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James Burnham

New Deal Candidates Lose,
but F.D.R. Holds Prestige

(September 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 39, 24 September 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Presidential Purge, on the surface at any rate, has taken he worst beating of any Rooseveltian enterprise of the past decade. For the first time in these Six Lean Years, there is rejoicing in the camp of the Republican National Committee.

There is no doubt, moreover, that Roosevelt’s prestige has genuinely suffered by the severity of the defeats of his candidates in the primaries. Like all demagogues, he thrives on victory, and shrinks rapidly when he loses. He relies on the all-powerful magic of his name; but in this instance the spell of his magic proved ineffectual.

Nevertheless, surface appearances are, as so often, at least partly deceiving.

Defeats Expected

In the first place, it should be noted that Roosevelt, in most of the primaries where he intervened, expected his favored candidate to be defeated. This is established by fully authentic reports.

Secondly, a sharp distinction was made by many voters between their feeling for Roosevelt himself and their action on the local candidate for whom he had declared. This was strikingly shown in, for example, Maryland On the eve of the election, the Gallup survey – which has been functioning with great accuracy during the past year – made an estimate. Their returns showed Tydings with 60 per cent of the vote, which was exactly what he got.

But at the same time they tested Roosevelt’s personal popularity, and found him with a clear 55 per cent support. Though this percentage is lower than that in the 1936 election, it had not dropped as a result of his intervention in the Maryland primary There is every reason to believe that this paradox is typical of the other States involved in the purge.

Personal Prestige High

The recently conducted Fortune poll indicated a somewhat similar phenomenon: it showed a decisive continuing majority in popular support for Roosevelt personally, but much lower support of, or even opposition to, a number of specific plans and policies.

These facts serve to indicate th e underlying meaning of the purge. Its chief purpose was not to win the nomination of the given candidates in question – though that would also, no doubt, have been a pleasing outcome. First and foremost, it was a gesture to bolster up Roosevelt’s mass standing in the country as a whole, especially in the heavily populated northern States.

It is Roosevelt’s “left face” that keeps for him the support of the workers and the unemployed and the masses generally. In the purge he put this face forward. His mouthpieces in the labor movements of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, etc., could thus point proudly to him as still the great champion of the masses against the Tories.

Farm-Labor Union

Roosevelt’s speech at Denton Maryland, where he called for a union of farm and labor behind the ostensible aims of the New Deal, fitted in perfectly. He was obviously talking not to the small and unimportant State where the speech was delivered but to the broader reaches of the towns and plains of North and West.

But in spite of these compensating considerations, the extent of the failure of the purge remains a sign of a certain weakening of Roosevelt’s position. The abysmal collapse of the New Deal, the blows of the renewed economic slump, are beginning to stir the consciousness of the masses, to puncture the myth of Roosevelt, the Savior.

Under present conditions, the normal movement for such a process, on the part of the workers and unemployed and poor farmers, would be to the left. But, tragically, the policy of the Lewises and Greens and reformists and Stalinists provides no organized outlet to such a movement to the left. Through Labor Non-Partisan League they try to whip the gradually rising discontent back into the line for New Deal class collaborationism.

Discontent Flares

The discontent and disillusion are thus in part vainly dissipated. Some is finding its way, incredible as it might seem, temporarily back toward the Republican Party. Another part flares up in the pension movement of the Far West. Still another section listens more eagerly than would have been the case five years ago to the ravings of Senators Smith and George, whose campaigns boiled down to “white supremacy.”

The danger is thus clearly pointed: as the break with Roosevelt begins, unless the vacuum to the left is filled, unless a new political instrument is forged whereby the independent class strength of the workers can be mobilized for advance, then the break will lead either to dissipation and disorientation, or toward reaction.

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