The "righteous wind" that has propelled the American left to unprecedented success over the last year has forced most of the American right into an underground bunker. Those few conservative politicians like Dick Cheney who remain topside are blasted with an additional gale force of invective and vitriol. In the left's ferocious desire to implement "change" there seems to be little patience for any meaningful dialogue about what America should become.
The leftist onslaught that met Dick Cheney's recent defense of his country pales in comparison however to the ugly reception Democrat Al Smith received in 1936 when he challenged his own party's attempt to remake America. A four term Democratic governor from New York, Smith had lost the 1928 presidential election to Republican Herbert Hoover. In 1932 Al Smith joined in to support Roosevelt for President but by 1936, despite the immense popularity of FDR, Smith began to panic: his party and his country were becoming unrecognizable to him.
Although many Democrats tried to pin the "treason" label on Al Smith for his stand against the New Deal legislation the dubious moniker had trouble sticking. Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Smith dropped out of school at 14 in order to support his family after his father's untimely death a year earlier. Smith never made it to high school or college but he did manage to develop sensitivity to life on the street while working at a local fish market and at other odd jobs.
When he ran for New York State Assembly at age 30 Smith was known as a spokesman for the working-class immigrant and as a man of the people. During his political career in New York Smith was known as a staunch progressive who championed workers' rights, women's rights, and child labor protections. Smith was also a leading voice for the rights of minorities and defended the civil rights of all Americans, white and non-white.
Al Smith however was also known as a great believer in upward mobility, self-reliance and in taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by the free-market. Al Smith, in other words, was an American and a Democrat. What alarmed Smith in 1936 however was the realization that FDR's New Deal was in essence something rather anti-American that also threatened the very identity of the Democratic Party. In Smith's words:
"There can be only one atmosphere of government -- the clear, pure, fresh air of free America or the foul breath of communistic Russia."
Despite FDR's popular acclaim Smith made the decision to warn his fellow Americans and his fellow Democrats by radio address on a cold January evening in our nation's capitol in 1936. The title of Smith's address was "Betrayal of the Democratic Party." The dramatic speech contained a series of talking points designed to persuade his countrymen that a new kind of Democratic Party was actively undermining the Constitution and replacing it with something closer to Soviet style socialism.
What were Al Smith's talking points? In a word: chilling. After prefacing his speech by noting that he was "born in the Democratic Party" and expected "to die in it" Smith reiterated his belief that the Democratic Party "belonged to all the plain people in the United States." Something, however, had gone terribly wrong:
Partisanship above Patriotism
Smith began his speech by describing his difficult decision to "talk to the American people against the Democratic Administration." He was compelled to speak out however because he sensed an alarming threat "to the fundamental principles upon which this Government of ours was organized." The most glaring threat in Smith's estimation was "the arraignment of class against class:"
"It has been freely predicted that if we were ever to have civil strife again in this country, it would come from the appeal to passion and prejudices that comes from the demagogues that would incite one class of our people against another."
Smith however had worked in menial jobs and understood that life was a bit more complex than the simple equation of "bad rich" and "good poor." Smith said that during his life he had met "some good and bad industrialists" but also "some good and bad laborers." The man who never made it to high school understood, in other words, a reality mostly hidden from the pampered and educated leftist crusader.
By splitting the country along class lines in order to appeal to voters the Democrats were guilty of placing partisanship above patriotism. "This I know," said Smith, "that permanent prosperity is dependent on both capital and labor alike." By vilifying industry and finance the Democrats were in effect closing the door "to any permanent recovery" in America. The Democrats' oversimplified and self-serving strategy of class warfare, in other words, was purchased at the expense of the national interest.
Government by Bureaucrats
"The next thing that I view as being dangerous to our national well-being," said Smith, "is government by bureaucracy instead of what we have been taught to look for --government by law." Smith worried that the enormous explosion of the federal bureaucracy under FDR would provide the executive branch with a dangerous set of freedom smothering instruments. Conditions would be ripe in addition for the emergence of autocratic government. Smith made a point here to quote from one of FDR's speeches to Congress:
"In 34 months we have built up new instruments of public power in the hands of the people's government. This power is wholesome and proper, but in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy, such power would provide shackles for the liberties of our people."
