The 2012 election promises to be one of the most crucial moments in modern American politics. It's clear that it will be a referendum not just on President Obama and the state of the economy, but also on the New Deal and its legacy of government efforts to ensure security and opportunity for all Americans. Because of this, it's important to look back to America's first referendum on the New Deal, the 1936 election.
Then as today, progressive values were under attack. The New Deal was blamed for continuing unemployment and denounced as un-American, unconstitutional. Roosevelt was portrayed as a socialist, a communist, and a fascist, often in the same breath.
To confront this tide of misinformation, the president kicked off the 1936 election campaign 76 years ago Sunday. On January 8, Roosevelt addressed the Democratic Party's annual Jackson Day dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. In addition, thousands more listened in at similar dinners around the country through a special radio hookup. In his speech, Roosevelt began by pointing out how fitting it was to honor Andrew Jackson since the issue of the day, "the right of the average man and woman to lead a finer, a better and a happier life... was the same issue, more than a hundred years ago, that confronted Andrew Jackson."
But the purpose of Roosevelt's speech was not merely to offer up paeans to Old Hickory. The president understood that the success of his reelection effort, and indeed of the New Deal and progressive, humane government, required an informed and active American public. For this reason he praised Jackson for his efforts to educate and to include average Americans in the great issues of the day. And to do this, Jackson did not rely on the "luxurious propaganda" wielded by his political enemies. Instead, "the man on the street and the man on the farm believed in his ideas, believed in his ideals and his honesty, went out and dug up the facts and spread them abroad throughout the land."
Roosevelt told his listeners that same problem remained -- the need to get out the truth "in the face of an opposition bent on hiding and distorting facts." Accomplishing this required that all those who believed in progressive causes must constitute a "committee of one" that would
run down statements made to you by others which you may believe to be false. You will need to analyze the motives of those who make assertions to you. You will need to make an inventory in your own community, in order that you may check and recheck for yourself and thereby be in a position to answer those who have been misled or those who would mislead.
Such education and information was vitally necessary since, as Roosevelt put it, "A Government can be no better than the public opinion which sustains it."
The same is true today. Those who share the values and spirit of the New Deal need to educate and inform their fellow citizens so that this election will reflect the true voice of the people, not the distortions of an echo chamber created by narrow and selfish interests. In the words of FDR, "The people of America know the heart and know the purpose of their Government. They and we will not retreat."
Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America and he is currently writing a book on the 1936 election.