Almost 90 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt, another New Yorker, gave this language its most powerful American statement. Elected president in the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt urged Americans to recognize their mutual reliance on one another in the face of economic crisis.
The guiding principle behind his plan for national recovery, the new president announced in his 1933 inaugural address, was “the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States.” Interdependence wasn’t just regional. Roosevelt called on all Americans to see that their fates were intertwined, and to join forces to solve “our common problems.”
Speaking in these terms bolstered Roosevelt’s efforts to wield the power of the federal government to combat the Depression. Above all, his talk of interdependence served to justify the New Deal, the bundle of programs enacted to provide relief for suffering Americans and to reform the national economy. Roosevelt stressed that each of these programs, despite their targeted nature, worked to the general advantage. Aid to drought-stricken farmers helped hungry wage earners in New York City; aid to the arts served to enrich the culture of the working classes, aid to the elderly helped everyone.
To be sure, for all his words about Americans’ mutual ties and common interests, Roosevelt oversaw a response to the Great Depression that was in important respects constrained. Many of the New Deal’s initiatives were discriminatory, above all toward African Americans, as Roosevelt acquiesced to powerful Southern congressmen who threatened to block his initiatives if he refused to accept their racial caste system.
Still, by invoking interdependence, Roosevelt strove to convince Americans that they could not work their way out of the Great Depression by going it alone. “I have spoken not once but a dozen times of the necessity of interdependence of each State on every other State,” declared Roosevelt in a 1936 speech. “It is a lesson which cannot be driven home or preached too often.” And this language, in turn, provided Roosevelt’s political allies with a ready-made argument for advancing his legislative agenda. For example, Sen. Elbert D. Thomas (D-Utah) spoke to the need for a social security program — which became the centerpiece of the New Deal — by claiming, “The prime fact of man’s interdependence with other men should be brought into our political and social life.”
Talk of interdependence did not disappear all at once from presidential speeches following Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Dwight Eisenhower spoke about the topic throughout the 1950s, most often in messages on foreign affairs. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon spoke of interdependence as well.
In the 1970s, however, American intellectuals and a rising conservative movement began to place renewed emphasis on individualism, and presidential rhetoric followed suit. By 1981, when Ronald Reagan delivered his own first inaugural, paeans to individual self-sufficiency had supplanted talk of interdependence. “If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth,” Reagan explained, “it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.” Reagan’s political revolution ushered in with it a rhetorical revolution. Individualism, not interdependence, became the word of the day.
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama attempted to find new words with which to defend the common good. But to counter accusations from the right of “socialism,” he often slipped back into more familiar rhetoric. “One of the unique and wonderful things about America,” Obama relayed in a 2009 speech on health-care reform, “has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism.” Try as he might, he could not escape individualism’s pull.
During the current pandemic, the language of individualism has continued to reverberate. As a Florida spring breaker announced in an interview that went viral, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” Never mind that even if he were to survive the virus, his partying might cause someone else’s death — and then many more.
Cuomo has found an alternative to such talk by reviving Roosevelt’s theme of interdependence. Repeatedly, he has challenged Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, to acknowledge their shared obligations amid the spread of covid-19. “We’re interdependent,” Cuomo apprised New York parkgoers reluctant to embrace social distancing rules. “I rely on you, you rely on me.”
He has voiced similar sentiments to justify his policy choices. Explaining his decision to close all of New York’s nonessential businesses, Cuomo offered: “Why? Because what I do will affect you and what you do will affect me. Talk about community and interconnection and interdependence.”
Cuomo has made the tie to Roosevelt’s earlier vision explicit, even quoting the former president directly to explain why major crises necessitate society-wide cooperative action. An analogy FDR used to illustrate why the United States should supply the Allies during World War II — that of lending your garden hose to a neighbor whose house is on fire — has provided Cuomo with grist to call for the sharing of medical resources across and between states. “That was FDR and the garden hose,” Cuomo said April 5. “Smart is you don’t want your house to burn down, don’t let the neighbor’s house burn down.”
That doesn’t mean Cuomo’s vision of interdependence has been any more inclusive in practice than Roosevelt’s: the governor has largely excluded New York’s incarcerated population, for whom covid-19 poses an especially dire threat, from his administration’s response to the coronavirus.
Yet, by turning interdependence into a renewed watchword, Cuomo is nonetheless performing an essential public service. He is bringing to the fore a view of society that highlights our interconnected humanity. My refusal to cancel a gathering puts you at risk. Your decision to hoard N95 masks endangers health care workers and their patients. His words spur us to act accordingly.
In the struggle against covid-19, we need more, much more, than words. We need more testing, more PPE, more social distancing, more respect for scientific expertise, more interstate and international collaboration and far more leadership from the federal government. But as the United States confronts both a global pandemic and the threat of an economic catastrophe the likes of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, we need the right words too. Now is the time for a return to the language of interdependence, a language that provides a desperately needed alternative to self-contained individualism — a language capable of inspiring solidarity.
“Who else has to die for you to understand you have a responsibility in this?” Cuomo has implored. The question lingers.