Find out what a historian thinks about the New Deal, and you will quickly find out what they think about the virtues and failures of the liberal state writ large. For Arthur Schlesinger Jr., how Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to the worst downturn in US history “was a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse,” and the aggressive actions he took restored Americans’ faith in that system. For Howard Zinn, on the other hand, the gush of new federal programs merely ended up reinforcing the shaky grip of the reigning capitalist order. When the New Deal ended, he argued, “the rich still controlled the nation’s wealth” and “the same system that had brought depression and crisis…remained.” Recently, the conservative writer Amity Shlaes dismissed the very notion that FDR and his allies were either liberal heroes or repairers of a damaged status quo. Instead, she blasted the longest-serving president in US history for caring “little for constitutional niceties” and ramming through policies that were “often inspired by socialist or fascist models abroad.”
In Why the New Deal Matters, the historian Eric Rauchway gives us his own interpretation and suggests how liberalism might rebound in the present. For Rauchway, the New Deal altered US society in ways that many Americans neither realize nor appreciate but that often endure. One of the most learned and nimble analysts of the New Deal, Rauchway acknowledges that what Roosevelt and his liberal successors managed to achieve fell quite short of the bold appeal that FDR had made to Congress in his 1944 State of Union address: to “explore the means for implementing [an] economic bill of rights” that would establish “a new basis of security and prosperity…for all regardless of station, race, or creed.” But Rauchway illustrates what the New Dealers did accomplish by examining four areas of the country—two on the coasts and two in the agricultural midland—where they initiated ambitious programs that changed the daily lives of millions. His final chapter details how many of the sidewalks, schools, and post offices that still exist on “the street where you live” were results of the New Deal’s efforts to build a lasting infrastructure to serve ordinary people.
Behind Rauchway’s historical travelogue lies a powerful argument: Roosevelt and his allies believed that democracy would triumph over reaction and fascism only if ordinary Americans accepted their dependence on one another and embraced programs grounded in that principle. “The results of that effort remain with us,” Rauchway writes, “in forms both concrete and abstract; the New Deal therefore matters still because Americans can scarcely get through a day without coming into contact with some part of it.”
Why the New Deal Matters begins in the unlikely setting of Arlington National Cemetery, that vast military graveyard carved out of what had been Robert E. Lee’s 1,100-acre antebellum estate. There lie the remains of two World War I veterans who traveled to the nation’s capital in the spring of 1932 with thousands of their jobless brethren to demand that Congress immediately pay them a bonus they were not scheduled to receive until the middle of the next decade. Local police, dispatched to quell what the Hoover administration took to be a radical mob, shot and killed both men. Hoover’s secretary of war then ordered regular troops commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to demolish the protesters’ encampment on the fringes of the capital city.
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The infamous crushing of the Bonus Army, whose members made a lot of noise but committed no violence until they were attacked, occurred in the thick of a presidential campaign, and as Rauchway reminds us, images of troops assaulting unarmed veterans with tear gas and razing their encampments helped seal Hoover’s fate. As his opponent, Roosevelt might have railed against the incumbent’s cruelty and awful judgment. Yet FDR cleverly turned the sorry event into a prime example of why Americans like those former doughboys—and the economy as a whole—so badly needed a New Deal. He promised programs that would “restore the buying power…of many.” After winning in a landslide, FDR and his new administration quickly took the unprecedented step of putting millions of Americans to work on federal projects that provided a decent income and, in many cases, taught skills that would later allow them to find good jobs in the private sector.
Rauchway next takes us to the Clinch River, a site that neatly embodies FDR’s goal of serving the needs of citizens by putting some of them to work building the infrastructure all of them needed. In the 1930s, the river watered the homesteads of family farmers in eastern Tennessee who mostly lacked electricity and whose small plots were vulnerable to flooding and erosion. Under the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration launched a new agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, that constructed a series of 20 dams. The energy they generated lit up the homes and barns of residents for quite modest fees. The TVA also stabilized the river’s flow and spawned excellent oases for camping, boating, and fishing.
In describing the Norris Dam, the linchpin of the mammoth project, Rauchway turns briefly into an admiring art critic. The structure’s Hungarian-born architect, he notes,
used a method of finishing the concrete that would create alternating squares, a checkerboard motif adapted from Viennese architecture. In this application the pattern would hide imperfections in the concrete and also break up its otherwise featureless surface. The immense structure thereby acquired a humanly comprehensible scale.
