Al Smith's Revolution: An interview with Robert Chiles

Today on Gotham, managing editor Peter-Christian Aigner speaks with Robert Chiles, author of the new book The Revolution of '28 (released today!), about the long-debated question of whether Al Smiththe beloved representative of Manhattan's nationally symbolic (immigrant and working-class) Lower East Sideset in motion the New Deal "realignment" with his 1928 presidential race.

The first question is standard, but often illuminating: why this project?

It’s a funny story, actually! My wife is from Long Island, I'm a native of Baltimore. When we traveled up to visit her family I began to notice so many things there were named after Robert Moses that I wanted to know more about him. I went to a book shop and picked up a copy of The Power Broker, and (2,000 pages later) not only did I know who Robert Moses was, I also found my interest in Al Smith rekindled. I remembered hearing about Smith in high school (maybe five minutes, and nothing in college). So, as a precocious grad student, I decided it was time to dig deeper. I began reading widely, making research trips to Albany, to the state archives and state library, and I started to realize that there was a lot more to Smith than we had been led to believe.

This gets to my next question. Most historians regard Smith as a Progressive governor. Some have even argued that he was a precursor to New Deal liberalism. But nearly every scholar has depicted the presidential race in 1928 as essentially a choice between personalities, not issues. You offer a revisionist narrative, arguing that Smith did not tack right when he left New York to campaign abroad in this conservative era. On the contrary, you say he advocated the same economic measures he pioneered here, and this explains the great uptick in voter turnout in ’28, from the groups later identified as the key base in the New Deal coalition: northern, urban, blue-collar Catholic and Jewish immigrants. But historians and political scientists have long denied the “Al Smith Revolution.” Why? What are they missing?

Allan Lichtman provided a great service in 1979, when he published Prejudice and the Old Politics.That book tempered a lot of earlier, romantic history connecting Smith to the New Deal linearly and almost uncritically. Lichtman also compelled two generations of scholars to contend with his statistical analysis. I have some minor methodological scruples with his work, but that’s not really the point. What all these scholars — whether it is Lichtman, or the more Smith-friendly biographer Robert Slayton, or the great New Deal historian and mentor of mine William Leuchtenburg — what they all seem to neglect is the extent to which Smith hammered away at his Progressive agenda on the campaign trail and how seriously those policy debates were taken by the contemporary press and public.

There are a couple of reasons, I suspect, why this has happened. First of all, we get distracted by the spectacular ugliness of the culture wars of 1928. Those were real battles, and mattered profoundly. But they did not, as we are often led to believe, drown out questions of economic justice, social welfare and labor protections.

=Right. You say the political history of 1928 has a "myopic" fixation here, on such things as Prohibition and Smith's Catholicism. He was the first Catholic presidential nominee, and the last for a generation. The Democratic Party is utterly fragmented at the convention in 1924 over this factor. And, of course, this is after the Ku Klux Klan, in breathtaking speed, has built “the largest social movement in the first half of the twentieth century,” as Linda Gordon just reminded the public, largely among educated middle-class voters in the North. But you argue that some “fundamental policy debates" occurred in '28. Like?

Well, there is a danger in reading history backwards, through the prism of the New Deal. Obviously, if you look at Al Smith’s liberal proposals from 1928 — for farm relief, federal hydroelectric development, labor department studies of unemployment conditions with the objective to formulate a government response — implicitly through a public construction program, protections for collective bargaining rights against injunctions, and his vague calls for a broader social welfare agenda, as well as his general critiques of Republican tax and tariff policies — if you look at these things expecting to find New Deal liberalism you will be disappointed. But to expect a mainstream candidate to call for a dramatic reshaping of American political economy in a time of perceived general economic strength is absurd. It projects anachronistic concepts onto 1928. The New Deal, after all, was a response to the Great Depression! But in the context of '28, what Smith was calling for represented a significant critique of the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover status quo, grounded in his record in New York, and articulated from the perspective of the urban working class.

More important than any of this is the fact that "new stock" voters took Smith’s ideas very seriously! Of course they were excited that he was a Catholic. And not just Catholics. Jewish voters, African American voters, many marginalized groups could find kinship in Smith’s ethnocultural struggles and gravitated towards him as a result. These "new Americans," Catholics and others, were inspired by Smith’s forceful rebuke of the KKK, which had exploded across the North calling for “100% Americanism.” Most of them also liked his criticism of Prohibition and the new discriminatory immigration quotas. But when we dig a little deeper, we realize that voters were interested in Smith both as a cultural symbol andas an economic reformer. His progressivism, which appealed idiomatically to the northeastern and midwestern working class, was about cultural pluralism as well as a vigorous appeal for social welfare and labor protections. These voters were eager for both by 1928. In Chapter Four I go into great depth about how Democratic newspapers and working-class urban voters responded to the cultural battles. But I also look at the economic arguments: for example, the debate over federal development of the hydroelectric potential at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or Smith’s appeals to labor and his defense of his record on social welfare, housing, education, and workplace reforms in New York. These things were all very attractive to voters on the outskirts of the so-called “roaring twenties,” and they said so themselves. I think that is another key point. I am not relying only on quantitative analysis or on elite political sources or even the press. I mined all of these sources, but to me some of the richest sources are the words of the rank-and-file voters who articulated their political priorities themselves: in letters to the editor, in some scraps of correspondence, in their behavior at rallies and in some cases in oral histories.

