hardening of the new division dominates every particular issue: the filibuster over the Anti-Lynch Bill, the fight over the Executive Reorganization Bill, the Wages and Hours Bill, the “spending program”. In each case we find virtually the same list of Roosevelt Congressmen versus the anti-Roosevelt bloc: in numbers nearly even, with the few in the center able to swing the result in one direction or the other. It is noticeable, as the development continues, that the more reactionary Northern Congressmen, like for example Senator Copeland of New York, get into harness with their more natural allies in the anti-Roosevelt bloc.
The fight over the Executive Reorganization Bill can be understood only as a testing of this new axis. After all of the concessions and amendments, there was certainly nothing in the Bill itself to arouse so almost unprecedented a storm. Many of its provisions have long been commonplaces in Washington, championed conspicuously though unsuccessfully by Hoover both while he was in the Cabinet and while President. Most of the proposals were, as claimed by the Administration, technical measures designed to increase the efficiency and workability of the bureaucracy. It is true that in some respects the Bill strengthened the hand of the Executive as against the Legislative branch of the government; and it was this aspect which explains and justifies the adverse vote of the Farmer-Labor Senators and Representatives. Nevertheless, this aspect was by no means dominant; some of the measures, such as the so hotly debated proposed office of an Auditor-General, would in point of fact have increased Congressional control over expenditures. But the specific Bill itself was, of course, forgotten. What was at issue was Roosevelt and his brand of social-reformism; and, by what was probably the closest vote in the House ever recorded on a major question, this was defeated by opposition from the right.
THE GREAT WEAKNESS of the anti-Roosevelt bloc is that it has no program, hardly even the pretense of a program. It borrows what ideology it has from the National Association of Manufacturers. But all of the impassioned talk about “no governmental interference”, elimination of taxes which “hurt business”, “giving private industry a chance”, stopping government “punitive” measures against “legitimate” business, and the rest, is not merely reactionary but, under current conditions, stupid. These conceptions are all entirely negative, while the popular mind searches for, at the very least, some kind of positive answers. What mass strength the anti-Roosevelt bloc has derives not from anything which it has itself to offer, but from the new depression and the ever more apparent failure of the New Deal. In the last two regular sessions of Congress, and in the Special Session, the anti-Roosevelt bloc has not made a single proposal of its own on any important issue.
Roosevelt’s program, also, it may be remarked, is pretty thoroughly deflated. It was pleasant, a year and a half ago, to say complacently, as the business index rose: “We planed it that way.” Now, with the index dropping almost vertically, that easy phrase is a bitter thorn in the New Deal flank. Nevertheless, some shreds and tatters of the New Deal program still remain; and Roosevelt has added to them his clear-cut preparation for the new war. In these lies Roosevelt’s remaining strength, still enough to hold for a while longer majority popular support.
On the heels of the defeat on the Reorganization Bill, the New Deal introduces a Wages and Hours Bill. It is a miserable enough bill, surely! It provides initially, in the case of a severely restricted section of industry, for a twenty-five cents an hour minimum wage and a forty-eight hour maximum working week, with the prospect of a forty cents minimum wage, forty hour maximum week to be reached in gradual stages over a period of years. Allowances for all kinds of “exceptions” are liberally included. The bill, of course, does not touch the problem of unemployment; and its forty-eight hour week has little relevance to the vast number of employed workers now on schedules of from ten to twenty hours. What a commentary this bill is on the functioning of United States capitalism! That, in a land of incomparable material and technical resources, the idea of a twenty-five cents minimum wage should be looked on as a “progressive step”!
Even such a bill, however, is too “socialistic”, too corrosive of the fundamentals of American democracy, for the anti-Roosevelt bloc. It was reported favorably by the Labor Committee in the House, only to be buried by the nominally Democratic Rules Committee. Roosevelt has intervened to try to force consideration on the floor through petition (which must be signed by 218 members); but it is doubtful that the session will continue long enough to permit success for this manoeuvre. Interestingly enough, the bill in its present form, unlike the two forms previously introduced, does not establish any wage differentials between the North and the South. This omission, guaranteeing beyond any kind of question the solid opposition of the Southern Congressmen, seems to be a New Deal recognition of the depth of the gulf in the Democratic Party.
Defeat of the Wages and Hours Bill, nevertheless, does not weaken Roosevelt’s mass support but rather helps sustain it. In particular, it aids the labor bureaucrats in their strategy of keeping the workers harnessed to New Dealism, since they can argue that Roosevelt, in spite of his inadequacies, is still their champion as against the right. And the Stalinists likewise – though they are careful never to remind their followers just what the shabby provisions of the Wages and Hours Bill specifically are – can continue demanding unity of all democratic and progressive forces against reaction.