Note how FDR's use of "public power" and "people's government" (not to mention "wholesome and proper" governing) is set against the "shackles" characteristic of the American businessman's "economic autocracy." Smith rightly saw through FDR's class warfare rhetoric however:
"Now I interpret that to mean, if you are going to have an autocrat, take me - but be very careful about the other fellow."
Smith astutely observed that "the vast building up of new bureaus of government" would drain "resources of our people in a common pool of redistributing them, not by any process of law, but by the whim of bureaucratic autocracy." Smith again demonstrates his concern that whereas due process of law is vital for protecting the little guy's freedom, bureaucratic autocracy would strangle it.
The 1932 Platform
By 1936 it was obvious to Smith that Democrats had been the victims of a bait and switch campaign by the Party elders. "Millions and millions of Democrats like myself" said Smith, voted for a specific party platform in 1932 but "what we want to know now is why it wasn't carried out." What were those Democratic promises of 1932? According to Smith, they included the following planks:
First Democratic plank: "We advocate immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than 25 per cent in the cost of the federal government."
But the facts four years later proved otherwise for Smith: "No offices were consolidated, no bureaus were eliminated, but on the other hand, the alphabet was exhausted. The creation of new departments - and this is sad news for the taxpayer - the . . . cost of government is greater today than it has ever been in any time in the history of the republic."
It seems almost surreal to hear a leading Democrat defend the American taxpayer against big government. But Smith was just warming up:
Another Democratic plank: "We favor maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate Federal estimate within revenue."
Smith was especially incensed at this "balanced budget" promise by Democrats: "How can you balance a budget if you insist upon spending more money than you take in? Even the increased revenue won't go to balance the budget, because it is hocked before you receive it. What is worse than that?"
Smith continued on what he called the "unbalanced budget" theme by predicting that "the great backbone of America" - the middle class - would end up paying off most of this debt:
"Forget the rich - they can't pay this debt. If you took everything they have away from them, they couldn't pay it - they ain't got enough. . . . This debt is going to be paid by that great big middle class that we refer to as the backbone and the rank and file, and the sin of it is they ain't going to know that they are paying it. It is going to come to them in the form of indirect and hidden taxation. It will come to them in the cost of living, in the cost of clothing, in the cost of every activity that they enter into, and because it is not a direct tax, they won't think they're paying, but, take it from me, they are going to pay it!"
Another Democratic plank: "We advocate the extension of Federal credit to the States to provide unemployment relief where the diminishing resources of the State make it impossible for them to provide for their needs."
For Smith this particular plank "was recognition in the national convention of the rights of the states." In other words, when voting for the Democrats in 1932 Smith took the above plank to mean that the Feds would not threaten the autonomy each State to administer their own relief programs. What frightened Smith was that by 1936 "the Federal Government took over most of the relief programs - some of them useful and most of them useless." Again, for Smith the little guy was more threatened by an imposing and threatening Federal Government than he was by an administration that respected states rights.
Another Democratic plank: "We promise the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and national resources in the common interest."
Smith pulled few punches on this particular plank:
"NRA [National Recovery Administration]! A vast octopus set up by government, that wound its arms around all the business of the country, paralyzing big business, and choked little business to death. Did you read in the papers a short time ago where somebody said that business was going to get a breathing spell? What is the meaning of that? And where did that expression arise? I'll tell you where it comes from. It comes from the prize ring. When the aggressor is punching the head off the other fellow he suddenly takes compassion on him and he gives him a breathing spell before he delivers the knockout punch."
It's hard for Americans today to imagine the anti-business climate that saturated FDR's presidency, especially after his re-election in 1936. In his marvelous book The Mind and the Market, Professor Jerry Muller noted that most historians have linked the economic slump of 1937 to "Roosevelt's rhetoric and policies" which "made businessmen reluctant to invest." Rather than appeal to and find common ground with American business interests Roosevelt, in Muller's words, responded to this latest 1937 economic slump by unleashing "the dogs of anticapitalist vilification." Muller for example quotes Harold Ickes, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, who lashed out at "big business Fascist America" which Ickes equated with "an enslaved America." Muller sums up the core belief of this remarkable chapter in Democratic Party history:
"If there was one core belief shared by the diverse policy makers in the New Deal, it was a suspicion of businessmen in general and big business in particular."