Although he admires FDR’s presidency, Rauchway eschews the kind of unalloyed tributes that liberals like Schlesinger once paid to all the works of Roosevelt the Great. “Black southerners took a more mixed view of the TVA,” he notes, than did the white families whose lives were made easier by cheap power or the artists who lauded its projects as the apotheosis of modern design. African American construction workers in the Clinch watershed earned lower wages than their white peers and had to labor in less skilled jobs. They were barred from living in the lovely model towns built for their white counterparts. Still, many felt the conditions worth enduring. As the Black author J. Saunders Redding observed after traveling through the region, “their poor little was the greatest plenty they had ever known.”
The TVA was not the only New Deal program whose aid to Americans of color fell short of giving them the kind of assistance they needed and deserved. For the Navajo, the Bureau of Indian Affairs brought a new respect for their Indigenous traditions—as well as new roads and sewers, hospitals and schools. “We should be proud and glad,” wrote John Collier, the bureau’s white commissioner, “to have this different and Native culture going by the side of ours.”
Yet Collier also had his own notion of how the Navajo should earn a living, and he had the power to get his way. In the early 1930s, he enforced a New Deal law that sharply reduced the herds of sheep and goats of the Navajo in the Southwest. Collier meant well: The culling boosted the value of each animal after a time of rampant deflation. But he failed to appreciate the anger of those who resisted what they correctly feared would, in Rauchway’s damning judgment, “set Navajos ruthlessly on the road to a wage economy that looked much like any other in America, only poorer.”
In the North as well as the South, the New Deal posed a fraught dilemma for Black people, who had even less hope of living apart from the institutions dominated by white elites. Rauchway’s last stop on his ’30s history tour is Hunter’s Point, a historically Black neighborhood on San Francisco Bay that was once the location of a sprawling shipyard. During the Depression, the federal government supplied such communities with relief funds and jobs. Back in Washington, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes also persuaded FDR to set up an informal body of advisers, dubbed “the black cabinet,” to keep the president and his aides aware of what African Americans thought and needed. Leaders of the erstwhile party of Lincoln could not compete with such aid, material and symbolic, and they seldom even tried. In the election of 1936, Roosevelt swept nearly every Black precinct on the way to one of the biggest landslides in electoral history.
Yet despite his support among Black voters, Roosevelt accepted the tacit discrimination against African Americans embodied in the provisions of the National Labor Relations, Social Security, and Fair Labor Standards acts in order to get the backing of the Southern bloc in Congress, which included the chairmen of the most powerful committees. None of these acts covered workers who toiled on farms or in other people’s homes—major sources of Black employment at the time. New York Senator Robert Wagner and his fellow Northern liberals protested these exemptions, but rather quietly, lest their colleagues from Dixie reject the bills. In anguish, these most progressive New Dealers acknowledged that their hope of making lynching a federal crime stood no chance of overcoming the inevitable Southern filibuster. Not until Black people built a mighty national movement in the decades after World War II would they secure more than the “poor little” the Democratic elite was able—or willing—to grant.
At the end of Why the New Deal Matters, Rauchway poses an obvious but pressing question: Can the New Deal serve as a model for how Democratic officeholders and their supporters might change the nation today? When Joe Biden was running for the party’s nomination last year, he promised an “FDR-size presidency.” Spurred by the urgency of ending the pandemic and stemming climate change as well as boosting the economy, he was able to sign the American Rescue Plan, which dispatched $1,400 checks to a majority of Americans and gave a big boost in the child tax credit to many families. He also proposed a massive infrastructure bill and endorsed the sweeping PRO Act, which would remove major obstacles to organizing unions in the private sector.
But, of course, the structural obstacles to enacting Biden’s Newer Deal are formidable, and even more so when it comes to turning FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights from a grand wish list into reality. When he took office in 1933, Roosevelt could depend on huge majorities on Capitol Hill, which grew even larger in the elections of 1934 and ‘36. When Congress passed the Social Security and National Labor Relations acts, there were a scant 25 Republicans in the Senate—half as many as exist to do the bidding of Mitch McConnell today. Next year, the Democrats may even lose the narrow margins they now enjoy. As William Galston, a determined centrist at the Brookings Institution, notes about the more powerful, more egalitarian liberal state that Biden and his administration are proposing: If achieved, “it will not only be transformational but celebrated in history as such. It will have leveraged the thinnest possible political majority into very large accomplishments.”
