Inside Story

Why the New Deal still matters

In ways that still resonate, the program to drag the economy out of the Great Depression changed Americans’ relationships with politics, economics and each other

Eric Rauchway 13 September 2021 2061 words

Common purpose: US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose administration launched the New Deal, speaking in Lafayette Square, Washington, in April 1936. Imago Collection/Alamy

One winter in the United States more people were out of work than at any time anyone could remember or records could tell. In the evenings, families throughout the country gathered to enjoy such entertainment as they could find — and afford. Few of them had been able to go anywhere, nor did they have much news the others didn’t already know.

Crisis had grown normal. Hard times had lasted so long, and so shrunk their horizons, that many people grew sick of their housemates and the limits of their lives, constrained by this long emergency, and by uncertainty, and by the inexorable dwindling of their resources and the apparently ineffective actions to reverse the destructive inactivity that plagued their nation, and others. Their houses smelled of the few meals they knew how to cook and for which they could get ingredients, and also of fear.

For an invisible enemy lurked outside, one that had gathered strength in Asia and Europe, and now threatened to pour out its unreasoning malice on the United States. You couldn’t see it; you didn’t know which of your neighbours might harbour it. So you kept to the people you knew best, you did your work if you still had some, and you hoped that in the evening you might find distraction from the news, all of which was bad.

And then, towards the end of that winter, there was something new to hear, because American voters had made a decision about their country. Even as the unending crush of desperation grew ever worse, they decided to dispense with what they knew and try something else. They had grown tired of sleek men assuring them repeatedly that they needed only to have confidence in the fundamentals of American business and all would be well. They had been told they need not turn to the government in Washington, DC for help, although the government was giving money to help those same sleek, reassuring men, even while it was turning guns on other, poorer people who went to the capital city to ask for aid from their representatives.

So the American voters decided they wanted a different government in Washington, one that pledged itself to pull the nation together, to do its utmost to solve their problems and to fight the global contagion of fascism that threatened to engulf them. They voted for a New Deal that they had been promised would mean federal jobs, laws protecting workers, relief for farmers, and all manner of things that the wisdom of bankers and businesspeople had thus far mandated they ought not to have because recognising these rights would fetter American ingenuity.

And so, with that decision made, and a few last weeks of winter to get through before the spring on which so many had placed their hopes, the families huddled in American homes were able to take comfort one weekend, for the first time in a long time, in what the president of the United States had to say to them: that with the “money changers” out of power, it was time to “apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” The president promised the “joy and moral stimulation of work.” The country must pull together, and “realise as we have never realised before our interdependence.” None of us alone could survive, or prosper, so well as if we all worked to survive and prosper together. That way, we could ensure “the future of essential democracy.”

The New Deal mattered then, at the cusp of spring in 1933, because it gave Americans permission to believe in a common purpose that was not war. Neither before nor since have Americans so rallied around an essentially peaceable form of patriotism. The results of that effort remain with us, 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.

It matters, too, as a message for Americans from the past: democracy in the United States, flawed and compromised as it was, proved it could emerge from a severe crisis not only intact but stronger. Even at that moment, in that winter, the nation of Germany was taking a different path than the one of “essential democracy.” When the New Deal began, fascism was on the march around the world and its agents were working within the United States; it ended with the United States and its allies triumphant over that ideology and establishing a New Deal for the world — or at least a framework for one — and an improved democracy within the United States.

We might do well to heed that message now, taking note of our predecessors’ successes and failures alike as we consider how we can find our way out of a hard, strange, isolated winter of our own.

When I started writing my new book, Why the New Deal Matters, I wanted to show how easy it was to demonstrate how much the New Deal matters to Americans’ daily lives. You don’t even really need to know where to look; you just need someone to tell you what you’re looking at: evidence of the New Deal is everywhere even now, nearly a hundred years since it started.