Another Democratic plank: "We condemn the open and covert resistance of administrative officials to every effort made by congressional committees to curtail the extravagant expenditures of government and improvident subsidies granted to private interests."
On this plank Smith asks his fellow Democrats: "Now, just between ourselves, do you know any administrative officer that has tried to stop Congress from appropriating money? Do you think there has been any desire on the part of Congress to curtail appropriations?"
Smith was worried that the "haphazard, hurry-up passage of legislation is never going to accomplish the purposes for which it was designed." He accused Congress of throwing "the money of the people right and left" while never informing the public what the appropriations were for. In addition, Smith criticized Congress for appropriating the people's money and recklessly using the funds to subsidize what he called "private groups." Smith had the audacity, it seems, to think that it wasn't proper for Congress "to tax all the people to pay subsidies to a particular group."
Democratic Party or Socialist Party?
Smith concluded his devastating analysis by asking his fellow Democrats to perform a simple experiment:
"Make a test for yourself. Just get the platform of the Democratic Party, and get the platform for the Socialist Party, and lay them down on your dining room table, side by side, and get a heavy lead pencil and scratch out the word "Democrat," and scratch out the word "Socialist," and let the two platforms lay there."
Smith then asked Democrats to consider the record of the Democratic Administration from 1932 to 1936 and pick up the platform that came closest to matching its record of achievements:
"You will put your hand on the Socialist platform. You don't dare touch the Democratic platform."
For Smith, this wasn't "the first time in recorded history that a group of men have stolen the livery of the Church to do the work of the devil." In other words, Smith believed that a small group of men - "young Brain Trusters" - had hijacked the Democratic Party and were remaking it in Marx and Lenin's image. What was known back then as the "Brain Trust" consisted of law professors from Columbia and Harvard whom FDR invited in to be among his closest New Deal advisors. Al Smith however saw the Brain Trust as the root of "all our troubles." In his words, these socialist academics from Columbia and Harvard were threatening to destroy the American roots of the Democratic Party:
"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."
Simply put, Smith's beloved party of "the plain people of the United States" was becoming merely a tool for elite, socialist intellectuals to shroud a deeper and more sinister program of undermining the American "principles of representative democracy."
Smith appealed to skeptical Democrats over the radio to simply read "the greatest declaration of political principles that ever came from the hands of man - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States." He told them to put down their books, forget about listening to economics professors, stop studying party platforms and simply glance at America's founding documents for this disturbing revelation:
"There is only one of two things we can do. We can either take on the mantle of hypocrisy or we can take a walk, and we will probably do the latter."
Democrats, in other words, who endorsed FDR's Administration were nothing other than hypocrites.
At this point in his speech Smith reiterated the importance of understanding the Constitution as the supreme guardian of America's citizens, including its "plain people." We must never forget, said Smith, that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights "were drafted by refugees and sons of refugees, by men with bitter memories of European oppression and hardship . . ." Smith cited the Tenth Amendment for example as being one of the most crucial for keeping the Feds in check and for guaranteeing "home rule" and for preserving "freedom of individual initiative and local control."
"Congress has overstepped its bounds," said Smith. "It went beyond that Constitutional limitation, and it has enacted laws that . . . violate the home rule and the State's right principle."
From our perspective in 2009, it takes an almost monumental effort to entertain the image of a leading Democrat defending the "little guy" against an encroaching Federal Government. Smith truly believed however that local control and individual initiative were the essential building blocks of self-determination - a core Democratic belief. I take Smith here to be saying on a broader level that FDR's socialist experiment threatened to destroy the little guy's self-confidence - his belief in himself. This would be the most profound indictment of the Democratic Party.
In addition, Smith warned Democrats that the "chorus of Yes-Men in Congress" was undermining another sacred Constitutional protection - the separation of powers. "In the name of Heaven," said Smith, what had happened to the independence of Congress?