Through no fault of his own, however, Biden lacks a critical element that made Roosevelt’s coalition so successful. Democrats took control of the federal government during the pit of the Depression and held it through World War II because they were able, as one political analyst put it at the time, “to draw a class line across the face of American politics.” Above all else, they had the support of a sizable and growing base of organized workers. Hungry for a measure of control over their labor during the Depression, wage earners flocked to join unions belonging either to the old AFL or the upstart CIO, whose ranks were full of talented left-wing organizers who proved effective at organizing workers in almost every basic industry, from textiles to steel to mining, regardless of their race. From the onset of the Depression to the Japanese surrender, the labor movement swelled from 3 million to 15 million members. And in national elections, most unionists voted for the party that had helped to spur this remarkable expansion.
By contrast, the labor movement today represents only 10 percent of all workers, and just 6 percent of workers in the private sector. Biden has stated flatly that he wants “to encourage union organizing”—a pledge that FDR never explicitly made. But unlike in the 1930s, there is no galvanic uprising of workers, and today’s largest and most vigorous progressive movement focuses on the harsh and persistent injuries of race, not class. In her best-selling book The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee observes that unions can be effective institutions for persuading white working-class voters who back right-wing politicians like Donald Trump that their Republican votes deprive themselves and their children of truly affordable health care, excellent schools, and other public goods that solidarity across racial lines would make possible.
While the lack of a robust labor movement hampers Biden’s ability to mobilize working people behind his plans, there is one intriguing historical parallel between the election that made FDR president and the one that put Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House almost 90 years later. In 2020, Biden and Harris won over 15 million more votes than had Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine in the previous presidential contest. It was the greatest such leap of support for a major party since 1932, when FDR received nearly 8 million more votes in his landslide victory than had his fellow Democrat Alfred E. Smith when he lost badly to Herbert Hoover four years earlier.
Donald Trump’s chaotic term and his defeat in 2020 both fit rather neatly into the model of presidential regimes developed by Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist from Yale. Each chief executive, Skowronek writes, governs in an era of “political time” during which one party—or, at the least, its ideology and program—is either gaining or losing power and popularity. In his view, just five presidents—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan—were “reconstructive” figures who made a decisive break with the dominant political ideas of their time. In the cases of James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, it took a set of cataclysmic events—the coming of a civil war and the onset of the Great Depression—to reveal their inability to address or resolve the crisis of the old order.
Like Hoover, Trump faced an emergency that shook the entire country and failed to grasp its depth or respond to it effectively. That led most Americans to reject his leadership and see the status quo as morally bankrupt, ready to be tossed into the dustbin of history. “Instead of fixing things up and giving the regime a new lease on life,” Skowronek explains, such failed presidents “have consistently driven their parties to the breaking point and emboldened their opponents. Internal wrangling…has pushed the regime to indict itself and fomented its political implosion.” Both Hoover and Trump also faced large and sustained protests that helped persuade Democrats that voters would welcome a decisive break with their rule.
If Trump does prove to be the last chief executive of a neoliberal era that began with Reagan’s election in 1980, future historians may understand the debates among Americans during his term as the birth pangs of a new regime. As Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of a sizable federal welfare state, which Democrats and even Republicans like Nixon elaborated upon, so Biden will have the opportunity to enact such fundamental changes as a permanent child care allowance, free community college, a law making it far easier to organize unions, and a transition to an economy based on renewable energy. Back in January, Skowronek described the political landscape to the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg: “The old Reagan formulas have lost their purchase, there is new urgency in the moment, and the president has an insurgent left at his back.”
The New Deal, as Rauchway makes plain, was installed in American government and politics for the simple reason that most voters liked what it did for them. The GOP had to grudgingly accept its main programs if it ever hoped to return to power. “As one popular joke had it,” Rauchway recounts, “Republicans professed to believe that the New Deal was a wonderful thing—and nothing like it should happen again.” It’s up to every progressive, as well as every Democratic politician, to prove them wrong.