The triumph of Reaganism in the 1980s, and the attendant demise of the New Deal coalition that had formed under Roosevelt and consolidated in the postwar years, prompted a wave of reflection and debate among leftists, liberals and Democratic ideologues. The perception that Reagan’s victory had resulted substantially from the defection of suburban white middle- and/or working-class, particularly male, voters fueled an argument that Democratic liberalism had failed because it strayed from its “traditional” base and became too narrowly identified with “special interests” like racial minorities. This view, which represented the New Deal as having been built on a nonracial, or “universalistic,” approach to social policy, often went hand in hand with a nostalgic call to return to that supposedly traditional principle by retreating from race-targeted policies and race-conscious politics.

But the fact is, most New Deal programs were anything but race-neutral–or, for that matter, gender-neutral–in their impact. Some, like the initial Social Security old-age pension program, were established on a racially invidious, albeit officially race-neutral, basis by excluding from coverage agricultural and domestic workers, the categories that included nearly 90 percent of black workers at the time. Others, like the CCC, operated on Jim Crow principles. Roosevelt’s housing policy put the weight of federal support behind creating and reproducing an overtly racially exclusive residential housing industry.

That so much of recent liberal and left discussion of the New Deal has been charged by the imperatives of current political debates has given it an unfortunate either/or quality. In reality, the New Deal was both racially discriminatory and a boon to many black Americans. Blacks benefited relatively less than whites from many social policy initiatives. Worse, postwar urban renewal–one of the main conduits of federal resources to the local level–actively intensified racial disadvantage as blacks and Puerto Ricans were displaced for federally supported redevelopment at a rate more than 500 percent greater than their share of the national population. But benefiting relatively less does not mean not benefiting. The Social Security exclusions were overturned, and black people did participate in the WPA, Federal Writers’ Project, CCC and other classic New Deal initiatives, as well as federal income relief. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Act facilitated the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ efforts, from which blacks also benefited substantially. Black Americans’ emergence as a significant constituency in the Democratic electoral coalition helped to alter the party’s center of gravity and was one of the factors–as was black presence in the union movement–contributing to the success of the postwar civil rights insurgency.

One lesson to take from reflecting on the New Deal is that political institutions and the politics rooted in them can have significant and far-reaching consequences. The right understands this well. When Newt Gingrich and his protofascist comrades took over Congress in 1994, they sneeringly boasted that they intended to take the federal government back to the 1920s. This was not only because they were bent on eliminating redistributive social programs. They also wanted to extirpate from the culture the idea that government can be an active force for making most people’s lives better. By crippling public institutions, they leave us without any rudder or focus for an effective politics.

We need to remember that in the lived experience of younger Americans today, public power and government capacity have been only dismissed and disparaged. Both Democratic presidential candidates qualify their embrace of federal activism and temporize with fealty to market forces and calls to personal responsibility. Therefore, the nostalgic identification that those of us who are older or who grew up in left, union or Democratic activist households feel for the New Deal era will not transfer well to others. I’ve seen this with my own students. To those young people who encounter the era, unions may have been necessary then; federal intervention and regulation may have been appropriate then. We can use the New Deal as part of a discussion about what government can do and how its actions can change the playing field in progressive ways. What we need most of all, though, is to articulate a politics steeped in a vision like that of the industrial democracy that fed the social movements that pushed the New Deal to be as much as it was.

Other contributions to the forum:

Bill McKibben: A Green Corps

Michael J. Copps: Not Your Father’s FCC

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: A Chaos of Experimentation

Eric Schlosser: The Bare Minimum

Frances Moore Lappé: The Only Fitting Tribute

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: For the ‘FDR’

Andy Stern: Labor’s New Deal

Anna Deavere Smith: Potent Publics

Sherle R. Schwenninger: Democratizing Capita

Stephen Duncombe: FDR’s Democratic Propaganda

Howard Zinn: Beyond the New Deal