Public Opinion, Organized Labor, and the Limits of New Deal Liberalism, 1936-1945
69 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2010
Date Written: August 30, 2010
The seemingly wide opening for liberal domestic policy innovation of the early-to-mid 1930s gave way to a much more limited agenda in the late 1930s and 1940s. The latter years saw the consolidation and gradual extension of several key programs (e.g., Social Security and Keynesian macroeconomic management), but also the frustration of liberal hopes for an expansive “cradle-to-grave” welfare state marked by strong national unions, national health insurance, and full employment policies. Drawing upon rarely used early public opinion polls, we explore the dynamics of public opinion regarding New Deal liberalism from this pivotal era. We argue that a broadly based reaction against labor unions created a difficult backdrop for liberal programmatic advances. We find that this anti-labor reaction was especially virulent in the South but divided even Northern Democrats, thus creating an effective wedge issue for Republicans and their Southern conservative allies. More generally, we find that the mass public generally favored the specific programs created by the New Deal, but was hardly clamoring for major expansions of the national government’s role in the late 1930s and 1940s. These findings illuminate the role played by the South in constraining New Deal liberalism while also highlighting the tenuousness of the liberal majority in the North.
Keywords: New Deal, liberalism, labor unions, public opinion
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation