‘Relief Rolls As Modern Reservations’

by Daniel Foster

Kevin Williamson’s cover story on the Left’s civil-rights revisionism is a must read, although you already knew that. The most illuminating — and maddening — topic covered is the varied evidence of liberal hero Lydon Johnson’s almost cartoonishly evil cynicism on civil rights and the rest of the Great Society as a tool for delivering enduring electoral majorities for the Democrats. Johnson, who used the N-word like a punctuation mark, understood that

“These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days, and that’s a problem for us, since they’ve got something now they never had before: the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this — we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”

But of course while Johnson might have perfected the dependency state, he didn’t invent it. That honor probably goes to FDR, whose 1936 campaign used billions in federal relief dollars to expand Gilded Age patronage to every man who might deliver a Democratic vote, turning every swing state into a crony state. My favorite example, among the many Burton Folsom cites in his indispensable New Deal or Raw Deal?, is that of Pennsylvania, which Hoover had carried in 1932. So between 1935 and 1936, Roosevelt’s re-election team increased relief expenditures by 3,663 percent in the Keystone State. Guess who carried it in 1936?

A lot of Republicans of Roosevelt’s era were slow on the uptake in recognizing the power of turning tax dollars into votes. Insouciant Republicans like Senator Daniel Hastings of Delaware, for example, were confidant that Americans “weren’t willing to be sold” and  “that this indirect bribery of voters [would] be overcome.”

But Alf Landon, the Republican presidential nominee in 1936, understood exactly what FDR was up to, particularly when it came to black Americans, who were targeted by many (though, in order to shore up southern support, not all) New Deal programs, and whose economic straits made them vulnerable to decoupling from the Republican Party for the first time in seventy years. Landon warned that the New Deal was using “relief rolls as modern reservations on which the great colored race is to be confined forever as a ward of the Federal Government.”