The Future of American LiberalismHistorians in the News
tags: New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Biden
The United States just endured its worst economic quarter in recorded history. If this trend had continued for an entire year, American economic output would have been down by about a third.
So I’m hoping Joe Biden and his team are reading up on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The New Dealers succeeded in a moment like this. Their experience offers some powerful lessons for Biden as he campaigns and if he wins:
Offer big change that feels familiar.
Economic and health calamities are experienced by most people as if they were natural disasters and complete societal breakdowns. People feel intense waves of fear about the future. They want a leader, like F.D.R., who demonstrates optimistic fearlessness.
They want one who, once in office, produces an intense burst of activity that is both new but also offers people security and safety. During the New Deal, Social Security gave seniors secure retirements. The Works Progress Administration gave 8.5 million Americans secure jobs.
Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan is a perfect encapsulation of this mood of simultaneously longing for the safety of the past while moving to a brighter future.
Broadcast pragmatism, not ideology.
New Dealers were willing to try anything that met the specific emergencies of the moment. There was a strong anti-ideological bias in the administration and a wanton willingness to experiment. For example, Roosevelt’s first instinct was to cut government spending in order to reduce the deficit, until he flipped, realizing that it wouldn’t work in a depression.
“I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is,” one of his top advisers admitted. That pragmatism reassured the American people, who didn’t want a revolution; they wanted a recovery.
Even in a crisis of capitalism, embrace capitalism.
Historian Richard Pells notes that flagship progressive magazines like The Nation and The New Republic did not endorse F.D.R. in 1932, but rather his socialist opponent, Norman Thomas. As the New Deal succeeded, many progressive intellectuals mobilized a barrage of criticism against it. By 1934 they were producing books with titles like “The Coming American Revolution” and calling for the creation of a new political party of the left.
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