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Populist Movement

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Seen as a turning point in American politics, the President acquiring new authority and importance, and the role of government in citizens' lives increasing. The extent to which this was planned by the architect of the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has been greatly contested, however. FDR had a clear overarching vision of what he wanted to do to America, and was prepared to drive through the structural changes required to achieve this vision.

It is worth examining how the New Deal period represented a significant departure from US government and politics up to then. From the start of Roosevelt's period in office in 1932, there was a widespread sense that things were going to change. In Washington there was excitement in the air, as the first Hundred Days brought a torrent of new initiatives from the White House. The contrast with Herbert Hoover's term could not have been more striking. By 1934, E.K. Lindley had already written about The Roosevelt Revolution: First Phase. Hoover, meanwhile, denounced what he saw as an attempt to "undermine and destroy the American system" and "crack the timbers of the constitution." In retrospect, it was only a "half-way revolution", as W. Leuchtenburg has written.

Roosevelt's enthusiasm for his role as head of state established a new convention that the President would lead from the front, and in his First Inaugural he warned that he intended to ask Congress for greater powers to enact his policies. Co. Roosevelt was far from accepting the Court's decisions, launched a challenge to it, attempting in 1936 to pack the court with new, more accommodating Justices. The plan failed, but eventually pressure told, and 1937 saw a series of landmark rulings.

The fact that he was able to impose his will on Congress and the Supreme Court was constitutionally very significant: the Presidency gained a great deal of power at the expense of the other branches of government. The creation in 1939 of the Executive Office of the President was confirmation of the extent to which authority had passed to the White House.

The New Deal also marked a decisive shift in the balance of power from the states to the federal government. By 1932 it had become clear that state governments were unable to cope with the demands of widespread hardship and modernity. The New Deal enabled the federal government to take over the burden. What were needed, it was thought, were for a major force to co-ordinate the efforts of the states and drive the nation back in the right direction. The very notion that people could look to any government, federal or state, to solve their problems was novel. The 1930s provided a framework for the scope of governmental action that remains intact today. The Federal government began to strengthen its economy; in the banking and finance industries; in farming prices; in the relations between management and workers; in the support of the vulnerable and needy. The Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 were representative of a momentous shift in the attitude of government.

This redefinition aroused great opposition. The New Deal period saw the rebirth of issues politics, with the ideological divide between the Democratic and Republican parties wider than in a long time. Roosevelt had mentioned in 1932 that he would transform the Democratic party into the progressive party. Despite his failure in 1938 to purge the party of conservatives, increasingly its appeal was class-based - insofar as America can be said to have classes. The situation of Blacks in society did not improve a great deal in the period, but they were looked on with more sympathy by the Democratic Party, and they too have tended to vote Democrat ever since the 30s.

So the New Deal period did change the course of American politics and government in several significant ways. The role that FDR played



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