The new “spending program”, recently launched by a message to Congress and a Fireside Chat, is in reality Roosevelt’s confession of the bankruptcy of the New Deal. After the five brave years we are right back where the only thing to do is to throw in a few more billion stop-gap dollars; all the grandiose plans and schemes have served only to expose more glaringly the insurmountable weaknesses of American capitalism. And the spending program itself is a pitiful gesture. It is advertised as a “$4,500,000,000 measure”, but this is not at all accurate. The de-sterilization of the gold fund does not represent new pump-priming expenditure, but merely a bookkeeping transaction to handle otherwise authorized expenditures without increasing the debt – quite possibly deflationary rather than inflationary in effect. A large part of the remainder is simply for loans to private industry, States and municipalities. Well under half of the total sum is to be used for new expenditure, and most of this for relief. There is no reason to believe that such a “program” can make any serious inroad on the new depression.
However, as in the case of the Wages and Hours Bill, Roosevelt at least proposes something, whereas the Congressional opposition suggests nothing in reply. And a spending program just before the opening of the election season is beyond defeat. The opposition will concentrate only on removing as large as possible a part of the funds beyond the immediate control of the President. Roosevelt in turn will seek a free hand, knowing from past experience just how effective is skillfully placed Federal money in swinging doubtful States and districts into the New Deal column.
THERE CAN BE no doubt that under the strain of the new crisis, social discontent is spreading rapidly throughout the country. Already in 1936, as we have said, the masses were straining outside of the old party framework, but were held in place by Roosevelt and his New Deal which, in their own minds, they differentiated from the Democratic party. The New Deal is going up in smoke. The centrifugal impulse grows stronger. The labor bureaucrats are compelled to extend Labor’s Non-Partisan League on a national scale as an independent organization to hold their followers in check for Roosevelt. But the process is rapid, and there are signs that even such measures are no longer adequate.
To a certain extent, the middle classes have been swinging back from the New Deal toward the Republican-Southern Democratic bloc. But it is inconceivable that a mass swing of the workers and the lower middle classes could take, for any length of time and probably not at all, such a direction. The impetus is toward another pole.
Scenting the movements, feelers begin to be extended. Jumping the gun a bit, perhaps with too literal memories of his father, Governor Phil LaFollette sends the first cry along a new track. Quite suddenly, after a series of unexciting meetings with miscellaneous individuals and several radio talks in which he for the first time challenged Roosevelt’s leadership, Governor LaFollette announced formation of a new party – the National Progressive Party, with the symbol of a blue cross (“abundance”) within a blue circle (“unity”).
LaFollette understands, evidently, that a political regroupment is under way. He seems to believe that it will take shape as a new capitalist third party. He realizes that a number of social groups will be making their bids for leadership of the new movement; and, as against the trade unions and the regular New Deal Democrats, he asserts the claims of the farmers and other sections of the middle classes. There is every evidence of haste in the manner in which the party was announced, and the wording of its program. It is likely that LaFollette has not yet decided how serious he really is. He is not so much organizing a new party, as gathering together his own forces to try to assure himself and the groups for which he speaks the best possible bargaining position in whatever crystallized development finally matures. Most noticeable is his toning-down on criticism of Roosevelt in the speeches following the announcement of the party’s formation.
The five-point preliminary program of the National Progressive Party is a vague and reactionary hodge-podge. In specific detail it is less progressive than the New Deal program, particularly in its omission of “labor planks” parallelling the absence of any labor leaders from the formation steps of the party. However, in its own vague way, it represents a middle class pseudo-radical move “beyond” the New Deal, and is not a simple return to the elder LaFollette’s Populism. Significantly enough, the destiny which decrees that one part of the present third party movement will break away toward Fascism is also foreshadowed: in the program’s talk about the peculiar mission of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere to bring civilization to its apex, and in LaFollette’s insistence on the symbolic primacy of his blue symbol. The reception of the new party by the labor bureaucrats, LaGuardia (also simultaneously on a hunting tour through the Middle West), the New Deal Democrats, has been so far cool and reserved. They nevertheless understand its symptomatic importance. The general problem for all of the representatives of capitalism is to devise the means whereby the leap of the masses outside of the old two-party system will be blocked from issuance in independent class political action of the workers. They know how crucial a problem this is, and they are anxious to test its possible solutions thoroughly. There is no breathing spell ahead on the political horizon.
Last updated on 4.8.2006