This gets us to a context question. You spend the first two chapters providing a background on Smith, and emphasize his place within a larger transformation roiling northern Democratic machines in the early 1900s, including Manhattan's infamous party, "Tammany Hall." What’s essential to know here?

I think the big takeaway is that background matters. Smith’s politics later on were a reflection of where he came from — the diversity of the Lower East Side, the tenuousness of his childhood, respect for the party and the changing nature of the urban Democracy in New York. This is where a lot of the Smith literature has gotten it right — biographer Robert Slayton, the great Oscar Handlin, many who have taken a biographical approach appreciate Smith’s background as essential to his politics. I lay this out in chapters one and two, but I refer to it later when I talk about the new Smith Democrats — not just the people who voted for him in chapters four and five, or the politicians who continued his agenda after his defeat, but the congressional urban liberals I discuss briefly in the Conclusion, a huge force in the New Deal.

It is also important to understand the contributions of women to Smith’s progressivism. The importance of Belle Moskowitz to Al Smith’s career is widely known thanks to the excellent biography by Elisabeth Israels Perry. I try to continue building on her work and other scholars, too, by arguing that Smith’s progressivism was a sort of unique amalgam of the settlement house or social welfare Progressive tradition, overwhelmingly a women’s reform tradition, and the machine tradition of Tammany Hall. It was a messy, complicated, ongoing negotiation, which I discuss in some nuance in Chapter One. And it was never perfect. But it was the source of Smith’s remarkably progressive agenda as governor and it made New York in the 1920s what I call “an island of reformism in an ocean of normalcy.”

About that... liberal reformers in New York, and other northern cities, often faced defeat in the state legislature during the early 20th century, where conservative rural voters were heavily overrepresented, at least until the Supreme Court rulings of the mid-1960s, when suburbanites gained the upper hand. How did Smith deal with this challenge? And what did he manage to accomplish?

You bring up an important point. Smith never had Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature in any of his four terms. He was able to get around recalcitrant legislators, however, in several ways.

One was his innovative use of bonds — he could fund hospital improvements (1923), parks (1924), and general improvements (1925), among other projects, this way. Also, he was a master of the legislature, so to speak: he knew how to make the right deals to get enough of his agenda through. His welfare program, and public works, took care of rural New Yorkers as well — through health clinics, school funding, roads, parks, etc. That was sometimes appealing to rural legislators.

I think most importantly, though, he was able to communicate his program to the voters in a relatable, accessible way. Smith’s progressive “style” was far more popular than many other reformers of his era. So he could rally “the people,” and this meant bonds were approved, and it meant constitutional amendments were approved to streamline state government and to strengthen Smith’s executive power, to circumvent the legislature in some regards. And it meant he kept getting reelected! He made schools central to his 1924 reelection, and a parks bond was on the ballot the same year he was running in 1924 — so he won both. He made government reorganization central to several of his campaigns and eventually won that. When he made his comeback in 1922, he attacked Nathan Miller for keeping New York out of the federal Sheppard Towner maternal and infant health program and won. The point was made, and New York joined the next year. So Smith’s accessible, popular style, and frankly his persistence, along with executive reorganization and liberal use of bonds, allowed him to accomplish a great deal of his agenda.

He didn’t get everything, of course. He sometimes had trouble when opponents were particularly fierce in calling his programs Bolshevik and when conservatives got the business community up in arms against him. This killed his initiative for universal compulsory health insurance for workers early in his tenure, and it prevented him from creating a state power commission in his own time (although that would be secured later on).

What about money? 1928 is a high point for major donors, thanks in part to Smith tapping Jakob Raskob, a wealthy Republican, as head of the DNC. How does that fit into your story?

