This essay was the winner of a student essay contest on the New Deal and today sponsored by the Roosevelt Institution and The Nation. Visit StudentNation to read the four finalists.
The New Deal was glorified trial and error, brainstorming at its best. The policies themselves were hardly dogmatic or ideological. But, for the first time, the government committed itself to protecting the nation’s most vulnerable. The policies themselves were often inconsistent and piecemeal, but government became a home for our collective conscience. President Roosevelt united the nation under a moral imperative to protect the weakest, to ease the injustice and political trauma of the Great Depression.
The ethos of The New Deal is gone today. “The era of big government is over,” President Clinton proclaimed, and, with a stroke of his pen, stripped welfare from its moral underpinnings. Social Security, one of the last tangible policies of the New Deal era, has been divorced from the spirit of Roosevelt’s vision. It is little more than a check and a political punching bag.
Believing it politically necessary, the Democratic Party bought into the seemingly inexorable conservative paradigm shift in American politics. Third-way politics, triangulation, and moderation are the guiding principles of our “progressive” elected officials.
And, so, while our elected leaders were busy jumping into Grover Norquist’s bathtub, New Orleans was drowning; while the balkanized and bickering political confederacy we call the progressive movement was playing for their single-issue constituencies, our environment burned.
The ethos of the New Deal has been replaced. But there is no inexorable, deterministic slant to the right, no reason why we must subjugate our values to Conventional Wisdom. We allowed the Democratic Party to kowtow to conservative values; we allowed our spines to bend. Our single-issue obsessed progressive institutions have traded their relevance for shortsighted pandering and squabbling. We have accepted the premises of the debate and forgotten that values are malleable and minds can be changed.
If we reject the conservative framework, we can replace it with our own. If we argue that government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable, we can make the debate about the methods government will use to fight injustice, rather than about how small government should become. If we take this stand, not only will we fulfill the moral imperative of the New Deal, but we can, once again, build a progressive electoral majority.
The conservatives learned this lesson well. It was Barry Goldwater’s challenge to the compact of the New Deal that led to the eventual conservative framework of American politics. As George Will wrote, “it took 16 years to count the votes [of the 1964 election], and Goldwater won.” We need to, and can, begin a similar shift.
The ethos of the New Deal is only more prescient and pressing today. Across the country and around the world, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and everyone else is standing around wondering what the hell happened. The cold waters of untamed capitalism and catastrophic climate change are rising ominously. It will be the most vulnerable among us who will drown first. It will be their families uprooted, the remains of their lives brought–memento by memento–from the mold and flood-water stained homes.
If the moral code of our private life is one of fairness and justice, than surly the code of our collective civic consciousness must reflect those values. This is the essence of the compact of the New Deal. We have a responsibility to the people whose lives will be destroyed if we do not act. The only question left is not should we accept the mantle of the New Deal, but when and how we will begin.