Once upon a time in America, elections, even the most bitterly contested elections, included high flying rhetoric and deeply held principles to counter balance the general mud-slinging. One such election was held in the fall of 1932. Incumbent President Herbert Hoover engaged in a heated campaign against challenger Franklin Roosevelt, Governor of New York. There was no love lost between these two men, yet they were able to maintain a measure of civility during the campaign.
The challenger Roosevelt did all that he could to tie Hoover to the woes of the Great Depression: lost jobs, falling incomes, foreclosures, and a faltering foreign policy. Roosevelt’s campaign promised a ‘New Deal’ for Americans tired of their current tribulations. Admittedly, some of the details of this ‘New Deal’ were murky and sometimes self-contradictory, but the clarion call for change was clear.
Hoover, looking at Roosevelt’s speeches and proposed policies, described FDR as a ‘chameleon on plaid,’ evidently ready to pander to any audience. For his part, Hoover ran on his record. He promised to stay the course, confident that his policies would eventually turn the tide against the Great Depression. The campaign trail suited Roosevelt’s temperament; he began his campaign in August. Hoover, a reluctant campaigner in the best of times, did not begin his 1932 campaign until October.
Most of Hoover’s campaign speeches were either long summations of policy actions, or point-by-point refutations of misstatements and misrepresentations posited by his challenger. The exception is Hoover’s address at Madison Square Garden in New York on October 31st. After deriding Roosevelt’s calls for change and a new deal, Hoover states: ‘This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government.’
Hoover then goes on to describe his vision for America: a limited Federal government, no direct relief to citizens, relief to come from voluntary cooperative communities, preservation of ordered liberty, freedom for the individual, and equality of opportunity. This contrasted sharply with Roosevelt’s view of an activist Federal government, with far-reaching powers to provide relief for citizens in need. For Roosevelt, the state was ‘created by the citizens for their mutual protection and well-being… Our government is not the master but the creature of the people.’
These fundamentally divergent philosophies of government have been manifest in virtually every Presidential election since 1932. In this sense, we are still resolving this ‘contest between two philosophies of government.’