Toward the end of a mostly sympathetic profile of the great journalist and critic H. L. Mencken, Christopher Hitchens once claimed that Mencken’s only “brilliance and verve” occurred during “the period between 1910 and the end of Prohibition.” Which is to say, before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal came along. It’s an all too common refrain. Biographer Terry Teachout characterized Mencken as “blinded partly by his hatred of Roosevelt.” Mencken scholar Charles A. Fecher—whom you’d expect to know better—declared Mencken’s opinion of Roosevelt to be “maniacal—there is no other word to use.”
Although it’s true that Mencken ended the 1930s as an enemy of what he called FDR’s “More Abundant Life,” he hardly started out the decade that way. A self-described “lifelong Democrat,” Mencken voted for Roosevelt in 1932 and voiced cautious support for the New Deal’s first stirrings, writing in March 1933, “I have the utmost confidence in his good intentions, and I believe further that he has carried on his dictatorship so far with courage, sense and due restraint.”
It wasn’t until Mencken realized the vast size and intrusive scope of that “dictatorship” that he went on the attack, lambasting the New Deal as a “puerile amalgam of exploded imbecilities, many of them in flat contradiction of the rest.” Indeed, in a passage that could be recycled and reused in our own troubled times, Mencken denounced Roosevelt for proposing “to lift the burden of debt by encouraging fools to incur more debt, and to husband the depleted capital of the nation by outlawing what is left of it.”
“That the rebel of the twenties should now become a spokesman of the conservatives of the thirties,” observed Mencken scholar Malcom Moos, “came as a shock to many of Mencken’s admirers.” But was it really so shocking? As America’s most famous political journalist for several decades, Mencken routinely championed the individual against the collective, siding with the imprisoned antiwar socialist Eugene V. Debs, with the embattled high school science teacher John Scopes, and with the thankless American taxpayer, the sort “who feels that he is being mulcted in an excessive amount for services that, in the main, are useless to him, and that, in substantial part, are downright inimical to him.” To put it differently, Mencken didn’t turn right, the country lurched wildly to the left.
And he wasn’t the only one to feel the shift. By the late 1930s, a handful of prominent liberals suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the New Deal consensus. Much like Mencken, they joined the “right” almost by default. For the sin of holding fast to certain fundamental beliefs, including the quaint notion that big business and big government should be kept as far apart as possible, they were dubbed heartless reactionaries and “economic royalists.” Yet thanks to their principled opposition, some of the New Deal’s worst excesses were brought to light or kept at least partially in check.
Branded as a Tory and a Reactionary
Foremost among the members of this new “right” was the muckraking journalist John T. Flynn. Unlike Mencken, whose radical views had always centered on a rugged brand of individualism, Flynn qualified as a progressive liberal until the New Deal drove him away. A graduate of Georgetown Law School, Flynn made his name in the 1920s and early 1930s as a left-leaning financial columnist and author whose books bore such titles as Graft in Business and Trusts Gone Wrong! He enjoyed identifying and exposing the dirty deeds of big business and, as biographer John Moser writes, “in particular he saw abuses in the banking system and the New York Stock Exchange, and as early as February 1929 he was predicting that the value of corporate securities was about to plummet.” Flynn’s work earned him a prominent perch at the New Republic, then as now one of the country’s leading left-liberal publications, where he wrote a weekly economics column from 1933 until he was dropped in 1940 for his increasingly harsh attacks on FDR’s policies.
But like Mencken, Flynn started out as a Roosevelt supporter, referring to the New Deal as a “promising experiment.” It took the National Recovery Administration to cure him of that. The centerpiece of FDR’s first 100 days, the NRA represented the nightmare of central planning made real. Enacted as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which FDR hailed as “the most important and far-reaching legislation ever enacted by the American Congress,” the NRA sought to micromanage the economy through more than 500 wage-, hour-, and price-fixing “codes of fair competition,” mandating everything from the price of food to the cost of having a shirt hemmed. The NRA’s stated purpose was to increase efficiency via military-style organization, yet as historian Arthur Ekirch has pointed out: “Little attention was paid to the fact that it was industry itself that had largely prepared the regulations governing prices and production. Also ignored was the fact that the NRA meant the suspension of antitrust laws along with the whole theory of free competition and free enterprise.”
Flynn was among the few who noticed. As a member of the progressive movement, he had long worried about the growing power and influence of the big corporations. Now FDR and his so-called brain trust were climbing into bed with them! As Flynn put it, “Curiously, every American liberal who had fought monopoly, who had demanded the enforcement of the anti-trust laws, who had denied the right of organized business groups, combinations and trade associations to rule our economic life, was branded as a Tory and a reactionary if he continued to believe these things.” Thus Flynn found himself on the right.
Using the same muckraking approach that had made him a darling of the left, Flynn denounced the NRA as “probably the gravest attack upon the whole principle of the democratic society in our political history.” As for Roosevelt, Flynn argued that although the president proclaimed “his devotion to democracy, he adopted a plan borrowed from the corporative state of Italy and sold it to all the liberals as a great liberal revolutionary triumph.”
Nor did these scathing attacks go unnoticed. After reading an article of Flynn’s published by the Yale Review, FDR wrote privately to the editor, denouncing Flynn as “a destructive rather than a constructive force” who “should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine, or national quarterly.”
The Banner of Jefferson, Jackson, or Cleveland
While Flynn’s words certainly stung, the attacks from Democratic hero Al Smith shook the New Deal coalition to its core. A legend among the reform-minded, Smith had long championed leftist causes ranging from minimum wage laws for women to government-built housing for the poor. A child of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Smith rose from Tammany Hall to the state capitol at Albany, where he served four terms as New York governor. In 1928, he received the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, though he suffered a disastrous electoral defeat at the hands of Republican Herbert Hoover. At the 1932 party convention, Smith lost the nomination to FDR.
So it came as a surprise when Smith began criticizing the New Deal. After all, hadn’t he supported the same sort of policies in New York? But like Flynn, Smith saw himself as a constructive critic, not as a partisan foe. As one of the country’s most famous opponents of alcohol prohibition, a group popularly known as the “wets,” Smith had been deeply troubled by the lessons of the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition, he wrote in 1933, “gave functions to the Federal government which that government could not possibly discharge, and the evils which came from the attempts at enforcement were infinitely worse than those which honest reformers attempted to abolish.” As biographer Christopher Finan put it, Smith “began to believe that the danger of giving new power to the federal government outweighed any good it might do. . . . He was putting himself on a collision course with the New Deal.”
That collision came on January 25, 1936, when Smith delivered a fiery anti–New Deal speech before the Liberty League, a mostly conservative group organized in opposition to Roosevelt’s policies. As Smith told the capacity crowd gathered at Washington’s Mayflower hotel, “this country was organized on the principles of representative democracy, and you can’t mix Socialism or Communism with that.” Deriding FDR and his brain trust for their “betrayal” of the Democratic party’s principles, Smith declared: “It is all right with me if they want to disguise themselves as Norman Thomas or Karl Marx, or Lenin, or any of the rest of that bunch, but what I won’t stand for is to let them march under the banner of Jefferson, Jackson, or Cleveland.”