Why FDR's New Deal is still the blueprint for domestic success

Why FDR's New Deal is still the blueprint for domestic success
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during a national radio address on September 30, 1934, Wikimedia Commons

After Joe Biden won the election, and after the White House began pushing passage of the nearly $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, there was a lot of talk about the new president being the next Franklin Roosevelt.

I wanted to believe it, but being the skeptic that I am, I figured this was more propaganda than genuine belief by the 46th president. But after watching an interview with historian Heather Cox Richardson, it seems these are not mere words. Biden really sees history pivoting.

In rangy discussion, Biden said Roosevelt believed the way to “build the country back up was to build it from the bottom and middle out.”

In the next breath, the president said: “I think there’s those moments in American history where you go from Coolidge to Roosevelt, from government was the problem to where government was the answer, and then you go from Reagan to me. It’s a similar kind of transition.”

The American Jobs Plan, as Biden might say, is a BFD. But the rest of his legislative agenda, principally the Build Back Better bill, which would invest in so-called “human infrastructure,” has been snarled in the Senate due to one or two Democratic senators failing to get the memo about what’s possible in America when we work together.

For this reason, I got in touch with Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at UC Davis, and author of Why the New Deal Matters.

I told him about my theory – that most people have no idea what can be achieved when we all work together, as we did during the New Deal.

I said I hoped he could, as an authority on FDR and the New Deal, give us some idea of what we’re missing. “Let's give it a shot,” he said.

Did Americans have a similar experience prior to the New Deal? Were people unaware of what could be accomplished?

So we're talking about the beginning of the New Deal with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and the beginning of his term in 1933.

Prior to that, you had just relentlessly worsening economic conditions from the latter part of 1929 onward, including mass unemployment (north of 20, 22 percent), prices for farm commodities at record lows, and banks going out of business. People out of work or unable to sell their produce at decent rates couldn't pay off their loans.

And you had an administration, the Hoover administration, which — while it didn't do nothing — did little except kind of cheerleading, confidence-building moves, at least until quite late, perhaps 1932.

For most Americans, the recent experience of everyone pulling together for a cause was probably the Great War (as it was then known). The nation mobilized relatively rapidly and thoroughly to send an army to Europe, equipped and more-or-less prepared to fight.

But there had not been anything similar to the mobilization of the whole country for a peaceful cause – nothing like the New Deal.

There hasn't been anything like that since.

How did they make their case? They certainly invoked the analogy of war. You can hear echoes of that in Roosevelt's early speeches.

But more than that, they talked about the idea that, as you suggest, better things were possible when we simply pulled together and acknowledged our interdependence, a word Roosevelt liked to use.

To what extent do you see our current moment echoing the period right before the New Deal?

It's difficult to draw a direct comparison on material issues.

We're in a weird situation in which the economy is doing quite well, but a lot of people feel they've gotten a raw deal — because they have!

But that means the message has to be more nuanced than 'Well, clearly, 20-plus percent unemployment is bad and collapsing banks are bad. There must be a better way.'

These days you'd have to say something like Roosevelt said in his 1937 inaugural: 'Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.' There had been a considerable recovery by that point, but, as he went on to say in that speech, recovery wasn't enough.

Roosevelt said the nation needed to address long-standing inequities that had been exposed and exacerbated by the Depression.

The thing that Joe Biden has focused on, or at least has touched on, on and off, since the beginning of his term, which does bear comparison to 1933, is that democracy itself is in peril, under assault.

Roosevelt pitched the New Deal not only as a program for economic recovery, but one for the defense and indeed extension of democracy.

He understood the US democracy — imperfect as it was, and remains — to be preferable to dictatorship. He regarded the New Deal as a way of demonstrating to Americans that they had a reason to defend it.

That was what he campaigned on in 1936:

'Faith in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.'

Certainly, there's some comparison to the present moment.

You said earlier the New Dealers pitched used a framing of war. Here we are again, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in an international conflict between democracy and autocracy. Biden seems to be, more or less, framing Americans’ material needs inside democracy.

It seems scarcely arguable that if we had a more small-d democratic government, we'd have a more equitable distribution of prosperity.

That's what you saw during the New Deal, an attempt to demonstrate that democracy was functioning by way of spreading the product of our labors more equitably – by using resources to develop the underdeveloped regions and eradicate generations-old poverty.

In terms of rhetoric, what role did an “enemy” play in Roosevelt's proposal for the New Deal? “Economic royalists” come to mind.

Roosevelt was pretty good at pointing out that his policies favored the vast majority. He didn't so much identify those inconvenienced by his policies as 'enemies,' usually, more as people who were simply going to have to yield a bit of their accustomed and unjustified power.

So, for example, in 1934:

'In the working out of a great national program which seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some shortcut which is harmful to the greater good.'

Mostly he was in the business of framing the greater good part and not focusing on the stepping-on-toes part.

Let's talk about things we can do when we work together.

I imagine it would be very hard for Americans today to realize not only how much the Roosevelt administration did but how swiftly.

By the end of 1933 – the end of Roosevelt's first year in office – with the Civil Works Administration (CWA), run by Harry Hopkins, the US government was directly employing some 4 million people in all walks of life: road-builders, social scientists, musicians, you name it.

They used existing state capacity – army trucks and Veterans Administration accountants – to set up that program in the span of a few weeks, to tide Americans over through the winter of 1933-1934, with the idea that eventually larger-scale projects would get going.

Meanwhile, the Civilian Conservation Corps had thousands of young Americans working on projects to preserve natural beauty, develop parkland, prevent flooding and reforest parts of the countryside.

The Tennessee Valley Authority began construction on a series of dams that would prevent flooding on the Tennessee River and provide electrical (as well as political) power to the people of that watershed.

The Public Works Administration started those larger-scale projects — bridges and dams and so forth — that would leave a permanent mark on what we rather unromantically call our 'infrastructure.'

Hopkins famously said, first of the CWA and then of its 1935-1943 successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), that artists need to eat too. More broadly, the employment of visual and performing artists, of writers and musicians, of oral historians — that helped record and depict an America delighted to be put to work. WPA art often showed the dignity of work, of Americans at work.

If you had the president's ear and you knew he wanted to create a new era of small-d government what would you say to him?

'Well, Mr. President, I'm glad and terrified you asked.

I think you have a tremendous advantage in the passage of the infrastructure act (the American Jobs Plan Act). It's good you reminded Americans of that in the State of the Union, because I think they might have forgotten about it, a little, amid other events.

The more you can show Americans that that law is actually causing great things to get built — the more you can point to projects actually under construction, with people actually building or improving infrastructure — the more people will feel their government belongs to them. The WPA had a logo, a red, white, and blue logo. It would be good to have something like that to remind folks what's going on.

And of course, it's vital to defend and extend voting rights; there's scarcely anything more urgent.'

To be honest, I don't think the 46th president has been dealt an easy hand, what with the judiciary, the Ukraine situation, and the pandemic – alongside longstanding issues of inequity in this country.

But you have to start somewhere and show you're making progress.

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