The book recounts various episodes that went into the evolution of the New Deal, including the great 1932 ideological clash between President Herbert Hoover and Democratic challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt over how to respond to the Great Depression.
Also recounted are the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the exclusion of African Americans from many of the New Deal’s benefits, and the struggle to create a new kind of government-sponsored baseline of economic security that would prove fundamentally and enduringly transformative.
I talked to Rauchway about the parallels between then and now. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
Greg Sargent: One of the big themes in the book is that since the New Deal, we haven’t had an approach to crisis that was premised on the idea that truly transformative change was required. After the 2008 crash, a rescue was attempted, but not a transformative one.
Now, with the Biden approach, it seems to me they’re looking at something much more along the lines of the type of transformation we saw during the New Deal.
Eric Rauchway: We had reached what we thought was the end of history. Keynesian stimulus was the way that you did macroeconomic policy. That is how we continued to think right through the 2008-2009 crisis.
Roosevelt said most memorably that he didn’t want to get back to the good old days, and wanted to move forward to something better. Is that where we are today? I sure hope so.
It’s become clear to many, since the 2008-2009 stimulus produced a weak recovery, that a lot of inequalities are really begging for redress.
Sargent: In the 1932 election, Hoover represented clearly the position that the type of aid Roosevelt campaigned on was a threat to the American experiment, while Roosevelt said that it was necessary to rescue it. Crisis created the space for a major debate along those lines.
I wonder if it took coronavirus and the subsequent economic collapse to force the same thing.
Rauchway: The Depression laid bare the vulnerability of middle-class people and urban professionals who thought they were immune.
What the pandemic showed was how deeply unjust and nonfunctional many parts of our society are, in a way a lot of us had been oblivious to. With the schools closed, it suddenly became apparent how many children rely on schools for food.
There are lots of ways the pandemic revealed how we’ve allowed our civic bonds to decay.
Sargent: Another big theme is the degree to which transformative economic reform was seen by FDR as something to ward off fascism. FDR thought that failure to respond adequately would continue deepening the desire for a dictator, for authoritarian solutions.
Roosevelt deliberately framed the need for reform as something that would restore faith in government’s ability to deliver for people — and protect democracy from the authoritarian and fascist temptation.
Rauchway: The New Deal was really Roosevelt’s program for defusing extremism. For a long time, a lot of folks on the left saw the New Deal as preventing communism from arising. Roosevelt really wasn’t that fussed about communism.
Roosevelt was very worried about fascism. He was very worried that something like that could happen in the United States.
Sargent: Successful progressive governance becomes an antidote to authoritarianism and fascism in this kind of framing.
You had Biden start his campaign by promising to restore the soul of America by beating back the rise in authoritarianism that Trump brought. Then we had Jan. 6, when the authoritarian tendencies really exploded in a vivid way. I wonder whether we’re seeing them consciously going big as the kind of antidote to that.
Rauchway: I hope so. The New Deal stands out as an expression of patriotism or American-ness that was nonmilitary. It brought people together to accomplish concrete things — immense projects that employed millions to create a public sphere for Americans to enjoy together.
There’s a lot of scoffing at Biden’s unifying rhetoric. But this is the kind of thing that will get a lot of people on board — maybe not in the Senate, but out in the countryside.
Roosevelt’s first term in office illustrates what we might see. The big relief bill — the one that allowed the president to create the Works Progress Administration — prevented any spending on military and defense materiel. We would bring people together to do other kinds of projects.
That kind of thing can defuse illiberal tendencies and promote democracy and support for liberal policies without a war.
Sargent: We constantly talk about the problem that Democrats have with blue-collar White voters. Is there any chance that something that brings major benefits to rural and exurban America could put a dent in that?
Rauchway: Certainly that kind of thing worked for Roosevelt. He was able to pick up what were traditionally Republican areas because of the success of relief and public works programs.
The Roosevelt public works programs are generally held to have been so pervasive that every part of the country had something.
Sargent: The Biden plan talks about retrofitting a future decarbonized economy. I wonder if there’s a way to give working people of all stripes a sense of a stake in such a green economy — so it’s not seen as pointy-headed climate regulations, and more as job creation and public works.
Rauchway: I think there is. There’s obviously a certain hard-hat element to building green infrastructure that would show that it’s about job creation.
Lots of people who were poor and dispossessed worked on dams for the TVA, which was green energy in the 1930s.
An analogy to today might be something like solar farms, wind farms — ways to produce power that is sustainable in the future. The other kind of thing is flood control and pumping mechanisms to protect America’s coastal areas — adapting to the climate crisis while putting the public purse to work.
Sargent: Just as using public works to expand electricity availability formed the foundation of the economy of the future in Roosevelt’s time, such things could help form a similar foundation going forward.
Rauchway: That’s right. Especially if you don’t stint on pointing it out. If you go visit any of the constructions of the TVA, they have somewhere on them the legend, “Built for the people of the United States.” They want you to know that this is the government at work, and this is for the people.
Whatever they build should have a plaque on it somewhere.
Sargent: Is there one lesson that Biden and Democrats should take from the New Deal?
Rauchway: Here are the two lessons: Get what you want while you can. And make sure that your folks can vote going forward.
Roosevelt had massive majorities. But the Democratic Party was thoroughly divided between the South and everywhere else. Southern Democrats existed by consequence of Jim Crow. They became opponents of the administration — or, at the very, least uneasy allies.
Ultimately, Roosevelt’s administration made the decision that it needed to attack Jim Crow to keep liberalism alive at the federal level. Roosevelt’s Justice Department created the office that became the Civil Rights Division.
The parallel today is voter suppression. Democrats need to pay attention to the ways they can ensure that all Americans can cast ballots — drawing inspiration, if they like, from the New Deal.