"Why, they just laid right down. They are flatter on the Congressional floor than the rug on the table here. They surrendered all their powers to the Executive. . . . We all know that the most important bills were drafted by the Brain Trusters, and sent over to Congress without consideration, without debate, and . . . without ninety percent of them knowing what was in the bills."
Smith said that when you threaten the balance of power theory of democratic government you "rattle the whole structure." Again, for Smith the loser in all of this in the end was the little guy who depended on the Constitution and not the Federal Government to maintain his freedom.
Nearing the end of his speech Smith noted that "it is pretty tough on me to have to go against my own party this way, but I submit that there is a limit to blind loyalty." He then proceeded to outline several remedies for what he called "the success of my party."
First: "I suggest to the members of my party on Capitol Hill here in Washington that they take their minds off the Tuesday that follows the first Monday in November. Just take their minds off it to the end that you may do the right thing and not the expedient thing."
What Smith was suggesting here was a major challenge to his fellow Democrats in Congress. Instead of self-interest, think of your party, your nation, and your legacy as a servant of the people. But most importantly, think of those whom the Founding Fathers sought to protect - the normal American citizen who was guaranteed freedom from oppression by the Constitution.
Second: Smith implored his fellow Democrats in power to "make good" on the 1932 platform.
Third: "I suggest to them that they stop compromising with the fundamental principles laid down by Jackson, Jefferson, and Cleveland."
Fourth: "Stop attempting to alter the form and structure of our Government without recourse to the people themselves as provided in their own Constitution. This country belongs to the people, and it doesn't belong to any Administration."
Fifth: "I suggest that they read their Oath of Office to support the Constitution of the United States. And I ask them to remember that they took that oath with their hands on the Holy Bible, thereby calling upon God Almighty Himself to witness their solemn promise. It is bad enough to disappoint us."
Washington or Moscow
Smith concluded his speech by suggesting a sobering additional remedy: "I suggest that from this moment they resolve to make the Constitution the Civil Bible of the United States, and pay it the same civil respect and reverence that they would religiously pay the Holy Scripture, and I ask them to read from the Holy Scripture the Parable of the Prodigal Son and to follow his example."
At this point Smith addressed fellow Democrats who had heard the Siren call of socialism and had wandered dangerously away from their American roots: "Stop! Stop wasting your substance in a foreign land, and come back to your Father's house."
In a dramatic final crescendo, Smith gave what he called a "solemn warning" to those Democrats who were attempting to mix the "oil and water" of representative democracy with Soviet style socialism:
"There can be only one Capitol, Washington or Moscow! There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of Communistic Russia. There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes, or the Red Flag of the Godless Union of the Soviet. There can be only one National Anthem - the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale."
In his final words, "there can be only one victor" said Smith:
"If the Constitution wins, we win. But if the Constitution - stop. Stop there. The Constitution can't lose! The fact is, it has already won, but the news has not reached certain ears." With those chilling words Al Smith concluded his courageous appeal.
Several weeks ago the Democrats' leading spokesman for the "little guy," Joe Biden, gave the Commencement address at Syracuse University. Biden, who represents the most radical, leftist, big government president in the history of America had this to say about America's plain people:
"Ladies and gentlemen, imagine a country that lifts up the windows of opportunities instead of slamming them down that has occurred over the last 15 years. . . . Imagine a country where every single American has a fighting chance, just a fighting chance, and a country that lives up to our promise of our ideals and leads the world with the power of our example, not just the example of our power. This is the story of America"
Sorry Mr. Biden. When the American businessman is vilified, when bureaucrats rule instead of the law, when taxpayers are robbed to pay for useless federal agencies, when government spends more than it takes in, when the middle class is forced to pay for increasing federal debt, when states rights are disrespected, when socialist intellectuals drive national policy, when Congress cowers in the face of the Executive Branch and fails to read its own legislation no one in America will have a "fighting chance" other than the new Robber Barons leading the Democratic Party.
As a great Democrat once put it, it's all right if you want to disguise yourself as Karl Marx or Lenin. But please don't claim to be marching "under the banner of Jefferson, Jackson, or Cleveland." When Democrats rob the little guy of his initiative and supplant it with Big Brother, the party in power is not living up to "the promise of our ideals" Mr. Biden.
Some, like Al Smith, may even wonder if the Party is over.