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November 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-8


Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932





It is often stated that ideas have consequences, and the same can be true for elections. Elections often transform the political landscape of the nation. This is especially true for the presidential election of 1932. President Herbert Hoover, who in 1928 was elected President in a landslide to carry on the Republican ascendency, which began in 1920 with Warren G. Harding, was soundly defeated for reelection by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Hoover and the Republican Party were blamed for causing the Great Depression — to this day the most severe economic crisis that ever faced the United States. Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, ushered in by the promise of the New Deal, brought a fundamental transformation to American politics.


The New Deal not only created a political realignment in favor of the Democrats, but it also changed the constitutional structure of government. President Roosevelt’s progressive philosophy contained in the New Deal expanded the role of the federal government through the economy and through social welfare programs. The regulatory or administrative state, which previously had begun under the progressive presidential administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, expanded at great pace. Roosevelt also launched the modern entitlement or welfare state through programs such as Social Security. Roosevelt even called for a “Second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union message, which called for new rights to be guaranteed by the federal government. One of those “rights” was health care — a recent progressive achievement with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Roosevelt also transformed the Supreme Court, which resulted in a transformational change to constitutional law. Previously the Court was a defender of limited government, and the New Deal Court established precedents to protect a strong and activist federal government.


The modern liberalism that emerged as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal was challenged by conservatives, who were led by former President Hoover. Even before his defeat in the 1932 election, Hoover warned the American people that Roosevelt’s New Deal was intended not only for a temporary Depression relief measure, but to radically change the American political system. Hoover’s campaign against the New Deal was based on a defense of traditional constitutional limited government and the free enterprise system. In his post-presidential career, Hoover became the leader of the modern American conservative movement.


In order to understand the major political and economic debates occurring today over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s economic policies, or the debt crisis, it is vital to understand the origins of this debate and to revisit the election of 1932 and the great debate between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a noted economist, wrote that the progressive welfare and regulatory state expanded greatly as a result of the New Deal. Sowell wrote that “the first giant steps in this direction were taken in the 1930s, when the Great Depression provided rationale for a radically expanded role of government that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his followers had believed in before the Great Depression.”[1]



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