The Conservative Campaign Against SafetyRoundup
tags: FDR, politics, New Deal, Donald Trump, coronavirus
Lawrence B. Glickman is a history professor at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History.
Security—freedom from “fear itself”—was the central promise of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, in 1933. The concept appeared again in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, as “freedom from want,” and in a 1935 address to Congress, as the goal of the New Deal, which he described as “the security of the men, women, and children of the nation against certain hazards and vicissitudes of life.” The aptly named Social Security Act of 1935 was the central domestic achievement of FDR’s presidency.
Conservatives condemned this emphasis on security as an infantilizing damper on the American spirit. A 1935 editorial in The Illinois State Journal on “the New Deal road to ruin,” for example, attacked what it took to be the Rooseveltian principle “that the federal government should govern its citizens like so many incompetent children.” The same year, Georgia’s Governor Eugene Talmadge dismissed what the New Deal had accomplished, in a phrase combining gender roles, statism, and naïveté, as “wet nursin’… downright communism, and plain foolishness.” In 1936, the Republican Senator Frederick Steiwer contrasted traditional American free enterprise with “the soft, spineless paternalism of the regimented state.” J. William Ditter, the Pennsylvania congressman, spoke for many critics of the New Deal in 1939, when he pitted “star-gazing” New Dealers against “practical men,” like himself, who recognized that Roosevelt's “make-believe security” provided no realistic basis for a free society.
After the New Deal took hold, conservatives continued to denigrate the desire for security, often as an assault on masculinity. In 1949, Strom Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina and Dixiecrat presidential candidate the previous year, said, “Nothing could be more un-American and more devastating to a strong and virile nation than to encourage its citizens to expect government to provide security from cradle to grave.”
One consistent note in mid-century conservative rhetoric is the praise of risk as the essence of American citizenship and manhood, and the insistence that a healthy economy is necessarily precarious: “We must preserve the American tradition of freedom to take a chance—to lose your shirt, if you want to,” Eric Johnston of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in 1943. “Freedom is not for weaklings,” H. W. Prentis of the National Association of Manufacturers said in 1942. Only “ultra-liberal and socialistic critics” misguidedly and dangerously “put security first,” thereby threatening American liberty. In 1950, Arthur H. Motley, the publisher of Parade magazine, singled out “the freedom to fail” as “our most important freedom.”
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