How Progressives Swallowed the Democrats and Can Do It Again

Easy to say commie insurgents took over Dems, FDR won and we’re living under commie control. They won in 1932, set the system up and blah blah blah. What is the blah blah blah? How did it happen? What were mechanisms to the progressive takeover of the Democrats? How did the commies who used FDR come to exert power over a nationwide network of Ds? Capturing the White House for a decade and flexing USG muscle over its land was key. Borrowing massive amounts of money during the depression to buy off anyone and everyone was key. Amity Shlaes mention of interest groups is important, but so is reshaping how Ds voted and who controlled them. Unions and the union machine replacing the old city machine bloc voting secured D control for progressive ideologues, not McKinnon, Giacomo and Siekirkov (stand in ethnic names). Control centralized and in hands the old party hacks did not like.

We can sit here in 2020 thinking how the New York Times is the main megaphone and evil incarnate, issuing marching orders for the ruling class but it was not always the case. Adolf Ochs bought the NYT in 1896, and it was considered an independent Democrat paper. It was not a party rag or organ, and had a reputation of even handed reporting. This changed over time, and quickly, as the paper took up cause with many reform minded individuals. It might have been reform at the state level or at the city level, but the idea of cleaning things up was widespread in the intelligentsia and well to do. A giant in New York named Robert Moses as a young man wrote his dissertation on reforming government, the civil service and how to get things done. He felt the civil leadership should harvest from the best schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), and American governments should model themselves on the aristocratic flavor of British civil service and control. Reform individuals loved this but city machines hated it as it attacked the patronage system. This went nowhere until Moses linked up with Al Smith and changed nearly everything about New York state government.

The Democrats at that point were a collection of northern city machines and political bosses with the Solid South (the white power structure). The GOP trounced the Democrats consistently, where even Wilson’s re-election in 1916 would have been denied had 30 votes switched in New Hampshire and 2,000 in California. That close shave reveals their vulnerability as a party when an incumbent president in a growing economy barely earns a second term. Being the oft beaten losers, they were ripe for overtaking. Similar to the DLC and Wall Street takeover of the Democrats starting with ’92, the path would be with winning the White House. The election of 1932 would offer the Democrats the perfect opportunity.

The election of 1932 was as close to a guaranteed challenger win as America will ever see. Democrats lined up their coalition forces for the convention. FDR, similar to President Hoover’s already failed attempts, was pushing more government spending, federal intervention and farm aid to bring in the Midwest and Western vote. FDR also tricked Huey Long just enough for support (later Long died at the hands of a “random” assassin). Lined up against him were the city machine bosses, who were pushing former Governor Al Smith once again. There was animosity between Smith and FDR as Smith had used the governorship to transform New York, help the poor, and build parks, roads and parkways for the people while FDR was using the governorship as a stepping stone to the presidency. FDR took over as governor from Smith and had cleaned out all Smith’s men while retaining just one (Robert Moses). FDR would get the White House victory that eluded Al Smith four years earlier.

Once in control of the White House, how do you maintain your control while fending off the old party? How does one kill off opponents while simultaneously feeding the constituencies that brought you there and reaching out to the old machine constituencies? Can you replace the old machines’ voters? A trend working in prog’s favor was that, in the words of Mike Royko, “all across the country, city machines were falling apart“. Why were they dying? The Depression had destroyed tax revenues. Income taxes, business taxes, and property taxes were all devastated by the crash and subsequent slow motion collapse in business. Those taxes funded the patronage system that was the lifeblood of the city machines. 

In a twisted way, the machines were responsive to their people in ways the modern prog system can never be. Because the power came from the voters straight to city leaders and wardmen who in turn had to provide jobs, the voters could raise concerns and local issues that would need to be addressed in order to get those votes. In a one man, one vote system, the real power lay with those who provided the votes. This is wonderfully captured in another Royko passage where he quotes an angry Chicago kingmaker, black Congressman William Dawson. Berating the sitting mayor, Dawson says, “Who do you think you are? I bring in the votes. I elect you. You are not needed, but the votes are needed. I deliver the votes to you.” These machine capos and leaders still needed to answer to their people to buy the votes. The New Deal progs needed to find a way to retain the votes but create a separate power structure to carve out the old city machine crews.

FDR’s administration and the bureaucracy they built would set up a multiple front attack. The progs set up the federal agencies, set up social welfare programs like Social Security, passed the Wagner Act, borrowed massively on the future earnings of taxpayers and looked for new construction projects similar to what Hoover started in his term. The extent of borrowing cannot be understated. Below is the total public and private debt since 1900.

