Magazine | June 11, 2012, Issue

Tea-Party Prequel

Will today’s conservative grassroots go the way of FDR’s constitutional foes?

The three-plus years of the Obama administration have been something of a roller coaster for the Republican party and the broader conservative movement. On one hand there was Scott Brown’s Obamacare-backlash-fueled taking of “Ted Kennedy’s seat,” the recapture of the House, and the debt-ceiling battle. On the other, there was the bloody presidential primary, the divided base, and, well, the debt-ceiling battle.

It’s hard to imagine we would have been heading into the election with any of the above — Brown, a Republican House, a rightward-shifting base, a slugfest over the debt, not to mention a vulnerable presidential incumbent — without the tea partiers, who are, with apologies to the occupiers, easily the most consequential American political grassroots movement of the young century. And, indeed, their small-government constitutionalism and anti-Beltway-establishment furor persists (just ask Dick Lugar). So with the stakes even higher in a presidential than a midterm election, logic suggests the Tea Party should take on an even bigger and more decisive role, right?

If past is prologue, then I’m afraid not. You see, the last time a traditionalist/constitutionalist grassroots movement emerged to check the statist ambitions of a progressive president, its wave crested too early, and a first-termer named Franklin Roosevelt was reelected handily, ushering in an era of Democratic dominance in all three branches of government that would endure, with little interruption, for half a century. If the Tea Party wishes to avoid the fate of its progenitors, it would do well to understand their story.

In 1933, Republicans stood dazed and demoralized in the aftermath of what many feared wasn’t just a defeat but a death blow. Franklin Roosevelt was untouchable, with robust congressional majorities and reserves of popular support few presidents could dream of. But by the summer of 1935, those same Republicans were, according to a New York Times story, “facing 1936 with their chins and hopes . . . high.” This turnabout was due in no small measure to the American Liberty League, an organization that has become a footnote in American history but that, for a time, was in both genesis and guiding principles a kind of Tea Party Beta.

The League was formed in 1934 by a group of conservatives and independents from both parties: Its founder, John Jacob Raskob, had been a chairman of the DNC, and it counted two Democratic presidential nominees among its early members. Most were businessmen, and the early goal of the group was to rehabilitate the reputation of free enterprise from the beating it had taken in the early years of the Depression. But organizers soon settled on another, broader cause to champion publicly: the preservation of the Constitution in the face of an assault by the New Deal. In this way, the League spoke for countless Americans who felt estranged from Rooseveltism and clung to the traditional American values they saw being displaced by the growth of government and the redistribution of wealth (the League’s first press release was about the dangers of the federal deficit).

In great numbers these Americans began contributing to the League, often in amounts as little as a dollar, and the group emerged as a major player in American politics during FDR’s first term. Early on, it was subject to charges of what we’d now call “astroturfing.” To wit, a sketch at the 1934 Gridiron dinner lampooned top-hatted League fundraisers, joking that “if anybody’s in favor of saving the Constitution, it’s a sure sign he’s got at least a million dollars.” The Roosevelt administration was equally dismissive. FDR frequently took cracks at the League in press conferences, while interior secretary and New Deal fixer Harold L. Ickes called it a coalition of “industrialists, constitutional lawyers, and captains of finance who drove our good ship onto the rocks.” (Sound familiar?)

#page#But as Jeff Shesol closely chronicles in Supreme Power, his history of Roosevelt’s battle with the courts over the meaning of the Constitution, by 1935 “the real vitality belonged to the American Liberty League, which was looking more and more like a third party than a ‘non-partisan’ pressure group.” That year, the League raised more than, and spent twice as much as, the GOP, and “establish[ed] its presence in every congressional district in America.” By January 1936, the League boasted a membership of 100,000 and had a Washington headquarters in the National Press Building replete with massive policy, field-organizational, and public-relations teams. Its members filed amicus briefs and even represented plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the New Deal in the Supreme Court. They jumped to the aid of the businesses being taxed to pay farmers for not growing wheat under the Agricultural Adjustment Act. They organized Constitution Day celebrations across the country, and pressured candidates to pledge not to pass legislation of questionable constitutionality. Roosevelt speechwriter and White House counsel Samuel Rosenman admitted that, heading into election season, “Roosevelt’s friends took the American Liberty League seriously. So did he.”

