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November 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-8


Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932





In summarizing Hoover’s career, Richard Norton Smith wrote:


In his long, productive life, Herbert Hoover played many parts. While his various careers as mining engineer, relief organizer, Cabinet officer, President and elder statesman have attracted renewed interest in recent years, none has more relevance to our own time than Hoover’s role as philosopher of modern conservative thought.[89]


Hoover’s defense of traditional constitutional limited government against popular New Deal liberalism, even if he was crying in the wilderness, is an example of his wisdom and leadership. As a conservative, Hoover broke his silence in his post-presidency to defend constitutional principles. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport, a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, recently wrote The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, which addresses the often complex relationship between conservatism and the New Deal. It also elevates the importance of the Hoover-Roosevelt political debate to American politics.


As Lloyd and Davenport wrote:


Indeed, Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s writings and speeches, beginning with their presidential campaign in 1932, but especially after the New Deal began to be implemented in 1933, frame the progressive-conservative debate that has dominated the American political and policy landscape for the last eighty years and is still going strong.[90]


Hoover, along with other conservatives of the 1930s, understood that not only did Roosevelt confiscate the traditional meaning of the term “liberal” with his New Deal, but also the Republican Party was the only alternative to defend conservative principles against a growing progressive Democratic Party. Ogden Mills, who served as Secretary of Treasury under Hoover, shared his disdain for the New Deal and understood the importance of defending principles. He summarized the values of the American system:


1. Limitations of the powers of the federal government to those specifically granted.
2. Distribution of those powers thus granted among the three divisions of government—legislative, executive and judicial—with strict differentiation of their respective spheres of activity.
3. A broad measure of home rule, guaranteed by the provision that all powers not delegated to the United States are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.
4. Individual liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.[91]


These were the constitutional principles that Hoover fought to defend against Roosevelt and later Truman’s progressive policies.


The New Deal continues to shape American politics, and this can especially be seen in the current debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the debt crisis. Progressives have long since championed health care to be a constitutional “right” as Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1944 State of the Union Address when he outlined his Second Bill of Rights. The debt crisis, symbolized by our $17 trillion national debt and trillions in unfunded entitlement program (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) liabilities, threatens the economic security of the nation. The immense difficulty in attempting to reform Social Security and Medicare only demonstrates the strength of the New Deal on the culture that is wedded to the welfare state. The New Deal dilemma is a serious factor for policymakers to overcome in order to cut spending and reform entitlement programs.


The division between Republicans and Democrats led by President Obama is based upon this deep philosophical disagreement over the role of government in shaping public policy. Additionally, the internal debate within the Republican Party between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans is also similar to Hoover’s squabble with moderate Republicans who wanted to make peace with the New Deal. 


In the close of the presidential campaign of 1936, Hoover told the nation that “we shall battle it out until the soul of America is saved.”[92] Hoover’s crusade against New Deal liberalism continued long after the discouraging defeat in 1936, and it marked his career as a statesman who defended constitutional principles. The battle continues 81 years after the election of 1932, and who wins this philosophical debate will decide the future of the Republic.



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