Raskob is an interesting case. In some ways I think he gets overemphasized in the literature on '28, because later on he played such an important role in bringing Smith into the conservative and business circles of the Democratic Party, especially after 1934. But in 1928 Raskob was brought in because he was an upwardly mobile Catholic who despised Prohibition, and Smith admired him. He was an excellent fundraiser, and helped convince Wall Street the Democrats were safe for business. He was never popular with Smith’s more important advisers like Moskowitz, but he was not important to Smith’s policy agenda in 1928. His role in the party at that time was to be a fundraiser and administrator, not a visionary. Robert Slayton and Elisabeth Perry have both shown that Smith’s New York advisers, like Moskowitz and Moses, were more important. Raskob became more important to Smith after his defeat, when he set him up with business connections that over time pulled Al to the right.

Yes, I want to end on that question. But first, you provide a number of graphs analyzing the vote in '28, particularly in the great manufacturing centers of the North, where you find some dramatic results (you call it the “revolution before the New Deal”). Tell us about that quantitative research.

I realized, following many political scientists, that to understand 1928 as a turning point in certain places — especially cities — does not necessarily mean Smith won in those places (although in many cases he did); it just means that the election precipitated a transformation in the profile of the partisan coalitions in key jurisdictions and states. So I needed to determine whether the Democratic coalition transformed in a real way in 1928, and also whether that new coalition was durable. One way to measure this was to see if urban counties in the North became a more important source of Democratic votes in state-level coalitions in 1928. That was indeed the case, as I show in Chapter Four, and it remained the case through the FDR years, and beyond. Of course, qualitatively many historians have shown that the sort of people who supported FDR, and Democrats for the next two generations, were increasingly from the urban, ethnic, working-class groups that gravitated toward Smith.

But I think the real test is New England — both for the policies and the changing demographic profile of the Democratic Party. In New England, the Depression was already going on in 1928. Textiles had been rocked throughout the 1920s, and the economy was in a dismal state. There we see that Smith’s combination of cultural pluralism and economic reformism were presented in a very favorable context — to people not only culturally sympathetic to the New Yorker, but desperate for economic change. There he not only changed the Democratic coalition, he actually won. Those conditions went national four years later.

Okay, and now back to the mystery of Smith's feud with his "protege," FDR. What happens to Al? He becomes the most influential, and unlikely, of the conservative Democrats railing against the New Deal as Soviet-like communism. Why?

This is a tough one. There have always been a few schools of thought on this — some scholars argue that Smith remained consistent throughout: that either he was always a conservative or that despite his progressive inclinations he found the sort of reforms FDR was pursuing to be radical and repugnant. I don’t think that interpretation holds up in light of Smith’s record as governor, and many portions of his 1928 campaign.
Another argument is personal bitterness and disappointment. I think there was some of that, but it can’t be the whole story.

Probably we can't ever know the whole story, but there are a few elements we can address. A lot of the old reformist voices that had been so central to formulating Smith’s progressive outlook had either moved on (e.g., Wagner and Perkins, now federal figures) or had died (Moskowitz). Moreover, Smith was no longer governor. He was now President of the Empire State Building, and his job was to convince businessmen to rent space in an empty skyscraper. His perspective on the Depression was therefore a lot different than it would have been if he were Governor, or a Tammany politico, or what have you. So the old voices were not around as much, even though he remained best friends with Wagner for life, and the new voices were conservative businessmen.

There clearly was an element of jealousy with FDR, too. He really thought 1932 was his chance to try again. In 1932 he ran a far more conservative campaign than in ’28, although not wholly so: he still called for public works to assuage unemployment, he still called for public hydroelectricity, he still had Wagner and other northern labor liberals in his corner, like Billy Connery and David Ignatius Walsh and John McCormack of Massachusetts or Mary Norton of New Jersey. He definitely ran to FDR’s right, but I don’t think these people, or the voters that supported him in primaries in New England and industrial Pennsylvania, were backing him because he attacked FDR’s “Forgotten Man” speech. I think they liked what Al had stood for over the past twenty-eight years.

Of course Smith lost, and he seems to have lost touch at some point with the needs of his former supporters. If you read the Liberty League speeches, they don’t tend to reflect the sort of mastery of public issues that was so evident in Smith’s speeches as governor or in 1928. He really was a genius for public policy, and that does not shine through in his speeches in the mid-1930s, which are full of fury and name-calling. Irrespective of one’s personal politics or feelings about the New Deal, there is something sad about that story. Ironically, he remained friends with Wagner, he stayed in touch with Eleanor Roosevelt, and he remained supportive of many liberal Democrats (he supported liberal Democrat Herbert Lehman for governor in 1934 when he could have very easily supported his friend Robert Moses, the Republican nominee). So it might have been a mix of increasing conservatism and personal animosity toward FDR. But while we can’t know for sure why Al took the direction he did, one thing is clear: this was not the continuation of his 1920s politics. I make my interpretation clear about that with the title of that section of the conclusion: Quantum Mutatus ab Illo! *

Many thanks, Robert. It was a pleasure to read. Congratulations!

Thank you!

* How changed from what he once was!