How the New Deal Is Very Present — and Very Far Away

September 29, 2021   •   By Jeffrey C. Isaac

Why the New Deal Matters

Eric Rauchway

IF EVER THERE was a time when a new New Deal was needed, it is now. The Trump administration’s four-year pillaging of the public sector and poisoning of public discourse has placed the future of the United States’s constitutional democracy in question in a way that recalls the 1930s.


Talk of reviving the New Deal played an important role throughout the 2020 Democratic primary season, expounded by progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and even by Joe Biden. Can the kind of political vision, collective will, and policy innovation achieved by FDR and the New Deal in the 1930s and ’40s be replicated today? This question continues to loom large as the Biden administration struggles to define itself and to achieve significant legislative change.


Historian Eric Rauchway’s Why the New Deal Matters could thus not be more relevant. And while the book was written before Biden’s 2020 victory, and the name Donald Trump does not even appear in its index, it is clear that the book is intended to contribute to current debates about a new New Deal that have been abetted by Trump’s malign efforts. Rauchway argues that FDR’s attempt to fire up the federal government “gave Americans permission to believe in a common purpose that was not war” and, in the midst of a real struggle against fascism, demonstrated that democracy “could emerge from a severe crisis not only intact but stronger.” The lasting mentality it produced “gives structure to our lives in ways we do not ordinarily bother to count or catalog.”


Rauchway cites many examples of this living legacy: old age and disability benefits grounded in the 1935 Social Security Act, the minimum wage and overtime provisions established by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, and the basic forms of financial security established by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation during FDR’s first 100 days in 1933. He expands on this theme of the New Deal’s enduring impact in four very readable and cleverly constructed chapters, each of which discusses the current “presence” of the New Deal by telling a story grounded in a specific place.


He uses the headstones of two World War I veterans (at the time known as the “Great War”) buried at Arlington National Cemetery to tell the story of the New Deal’s origins. They were the only casualties of the 1932 Bonus Expeditionary Force, an encampment of veterans seeking relief in the midst of the Great Depression. They were killed when Capitol police, seeking to disperse the encampment, opened fire on the crowd, which was eventually broken up by federal troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur and Major George S. Patton. The Bonus Force was a major political crisis symbolizing the failure of the federal government in the face of the Depression. Terribly mismanaged by President Herbert Hoover, who ordered the protesters evicted, it helped galvanize FDR’s election victory, as it also laid the basis for New Deal emergency relief that responded to a wide range of protest demands.


Rauchway moves on to the Norris Dam, the principal project of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which he presents as “a case that the New Deal matters not only for its legacy of public works but for its visionary thinking across state lines in ecological terms, prefiguring the benefits and challenges of planning for clean and sustainable energy.” His further explorations of direct aid on Native reservations in the Southwest and in low-income quarters of San Francisco present a nuanced account of the New Deal’s racism but also its real benefits and its role in expanding the Democratic coalition.


Why the New Deal Matters is an excellent book, weaving together serious historiographical scholarship with evocative and place-specific narratives that link the present with the past and point the way toward a possible future. It deserves a wide readership. In many ways, the book is the literary-historical equivalent of The Living New Deal Project, an extraordinary interactive web platform hosted by the Department of Geography at University of California, Berkeley, that includes a map with links to every New Deal public works and public arts site in the country. It is a bit strange that the book does not mention this project, which was started in 2005 and is dedicated to “making the New Deal visible” and “keeping the legacy alive.”


Rauchway the historian does not say much about current politics in the book. In a post-election interview in The Washington Post, entitled “Can Biden achieve an FDR-style presidency? A historian sees surprising parallels,” he, like many commentators, stated, “I hope so.” But the history recounted in his book raises serious questions about the likelihood of making good today on the example of FDR.


The 1932 election represented a dramatic watershed that stands in stark contrast with 2020. When Hoover was elected president in 1928, he won over 21 million popular votes and over 58 percent of the vote total. After mismanaging the crisis of the Great Depression, Hoover experienced an equally dramatic repudiation in 1932: Roosevelt won close to 23 million popular votes and 57 percent of the total with 472 electoral votes. The Democrats retook control of both houses of Congress by substantial margins. This popularity lasted for 16 years.


By contrast, when Trump ran for reelection in 2020, after having been impeached for serious constitutional violations and then mismanaging the COVID-19 crisis, he received over 74 million votes — over 10 million more votes than he received in 2016 — and carried 25 states. And while Biden received over 81 million votes, his margin of victory was relatively slim. Meanwhile, in the House, where the Democrats had won big in 2018, the party actually lost 13 seats, severely weakening its majority.


During FDR’s legendary first 100 days, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed many pieces of transformative legislation, including the Emergency Banking Act; the Federal Emergency Relief Act; the Emergency Conservation Work Act, which created the Civilian Conservation Corps; the Agricultural Adjustment Act; the National Industrial Recovery Act, which established the National Recovery Administration and the Public Works Administration; and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. All told, 76 pieces of legislation were signed into law during FDR’s first 100 days. Joe Biden, by contrast, has thus far signed only 11 bills into law, only one of which — the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, also known as the COVID Relief Act — is substantial; it is also time-limited.


