Another Perspective

Elizabeth Warren Dips into FDR’s Bag of Dirty Tricks

Buying the votes of welfare recipients in most blatant way.

By and 8.13.12

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"If we give you taxpayer dollars, you give us your vote. Okay?" That seems to be the message promoted by Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusetts.

In an effort to stuff welfare recipients into voting booths in November, Warren's daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi is spearheading an effort to force the state of Massachusetts to send out voter registration forms to state residents who are on welfare. The mailing will cost Massachusetts about $275,000. Incumbent Senator Scott Brown, Warren's indignant opponent, has responded, "I want every legal vote to count, but it's outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party over another. This effort to sign up welfare recipients is being aided by Elizabeth Warrant's daughter -- and it's clearly designed to benefit her mother's political campaign."

Where did Ms. Warren get the idea to appeal for votes that way? Of course, politicians throughout U.S. history have tried to use federal programs to sway voters, but the chief role model for Warren's scheme may be President Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal programs.

When FDR was first elected president in 1932, he moved quickly to set up government bureaucracies to dole out federal funds. And FDR and his aides made sure that the huge bulk of such spending went to districts that he would need to carry at election time. To find out where he needed votes the most, FDR had his pollsters research the following question: "What swing states (or congressional districts) would benefit from special injections of federal dollars?"

To make sure the right states got the most cash, FDR established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to fund roads and other public works in the key battleground states and congressional districts. The WPA hired Democrats to staff major positions and WPA workers sometimes openly campaigned for FDR and other Democrats at election time. For example, V. G. Copen, Democratic chairman in Indiana, said, "What I think will help is to change the WPA management from top to bottom. Put men in there who are… in favor of using these Democratic projects to make votes for the Democratic party."

FDR also used the system of federal relief, or welfare as we call it today, to secure votes. Elizabeth Warren is obviously intrigued by that possibility today, but what is interesting is that in 1932, when the first federal welfare program was adopted, Massachusetts was one of the few states that refused to take federal funds. Warren's predecessors in Massachusetts took a strict constitutional view that charity was a private concern: People help people, not politicians helping voters with other people's money. Joseph Ely, who was governor of Massachusetts in the 1930s, denounced the federalization of welfare, in part because he saw how politicians could abuse it. "Whatever the justification for relief," Ely said, "the fact remains that the way in which it has been used makes it the greatest political asset on the practical side of party politics ever held by any administration."

Ely, like FDR, was a Democrat, but Ely saw the need to limit federal aid and limit politicians' power to use that aid for political advantage. Other Democrats agreed. Newspaper reporter Thomas Stokes, who liked FDR, nonetheless won a Pulitzer Prize for his first-hand accounts of the WPA. He discovered the WPA to be "a grand political racket in which the taxpayer is the victim." When leading New Dealers turned on Stokes, he observed, "They sought refuge in the seductive philosophy that the end justifies the means and under this philosophy, they condoned the political organization of relief workers."

In a similar vein, Warren seems to condone the political organization of those on relief. But back in 1939, even leading Democrats saw the potential destruction of our political system if politicians could so blatantly buy votes. In that year, Senator Carl Hatch (D-N. Mex.) sponsored a successful bill to bar relief officials from blatantly campaigning for candidates. Warren, by trying to register those on welfare with taxpayer dollars, is opposing a principled stand by leading Democrats of the New Deal era, even those in her state of Massachusetts.

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About the Author

Burton Folsom Jr. is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of New Deal or Raw Deal? (Simon & Schuster, 2008). His latest book, co-authored with Anita Folsom, is FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America (Simon & Schuster, 2011).