The Legacy of the 1936 Election

Amity Shlaes
Author, Coolidge

Amity ShlaesAmity Shlaes is a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg, a director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and a member of the board of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. She has served as a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and as a columnist for the Financial Times, and is a recipient of the Hayek Prize and the Frederic Bastiat Prize for free-market journalism. She is the author of four books, Germany: The Empire Within, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It, and Coolidge.

The following is adapted from a lecture delivered on the Hillsdale College campus on July 24, 2007, during a Hillsdale Hostel on the American Constitution.

The overall lesson of this is that we can continue to respect many aspects of Roosevelt’s presidency today. But we shouldn’t have false nostalgia about it. After all, it was Roosevelt’s political machinations in the 1936 campaign—symbolized by the PWA—that gave us the “earmarks” that bedevil Congress today, on both sides of the political aisle. Action is more important today because of our fiscal challenge—the new forgotten men are the grandchildren who will pay if we do not give up some of that costly nostalgia. John Marini was right when he said, right here at Hillsdale and earlier this year, that the country must choose now between Reagan and Roosevelt. That Reagan himself did not have to choose was because of demography. Unfortunately, now we must.

When I was writing my book on the Great Depression, I kept thinking back to William Graham Sumner, who originated the idea of “the forgotten man.” Sumner was a Victorian who died in 1910. But I continued to hear him in the background as I studied Roosevelt and Ickes, and what Sumner said continued to apply—both to the 1930s and to our current political life. He spoke prophetically about the voter who was not included in preferred interest groups—the man or woman who everyone fails to think about. He spoke of the forgotten voter for whom there is “no provision in the great scramble” for federal largesse. Our elections are not good elections until they welcome back that voter, too.