The difference is enormous, and it is easily explained: Biden lacks the congressional votes, and the political power that these votes signify, to do anything else. Behind it are other, deeper differences between the 1930s and today that raise profound questions about the limits of the New Deal analogy. Three loom especially large:


1. The decline of class politics. FDR’s New Deal was powered by a genuine synergy between an energetic and increasingly radicalized labor movement and a Democratic legislative majority committed to laws — like the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act — that enhanced worker collective bargaining and political power. Biden’s loud and seemingly sincere support for unions is a heartening development. But the labor movement in the United States remains weak. Both the Sanders-inspired “political revolution” of 2016 and the 2020 primary campaigns of Sanders and Warren have surely influenced the current Democratic agenda. And the dramatic growth of the Democratic Socialists of America has amplified left positions in Congress, where DSA-backed candidates have enjoyed some significant successes, none more visible than the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it is hard to argue that these developments have been accompanied by sustained social movement pressure with real force. And while there is a serious debate among political scientists about whether or not the ascendancy of Trumpism centers on white working-class voters, there can be no debating the absence of mass working-class mobilization in United States politics today.


2. The “crosscutting” importance of racial politics. One exception to the lack of mass mobilization is the extraordinary recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement. But in many ways, this represents a profound disanalogy with the politics that drove the New Deal, for the radical class politics that helped advance New Deal reforms was accompanied by a reactionary race politics — as Ira Katznelson, Jefferson Cowie, and others have shown. This reactionary race politics was challenged by the Civil Rights movement. But, as the current crisis of the 1965 Voting Rights Act makes clear, many of those earlier gains were limited and precarious.


At the same time, if BLM represents a powerful new phase of the civil rights struggle, Trumpism represents the culmination of the long-term development of the Republican Party as a party centered on sheer racist and xenophobic backlash against this struggle. There is a real debate going on now about what this means for Democratic Party messaging and the extent to which appeals to racial justice or class, or some combination of racial justice and class, can best mobilize voters. (The Race Class Narrative Action project, based on the work of Heather McGhee and others, is a serious effort engage these issues.) Such efforts might well bear fruit. But they exist because the politics of white backlash has allowed the Republican Party not simply to poach elements of the old “New Deal coalition,” but to build a substantial base of support for a Trumpist politics of resentment.


3. The Republican politics of civil war. The GOP under Trump has been transformed into a personality cult that rejects basic norms of democratic contestation and electoral fairness and sees politics not as a contest about policies but as a mortal combat between friends and enemies. The politics of the 1930s was no less fractious. But divisions over the New Deal never produced partisan political conflict over the fate of constitutional democracy itself. And the majority of Republican voters in the 1930s was never held in the sway of the kind of delusional conspiracy-mongering, constantly circulated by cable and digital media, that shapes the thinking of tens of millions of today’s Republican base voters.


Rauchway argues that the New Deal was so important “because it gave Americans permission to believe in a common purpose that was not war.” Indeed, it can be argued that it was the onset of World War II that helped to solidify many New Deal gains. But the more important point is that the situation that Biden and the Democrats face today makes any such “common purpose” nearly impossible. On the one hand, they confront an organized political opposition more hostile to democracy, and more toxic, than anything FDR ever faced. On the other hand, they cannot rely upon any kind of mass mobilization or appeal to collective will to support them in their halting political efforts.


These days, it is common to encounter references to Antonio Gramsci’s widely quoted observation that “[t]he crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” If we are lucky, we may be in the middle of an interregnum, a moment of transition, and the “morbid symptoms” we face might eventually fade in the face of a new and more progressive dispensation. But we might not be so lucky. And we might well be living through a protracted period of what the ancient Greeks called “stasis” — a term that signified division, discord, and even civil war, but also a motionless equilibrium.


The 2020 defeat of Trump offered a respite. And the Biden administration has brought a desperately needed kind of calm and orderliness. It is tempting to listen to some of Biden’s expansive rhetoric, to downplay the less expansive rhetoric, and to imagine that the United States is poised to move forward toward a new dispensation and even a New Deal. While a few months ago it was possible to be hopeful that the so-called “bipartisan infrastructure deal” worked out in the Senate was a harbinger of better things to come, the current legislative deadlock — and the continued difficulty in getting Biden’s linked  “reconciliation” bill passed — highlights the thinness of the Democratic legislative majority and the tenuousness of Biden’s agenda and even his presidency. Why the New Deal Matters helps us to understand how and why the New Deal is still with us in the parks and buildings we inhabit, the roads we traverse, and the policies we take for granted. The New Deal lives as accomplishment and as aspiration. At the same time, it is impossible to read Rauchway’s fine book without also appreciating the historical distance that separates us from both those New Deal achievements and the circumstances that made them possible.


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Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Democracy in Dark Times.