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Maybe the New Deal was a class war after all

In the piece of Arizona in which I live, there’s a distinct social divide between locally sourced business people and professionals, and those from elsewhere. While everybody mixes at community events and in the professional setting, on their own time, the locals go one way and the imports go another.

It’s not an economic divide — asset-wise, one tribe or the other may have the advantage, but that’s clearly not where the border lies. In fact, there’s a range of incomes on either side; the real common denominator — and source of the division — is culture. In broad terms, one group spends its cash on ATVs, steak and beer, and the other on mountain bikes, hummus and wine. Things are a bit fuzzier than that, of course, but it’s enough to make for two largely detached social networks.

This is on my mind because I’m currently reading Paul Fussell’s much-referenced and very biting Class: A guide through the American status system. Published originally in the early 1980s, the book may be dated a bit in some specific details, but it recalls to me (shudder) my high school years in WASPy Greenwich, Connecticut, and reminds me that economic divides and social divides are not the same thing. One of the great glories of the United States is that wealth really is within the reach of just about anybody with brains and drive — but social barriers are a hell of a lot harder to overcome. Despite his billions, Bill Gates will always be an upper middle-class guy — never mind that he could buy and sell whatever is left of the Roosevelts.

Of course, if sufficiently secure in his own skin, he need not give a shit about that social divide either — which is freedom in itself.

But, speaking of the Roosevelts, this long and somewhat strange introduction is my labored way of working around to an observation that occurred to me some time ago while I was reading Amity Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, about the Great Depression. It’s often remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “traitor to his class” — that his authoritarianism, corporatist economics and populist bloviating separated him from his natural allies and championed the little guy.

Except … That’s not true, is it?

FDR was fond of bashing “money changers” and plutocrats, and of challenging major figures in business and industry — which is indicative, since he himself was engaged in … nothing. Nothing, that is, aside from politics. Really, his official White House biography speaks of college, law school and political office. Other biographies refer to a brief legal clerkship. But really, his family had lived off of inherited money for generations, and he didn’t have to work at anything that didn’t interest him. The man was a landed aristocrat.

And what about his opponents?

Many of FDR’s opponents may have been wealthier than him, but they also worked at it in ways that the idle social elite have traditionally considered vulgar. Take Andrew Mellon, for example. Widely derided as a shadowy and powerful figure — “three presidents served under him” — Mellon was the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant who started off working in lumber and coal and later went into banking. Yes, he grew immensely rich and powerful, but he worked. By Roosevelt’s standards, Mellon was a social inferior.

In fact, the same could be said about all of those “plutocrats” whose businesses were affected, to one extent or another, by the New Deal. The simple fact that they engaged in commerce beyond managing an ancient estate would have made them a bit … icky … to the likes of FDR and the old elite.

As Fussell writes in Class, “[A]s a class indicator, the amount of money is less significant than the source. The main thing distinguishing the top three classes from each other is the amount of money inherited in relation to the amount currently earned. The top out-of-sight-class … lives on inherited capital entirely.”

By the standard set by Fussell (a liberal Democrat, by the way, who contrasts Ronald Reagan’s “Midwestern small-town meanness” with “Roosevelt’s politics of aristocratic magnanimity”), the likes of Mellon and Henry Ford (another son of an immigrant), who actually worked for the majority of their wealth, would have been one or two social classes below FDR, despite their vast assets.

It’s interesting … Transfer the same cast of characters to, say, fifteenth-century Flanders (not that I’m an expert) and grad students would be cranking out papers about the exploitation of the peasantry as a weapon by the landed aristocracy against the newly empowered merchant class, but clear judgment goes out the window when the scion of a long-established elite New York family takes advantage of an economic down-turn to stir up struggling Americans against newly risen business owners who are overshadowing his social set in the United States of the 1930s.

I’ve long since come to realize that I rarely have original ideas, so I’ll assume that this insight has been covered, to much greater depth, elsewhere. Please feel free to drop me a note telling me what I’ve overlooked, since the subject intrigues me.

Posted in Culture, Economic Freedom


  • Great post, Tooch. I’ve been interested in these issues for some time now, but haven’t done much reading that touches on them, other than John Taylor Gatto’s book The Underground History of American Education. I obviously am well behind you, so I can’t tell you if you’ve missed something; but I will enthusiastically encourage you to continue in this vein. The mishmash of cultures/values that helped create U.S. culture makes for intriguing dynamics today …

  • Sunni,

    I think Gatto did a credible role of detailing some of the class-driven purpose behind the structuring of the public school system. He certainly illustrated the lengths to which some people will go to maintain their exclusivity.

    Fussell’s treatment is more recent and broader (and funnier), but also illustrates the hostility that can separate classes in places where the boundaries are rigid (like my memories of New England).

    I should point out that Fussell’s book is almost 30 years old. Since then, much of the balance of political and economic power has shifted to the sunbelt where, I think, class boundaries are more permeable. Fussell might have claimed that the Southwestern “upper class” is just middle- and lower-classes with new money, but with the rise of new companies and industries in the sunbelt, and the stabilization of separate tastes (the old WASPs wear English and American clothes and shoes, the best men’s shop in Phoenix carries Italian and American lines), I think it’s a separate and competing structure.

    But the old rules and conflicts certainly apply to the Depression era.

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