Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of the most overrated leaders in world history. What would have happened if America saw this and in 1936 voted for Alfred Landon instead? Taking office in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, FDR oversaw the poor economy until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Majority of historians would agree that the Great Depression ended because of World War.
In stricter economic terms the economy improved only to have a relapse in 1937. But it wasn’t until the war, or really after the war, did Americans see good economic times. We’re going to get into the alternative history, but first the Great Depression needs to be put in comparison to past economic crises in order to set up the event which changes the alternate timeline.
Jeffrey Hummel, professor of economics at San Jose State University, constructed this chart using methodology detailed here. In American history, recessions generally did not last more than two years. This one lasted nearly four years on paper. In this timeline, Americans realize that recessions should not last this long and change management like a sports team firing their coach after a few losing seasons. The year is 1936, and FDR loses his reelection to Republican Alfred M. Landon.
Unfortunately for America at this time Alfred Landon, would have made a mediocre, at best, president. Alfred Landon campaigned on lowering taxes and balancing the budget, but also supported numerous pieces of Roosevelt’s new deal. He was a politically successful Republican holdout from the Democrat victories in 1932 as governor of Kansas. The biggest contrast between FDR and FDR-lite candidate, Alfred Landon, would have been social security, or at least how social security was implemented. Landon vehemently opposed the Social Security Act. So in 1937, the Social Security Act is repealed shortly after taking effect.
Being a progressive would ultimately have negated the fiscal hawkish nature of Landon, as it typically does in other politicians. But the area of taxation is where we do see a difference. Being an economic novice, FDR increased government spending and wanted to pay for it by increasing taxes. He never knew about the Laffer Curve. FDR at one point fought for a 100% income tax for the highest earners, a move today’s left apparently lauds. The Foundation For Economic Education writes:
In 1935, with FDR’s push, the top marginal tax rate hit 79 percent. Few paid that rate, but thousands of Americans were in the 50-percent bracket. Entrepreneurs had to hand over more than half of any income above a certain level.
Facing disincentives to make capital investments, many entrepreneurs used their wealth cautiously—investing in tax-exempt bonds, art collections, and foreign banks. Little wealth went into creating jobs, so high unemployment persisted. During World War II FDR raised taxes further, to 94 percent on all income over $200,000.
President Landon, instead pushes for tax cuts and receives them. While spending remains elevated, government revenue increases. The economy improves, mitigating the relapse. However President Landon issues his new version of the Social Security Act, one that seems to be more of a welfare program than the more separated behemoth that is the SSA. In this timeline, it is likely that the Great Depression ends around World War 2 as well.
A key factor at play is Landon’s less hostile view towards separation of powers. The Supreme Court, thanks in large part to Calvin Coolidge’s rather conservative appointees, struck down numerous chunks of the New Deal. FDR sought to pack the courts in response. After this failure, FDR finally intimidated his way into a vacancy. In fact, a floodgate of nominations opened. He nominated Senator Hugo Black, a ardent New Deal supporter and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Justice Black was a widely influential judge authoring the Korematsu v United States 1944 (6-3) decision, one where 6 of 8 justices appointed by Roosevelt voted for internment camps.
Most appointees did not outlast the 1940s. Justice William Douglas was one of two Democrats that voted for the infamous Roe v Wade decision. But Republicans are to blame for the judges who rendered that decision. But the trajectory of SCOTUS nominees is now impossible to calculate, in terms of who would have been nominated, how long they would have lasted, and the distribution of vacant seats in the future presidencies.
World War 2
Does President Landon win a second term? Most Presidents with recent exceptions such as Hoover and Roosevelt win a second term. This term, beginning in 1941, would have overseen the start of US involvement in World War 2. President Landon was more than certainly a weaker presence to have in the Oval Office in a time of war. However the United States generals would largely remain unchanged in this timeline, as America would have selected its top officers. Japan was doomed to fail due to their technological inferiority.
The Manhattan Project would have commenced, and the next President would surely have dropped the bomb, as it was the rational thing to do. Alfred Landon was more isolationist at heart. However he would have given aid to Britain while rejecting the neutrality.
Closing The Gap
Interestingly enough, this timeline closes. While Truman likely doesn’t become President, Dwight Eisenhower does. As the successful general in the European Theater, he would win due to sheer popularity and qualifications. It’s hard from Eisenhower to assert that the chain of Presidents would have been different. President Trump would be number 46, as the United States would have had a President that didn’t serve four terms. That being said, the 22nd Amendment likely wouldn’t exist.
Presidents, like Obama, would still have tried to use government intervention to fix the economy because there was no free market solutions put in place in the 1930s to show that the market would correct itself and faster if the government allowed it too. Social security would exist but the collection of funds would likely be different, much like the differences between Obamacare and Romneycare. The only severe difference from the lack of a FDR second term is the Supreme Court. Roosevelt replaced all but one judge on a court which began hostile to his New Deal. In the alternative history, he appoints zero.
The lack of clear differences between Alfred Landon and FDR make this thought exercise truly underwhelming. Essentially this exercise replaced a radical Democrat with a progressive Republican. The 1936 presidential election bares many similarities to the 2012 election. Party establishment rammed a candidate that hardly opposed the incumbent. That candidate runs a poor campaign and gets crushed accordingly. In the end, the biggest known change in this alternative history is legacy. FDR’s rating as a top President would be nonexistent. While the alternative is disappointing, it seems, at a glance, more than nominally superior than the actual course of events.
Further Reference: Alfred Landon’s Acceptance Speech at the 1936 RNC