The borrowing is listed as a percentage of GDP. While private debt collapsed after 1929, note how the government debt rose and stayed firm through the depression. While GDP contracted significantly after 1929, it did resume growth in the ’30s. The problem was the debt overhang and playing catch up to close the potential GDP gap. By staying firm as a percentage of GDP, the federal debt was actually growing. This is a better graph to use than the often cited mountain peak in ’33 debt chart (below). Total debt decreased due to private defaults and banks slowly writing off the debt. As that debt contracted, the feds spent wildly.

In the form of public works, this spending became the patronage system for cities that FDR needed. The New Deal crew could specifically use Mayor LaGuardia and his Fusion administration to freeze out Tammany Hall and starve them to death. While nominally a Republican, LaGuardia became valuable to the White House because he had Robert Moses with plans ready to employ thousands of men but in a manner that excluded the Tammany gang. Public works in themselves are impressive to voters, are visual proof of progress and their ability, and they employ many men, feeding many families. Tammany was a power source and had their patronage network, but it became nothing in the ’30s and early ’40s due to the New Deal channel of money. New Deal money was the only game in town.

This does not solve everything because the networks of the city machines lay dormant but ready if the economy turned around and when FDR or reform minded mayors left office. This is where the Wagner Act comes into play and the joining at the waist of unions and the Democrats. The old Democrats were full of conservative, Southern power brokers who disliked the union men. The Wagner Act and subsequent moves by FDR’s administration, gave unions a huge boost. It also set up American unions in a manner that centralized power for easier control via universities. The unions were not the German set up with union leadership being local, having a say in how a firm was run, and even having representation on corporate boards. Our American set up created specific negotiators, and limited if not erased autonomy and variation among the wide network of manufacturing in America. This played into the progressives’ hands by not having local, connected men running the union and directing members, but some Marxist educated graduate from Cornell’s school of Industrial Labor Relations. The Marxist theory of labor is still taught there today to all incoming freshman.

Unions have huge advantages for political reasons in having a common identity, pooling resources, slush funds of cash for campaign season, cars and sound equipment for GOTV measures and group pressure for voting the right way. This offered an alternative to the old city machine’s ground game on election day. You can laugh now in 2020, but the media made a big deal of union guys on television talking about how they were going to cast a vote for Reagan in 1980. The unions boosted by FDR’s work in the ’30s won prestige a decade later. The great strike wave of 1945-1946 was where the unions won their workers massive gains. Capital had to negotiate; no other nation had a manufacturing base left.

Legislation at the federal level further played into the unions hands. Taft-Hartley legislation was supposedly to weaken unions in America. What it really did was weaken the shops themselves and strengthened the centralized power of the union leadership. Wildcat strikes, which are on the spot strikes usually due to specific shop circumstances, were outlawed. Everything must be negotiated and handled by trained experts, often Ivy trained labor lawyers. Urban renewal is something moderns associate with failed mid-20th century projects, but this had bipartisan support to rebuild our cities after World War Two. Urban renewal carried forward what the old New Deal programs had started; “money honest” interest group buying by the progressives.

Money honest is an idea that Mayor Richard Daley supported as did the post-WW2 NYC Democrats. Per Mike Royko’s book on Daley, Daley said, “Don’t take a nickel; just hand them your business card“. Money honest meant that one did not take outright cash bribes, but you could send contracts one’s way to secure loyalty. The NYC machine after LaGuardia left office saw a return of Tammany but in a different flavor. They were money honest, but bought off through construction contracts. Tom Shanahan of the Federation Bank and Trust Company might as well be labeled the Tammany banker, Democrat grease man and nexus of money, power and votes. One placed their money with him, and magically, things happened for his company for government business. The New Deal and Urban Renewal contracts were so special because they could employ thousands of men for years, were huge, were multiyear, fed the unions and recycled money back into Democrat campaign funds. Another unique thing was that the foot soldier voters in the unions were not directly living there like the old machine. These men were tied together in economic interests. these men took their guidance and marching orders from union reps, lawyers and national leadership aligned with new deal commies. This eradicates the old NYC machine and builds a new one.

This does not fix everything. The machines and their power sources could still challenge the eggheads. The presidency and federal funding mechanism was all important. This was laid evident in the ’48 re-election of Truman. If only the Southern power brokers had a clue that one day they’d be eaten by the commies. To further secure its footing of the new system, the Democrats went after their own with the Kefauver committee. Kefauver went after the mob after media attention given to the mob problem in the late ’40s. Why they did not go after the Mob in the ’30s after prohibition? We’ll never know, shucks. While mobs were found among many ethnic groups and all over the nation, there were political victims as the mob-city political connections were made. Some of those pols went down, and others were given the message that overt connections were bad news. Get in line with our new union system, boys!

Side note: all ethnicities in cities were found to have mob issues. Italians just did it with more style and panache, plus the Jewish mob had their best boy from Cleveland Lew Wasserman running Hollywood, so they hid the Jewish mob for years. Only Francis Ford Coppola fictionalized it with Hymen Roth in Godfather Two.