So what happened? Why couldn’t the Liberty League ride its newfound popularity to a defeat of Roosevelt in 1936? The press, for one. The New York Times called the League’s pretensions to non-partisanship “false whiskers” and labeled the group “a guerrilla ally of the Republicans.” A New York Post editorial accused the League and its allies of perverting the ideals of the Founders. “The ideals of Madison,” the editors fumed, “had little in common with those of the great corporation lawyers, the semi-Fascist ‘patriotic’ groups and the Hearsts.” (The substitution of “the Koch brothers” for “the Hearsts” of course suggests itself.) Elected Democrats and their adjuncts got in on the act as well, defaming the “American Lobby League” as “puppets” of the Morgans, Rockefellers, and du Ponts (the last, it should be conceded, with some justice — the du Ponts were major boosters). The Democratic Senate majority leader even launched a witch-hunt campaign-finance investigation against the League with Roosevelt’s blessing. In the end, the propaganda campaign was so successful that the RNC begged the League to “stay aloof” from Republican nominee Alf Landon’s 1936 campaign. Within four years of that fall’s landslide defeat, the once-mighty group had disbanded.

Two further factors contributing to the Liberty League’s demise, and Roosevelt’s victory, have disturbing parallels in the current environment. First, Roosevelt took the fight over the future of the country directly to the League’s most natural allies in government: the fragile constitutionalist majority in the federal courts, which had, according to legal scholar Rick Pildes, issued some 1,600 injunctions against aspects of the New Deal in the summer of 1935 alone. Roosevelt’s counteroffensive peaked with his infamous “court packing” plan of 1937, which broke the back of the anti–New Deal coalition, but the rhetorical groundwork had been laid well before. In 1935, after complaining that the Court’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause was outdated and “relegated [the government] to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce,” the president appealed directly to the American people in one of his fireside chats, asking: “Are the people of this country going to decide that their federal government shall in the future have no right under any implied power or any court-approved power to enter into a national economic problem?” This evolved into his ominous pledge to do something to “save the Constitution from the Court and the Court from itself.”

#page#Of course, bad-mouthing the courts is something the current president has shown a similar willingness to do, from his January 2010 State of the Union knock on the Citizens United decision — even as several justices sat at his feet — to his preemptive warning this spring that “overturning a law [Obamacare] that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress” would be an “unprecedented, extraordinary step.” Admittedly, the president has yet to turn his trash talk into separation-of-powers-eschewing legislation, but then neither did Roosevelt — until his second term.

Secondly, as Burton Folsom points out in the indispensable New Deal or Raw Deal?, the League was left with an imperfect alternative to Roosevelt in the form of Republican Alfred Mossman “Alf” Landon, who holds the distinction of being the FDR opponent with the least distinction, behind Herbert Hoover, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas Dewey. Landon was a millionaire who started out as a banker before moving into oil. He had at one time considered himself a “progressive” and a leader of the liberal wing of the Republican party in Kansas, where he won the governorship against a Democratic wave. A weaker public speaker than the charismatic FDR, he faced the nearly impossible task of securing the conservative base by railing against government programs without alienating the huge numbers of general-election voters who held federal jobs or depended on federal cash for their livelihoods. This led to flip-flopping, such as when Landon told a New York crowd he was against agricultural subsidies weeks after he had promised an Iowa crowd he would fight to continue them. As a result there emerged a kind of mutual estrangement between the Liberty League and the establishment Republicans, with the latter seeking to distance themselves from the former for the purposes of the general election, and the former coming out less than ebulliently for the Republican candidate.

Constitutionalist movements with natural allies in the courts, branded by Democrats and their media allies as pawns of corporate fat cats, awkwardly matched with a less-than-ideal Republican candidate: The parallels between the Liberty League and the Tea Party — and between 1936 and 2012 — are obvious. But does that mean that the Tea Party is doomed to defeat as the Liberty League was?

Not necessarily, since there are some crucial differences as well: First, while both movements grew out of defeats, the Tea Party delivered a victory in the first election in which it intervened — the 2010 midterms — while the Liberty League did not. Second, the Tea Party has proven itself robust in the face of the kind of media scrutiny and political mudslinging that helped spell the end for its New Deal progenitor, thanks in large part to the emergence of an extensive alternative media centered on the Web and various social-media platforms. Third, a once-sympathetic judiciary eventually abandoned the constitutionalism represented by the Liberty League, whereas the Tea Party has reason for cautious optimism that the current Court will continue to check the Obama administration’s more ambitious statist expansions — most notably Obamacare. Lastly, the Tea Party has been able to move the GOP rightward in a way the Liberty League never could, and has even shown signs of embracing Mitt Romney.

Which is more salient in forecasting the Tea Party’s fortunes in 2012, its similarities with the Liberty League or its differences from it? I don’t know the answer, but I do know the question. They say that history repeats itself first as tragedy. What happens when the first go-round was itself tragic?

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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