The Hundred Days War: Histories of the New Deal | The Nation


The Hundred Days War: Histories of the New Deal

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

ASSOCIATED PRESSFranklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act of 1935

About the Author

Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of...

Also by the Author

In a new history of postwar America, Joshua Freeman argues that policy changes occur because of pressure from the bottom up.

How Barack Obama has fashioned a personal and political identity by treating the history of the civil rights movement as a usable past.

During Barack Obama's first hundred days, history has provided pundits and politicians with a grab bag of analogies. Obama himself has invoked Abraham Lincoln and put him on a pedestal. I'm not speaking figuratively: a bust of the sixteenth president sits on the same plinth in the Oval Office where Obama's predecessor had displayed a sculpture of Winston Churchill. Obama has also cited Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, an analysis of Lincoln's complex relationships with leading members of his cabinet, as a model for his own style of presidential leadership. Journalists have compared the youth and idealism of Obama and his supporters to John F. Kennedy's Camelot, and fashionistas have twittered about the dashing Michelle being a latter-day Jackie (with sinewy biceps). Still others have suggested that Obama embodies Reagan's charisma while reclaiming Reaganesque paeans to national greatness for the Democrats. A few wags have tried to burst the bubble of hope by comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, another Washington outsider and intellectual who promised sweeping change but whose mandate collapsed under the weight of recession, malaise and crisis in the Middle East.

Barack Lincoln. Barack H. Kennedy. Barack Carter. Barack Reagan. None have captured the imagination of editorialists, bloggers and journalists like Barack Delano Roosevelt. A recent New Yorker illustration portrayed the forty-fourth president chin up in the Rooseveltian fashion, exuberant and self-confident, a cigarette holder clenched in his teeth. In this version of history-as-analogy, Obama's fight against the "Great Recession" will restore a faith in government that has been wholly discredited by the disastrous policies of George W. Hoover. Obama's most fervent supporters hope that the president's stimulus package and ambitious budget will launch a "new New Deal" designed to restore confidence in the financial system, curb unemployment, revivify the housing market and rebuild America's decaying highways and schools. The Obama-Roosevelt analogy is compelling--until you remember that history does not repeat itself. It is not cyclical. And it seldom offers easy lessons for the present. Ultimately, the differences between FDR and BHO and their respective eras are as instructive as the similarities.

Each generation has drawn its own lessons from the New Deal. The first wave of New Deal histories were written by unabashed Democrats during the 1950s and early 1960s, when liberalism seemed invincible. The eminent historian and Washington courtier Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. popularized the heroic interpretation of Roosevelt with a triple-decker history in which the New Deal represents the full flowering of an American political tradition of strong executive power and visionary leadership rooted in the Age of Jackson. FDR created the modern American state, offering a pragmatic, humane alternative to the radical individualism and anti-statism that had long hindered the fulfillment of the American promise of equality and opportunity.

By the 1960s, however, the New Deal was under siege from various quarters. Left-leaning scholars, alienated by liberalism's hubris, skeptical of military-industrial Keynesianism, outraged at the Vietnam War and inspired by radical insurgencies at home and abroad, argued that the New Deal was fundamentally conservative. FDR's cardinal sin was that he saved capitalism from itself rather than taking the opportunity to nationalize the financial system and redistribute wealth. He transformed the state into the servant of big business, letting corporate executives and financiers draft legislation that allowed them to consolidate power, while he co-opted radical social movements with symbolic gestures.

Conservatives rejoined with their own demonology of the New Deal. In a view that trickled down from the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Review and was distilled into the bitter libertarianism of Barry Goldwater and his followers, the New Deal was the epitome of collectivism, a dangerous repudiation of the founders' ethos of governmental restraint, budgetary parsimony and states' rights. Innovations like federal jobs programs and Social Security threatened personal liberty by turning citizens into dependents. More recently, in The Forgotten Man, Bloomberg financial columnist Amity Shlaes resurrects the Goldwaterite reading of the Roosevelt years, arguing that the New Deal sapped the vitality of the free market and--in her most hyperbolic moment--that "government intervention helped make the Depression Great" by dampening competition, over-regulating business and coddling the common man with make-work programs rather than unleashing his entrepreneurial spirit.

For the past forty years, however, most conservatives have reserved their criticism of the New Deal for corporate boardrooms and think-tank seminars. One reason for their silence was political pragmatism. The right had little to gain by publicly thrashing a president whose memory was held dear by the blue-collar whites whom Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes assiduously courted. The war on poverty, black power, the counterculture, feminism and the sexual revolution made for more convenient targets. But as Republicans fought the culture wars, conservative activists captured executive branch agencies and the federal courts, chipping away at welfare, Social Security and scores of federal regulations. The strange result was that while Ronald Reagan once claimed FDR as a personal hero, his wing of the Republican Party gutted liberalism.

The fragmentation of the New Deal coalition in the post-1960s years was mirrored in the increasingly fragmented scholarship on the New Deal. One group of liberal intellectuals--who took the conservative critique of identity politics seriously--called for a reinvigoration of a Rooseveltian spirit of civic nationalism as an alternative to both the libertarianism of the Reagan years and the divisive politics of the culture wars. For writers as diverse as Michael Tomasky and Richard Rorty, the New Deal was the triumph of class politics; it unified Americans across racial and ethnic lines in service to the common political and economic good. But their wistful view of a politics of unity was challenged by other scholars who contended that Roosevelt's signature programs, including the Social Security Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Federal Housing Administration and the GI Bill, mostly excluded blacks, while New Deal welfare programs stigmatized the poor and disadvantaged women. Rooseveltian liberalism was above all constrained by the power of conservative Southern Democrats who used their clout to thwart social democracy. As political scientist Ira Katznelson memorably put it, the New Deal was the "strange marriage of Sweden and South Africa."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.