What is Left of the New Deal?Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt, Eric Rauchway
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.
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.
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