Consider two of the biggest targets: Chicago and NYC. Kefauver could scare off that wing of Democrats in cities; the very same cities that had blocked FDR in ’32. Truman lost NY state and barely won Illinois, worth a combined 75 electoral votes. The two city machines were, and still are, responsible for statewide comfort margins for Ds. How long did the Daley father-son empire shape Illinois and even national politics with their machine? How many tight NY state races were decided by that 500K voter edge in NYC being tweaked here or there? The slime from the Kefauver committee hurt the Democrats so bad that Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas lost in an upset in Illinois. This was a combination of the Mafia stink and Chicago election politics as the “World’s Richest Cop” hurt the entire slate of candidates in Chicago itself.

This is all just the result of the sick immigration games of the late 19th century. The frontier was closed, Indians dead or on reservations, and farming was strong. Business trusts needed bodies to help keep wages down. The trusts wanted more. The GOP machine helped them. Sadly this stuffed our cities with far more people than they could handle. Most cities were not ready for the flood of new people on top of natural growth. Most of those urban renewal projects and massive public works would have had no need had we not opened the door so wide. The city machines, and how they were used as voting weapons for first Wilson and then FDR, allowed the commies to take control. It was city vs. country then, and it is city vs. country now. Nativist vs. foreign themes then, and nativist vs. foreign themes now. Cheap labor then, cheap labor now. No one learns. Besides democratic politics, it is also the problem of a proposition nation creating a loyalty to profit over a loyalty to community.

The progressives behind the new deal had to build their own institutions, use money and control important nexus points to make this switch stick. Tammany could make or break a man, as Tammany gave its voters and capos the head shake to help defeat Samuel Seabury out of NY’s governorship in 1916. Leaving machines like Tammany in place would allow for savvy, deal making Republicans to find a way to peel them off from the red and pink Ds that rode into DC with FDR and did not understand the little guys in NYC and Chicago. Without the massive federal bureaucratic changes, centralization of power in the ’30s and massive borrowing by the US feds, a GOP candidate would have done the Nixon in ’68-’72 white ethnic and rightist-statist approach earlier. 

The progressives did not let a crisis go to waste. They built new institutions and new structures to play the same river of meat game in our democratic republic. The old machine might have bought your vote through the local guys you knew all growing up fixing you up with a job or your ma with a widow’s pension. The new guys in an Ivy League suit would tell you who to vote for since they let you put a hard hat on for the next 5 years and promised even more work in the future if you just voted for them. When they couldn’t buy voters off anymore in the name of economic redistribution, they just brought new ones into the game in the south and laterĀ imported entirely new ones from abroad.

The opportunity in front of them today is the Woke Capital alliance. The covid crisis continues to destroy small and medium sized businesses, concentrating more marketshare into the hands of the cartels at the top of all sectors of the economy. The last twenty five years has seen near zero anti-trust enforcement, allowing for nearly every slice of the economy come to be dominated by a handful of firms for an overwhelming piece of the market and then niche pieces for smaller players. Corona allows them to destroy whatever remaining independent players there are. The indoctrination angle has worked for staffing the bureaucracies of corporations, the advocacy system that threatens them with lawfare and the banks and rating agencies that handle their debt.

This is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is that the Democrats could implement new programs such as UBI to make the vassalage complete. This works wonders because there is no middle man. No union to see patronage leakage, nor any government employees that have to be funded to siphon off money from allocated dollars. It is pure bribery. Another piece of the puzzle is the idea of stakeholder capitalism being pushed as a way for corporations to become more for the people. This will really mean more donations to NGOs for woke causes, more sinecures for a cream of the woke crop, and maybe race related discounts and favorable treatment. We can already see trial runs for this in 2020 as the summer of St. George (pbuh) inspired corporations to make exceptions, grant benefits, donate billions to NGOs and push black owned businesses over all others. This is explicit discrimination but allowable because it fits the DNC platform and rewards clients of the DNC patronage network.

This is the game. Power seeks greater centralization, and new technologies will be used to further this centralization. The horrible underlying problem of this all is that these moves with long term, national implications were taken to secure one small group’s power within the system. There is no recourse and there is no long march through the institutions to change this. This will not last forever. Another empire centralized with aggression. Another empire was a hodge podge of identities. Another empire even pushed a modified version of ‘diversity is our strength‘. People still live in Austria. People still live in Hungary. No one lives in the Austro-Hungarian Empire anymore.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Octavian says:

    It’s interesting how completely Al Smith’s machine was displaced by the FDR men. And equally interesting how Robert Moses managed to survive and thrive.

    Great article about a period often under-discussed.

    I’ll have to pick up the Royko book sometime.


  2. B. Shlaes says:

    Point of the essay: Commies taking over? Centralized business empires? Unions are corrupt? Organized labor is a commie invention?


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