“Liberal” is one of those words that gets flung around a lot, often as a pejorative. Why do we use this word?

Short answer: The Great Depression

Long answer: The world was plunged into a global economic depression in the late 1920s by a series of events that began with a stock market crash in October 1929. The economy was not healthy enough to absorb the stock market crash; multiple disasters followed like bank failures, crop failures, and business failures.

Herbert Hoover had been elected President in 1928, by a landslide; he had 60% of the popular vote and carried 40 states. He won partly because Republicans were credited with creating the booming (though unhealthy) economy; he had also gained votes by his supporters exploiting anti-Catholic and anti-urban sentiments, though the candidate himself did not do this. He had a reputation as a great humanitarian, because he had been in charge of various food relief efforts during and after World War I. He had also been a Progressivist leader: as Secretary of Commerce, and later as President, he believed that most businesses and government departments were rife with inefficiency, and that this problem could be solved by having experts come in and study methods and processes.

I know! It sounds like a setup for a movie. We’ll get that Ron Livingston guy. We’ll call it “Office Space”!

Anyway, Hoover had never held elective office before (though he had been a cabinet secretary); he was known as a great businessman. But when the Depression and its cascading series of consequences began, he was at a loss as to what to do. For three years his response was to put government money into public works projects like the Hoover Dam; to tell businesses not to cut wages; to balance the budget by raising taxes. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was enacted in 1930, which sent foreign markets plummeting as well. By the time he left office, unemployment was at 25%. The cotton markets had failed. Heavy industry was at a standstill. Even mining was failing.

It’s making me nervous, too.

Roosevelt’s election was more than just “a desperate America wanted change.” Though, of course, it did. Roosevelt was elected by an informal coalition of particular groups. Labor unions, big-city political machines, ethnic and religious minorities, small business owners, poor people, southern white people.

When Roosevelt won the election, he started putting in the many New Deal programs that began to reverse the Great Depression. Sometimes members of the Coalition disagreed with each other, but Roosevelt wrought enormous compromises among them to keep the votes coming in and to keep the program as a whole moving forward.

No, everyone wasn’t happy, and the economy didn’t recover over night. But Roosevelt had the experience and the political knowledge to keep these groups working together and moving the country forward.

So, what on earth do you call a coalition that includes Russian Jewish immigrants, cotton mill workers, small business owners, and people who are getting government relief?

In the 1930s the catch-all term “liberal” came into common usage to mean “someone who supported New Deal programs.” And those who opposed the New Deal were called “conservatives.”

The political climate leading into the 1968 Presidential Election had been set in motion by the politics of the 1930s. And it set up many of our attitudes today.

How was this going to play out in 1968? Next time in the Project!



Further reading:

The Great Depression: http://www.ushistory.org/us/48.asp

Herbert Hoover: http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/herbert-hoover

Efficiency Movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efficiency_Movement