I walked for ten minutes, over to the library on the campus of the University of California, Davis, where I work, and sat in the reading room there. Readers and writers always crowd the desks; it is a fine spot for us on account of its high ceilings and the good light that fills the space. I wanted to count the windows myself so I could report them to you: there are nine, each nearly 200 feet square. There are also twenty-seven custom-designed, streamlined, aluminium chandeliers with frosted glass.

Under ordinary circumstances, anyone can walk in there, sit down, and read, or write, or just enjoy the northern exposure. Surely hundreds of thousands of people have done so since the library’s completion in 1940, although it’s impossible to say exactly how many have come in here: this is an open-stacks library with no turnstile, a genuinely public place.

This was a project of the Public Works Administration, or PWA, established in 1933 as one of the earliest agencies of the New Deal. It was created by an administration that would build libraries to save books at a time when the Nazis were burning or banning them. Eventually, the PWA published a glossy, beautifully illustrated volume of its achievements that begins with the words, “Men build temples to the things they love,” and — setting aside the exclusionary language; men are surely not the only creatures so inspired to construction — you might agree with the sentiment if you were to stand in this reading room. It is a temple to books and the love of reading, and it is a place open to all who share that love — ordinarily.

As I write now, you cannot visit it, nor can I, and I cannot say when either of us might again be able to: like so many of the nation’s shared spaces, it has been shut in the interest of public safety. To prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, states and municipalities around the country urged Americans to keep away from the places where we ordinarily congregate. Forced to retreat into our homes we — at least for the time being — surrendered access to our temples.

Perhaps, like me, other Americans were suddenly able to feel keenly during this time how precious these public things were, having lost them even momentarily. Parks, libraries, gardens, swimming pools, sidewalks, airports, seaports, schools, stadiums — all these things, suddenly shut, constituted the public sphere that Americans built for themselves under the New Deal.

My brother was going to take his family to visit our parents in Florida over spring break; they would have flown into Tampa International Airport, where a series of murals depicts the history of flight — murals commissioned by the Federal Art Project of the New Deal in 1939; it was part of the Works Progress Administration. That did not happen, nor did other Americans’ planned trips to state and national parks given shape and structure by the workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

But my parents, like millions of Americans sheltering in their homes, were still able to draw old-age pensions, just as millions of Americans filed for unemployment insurance — both legacies of the Social Security Act of 1935, a centrepiece of the New Deal. Stuck in our homes, many of us continued using electricity generated in dams built by the PWA. If we live in rural America we may well have sat somewhere literally powered by the New Deal, perhaps by the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Rural Electrification Administration. If the local government telling us how to handle the current crisis belonged to a Native nation, it was probably legally empowered by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934; if we live near the range, the common pastures were set up under the New Deal grazing law of the same year.

Americans who have taken out a small-business loan backed by the federal government, have perused the financial disclosures of a corporation offering stock for public sale, or — right now — haven’t the slightest worry that the bank where we have parked our savings will block our access to our money, crisis or no, then we have benefited from the New Deal. As indeed we have if we have ever earned the minimum wage, drawn disability insurance, or joined a labour union. Even Americans living outside the United States are subject to the New Deal’s institutional legacy in the form of the organisations that regulate global finance and trade and seek to protect the international laws of human rights.

Sometimes Americans suffer, of course, from the New Deal’s failings, particularly its leaders’ willingness to bow to racism. For Japanese Americans, it is quite possible a family member was imprisoned without trial in a camp built by the Works Progress Administration during the second world war. Black Americans might live in a neighbourhood with inordinately high pollution and historically low home-ownership rates because residents have found it difficult, if not impossible, to take out a mortgage, and that is partly a result of the New Deal too. For such Americans who continued thereafter to cast ballots for the Democratic Party because they believed that, however bigoted it was, it was better than the alternative, that too is a result of the New Deal — because the 1930s marked the beginning of a historic shift that turned the Democratic Party into the party of civil rights.

The New Deal matters because Americans all live in it; it gives structure to their lives in ways we do not ordinarily bother to count or catalogue. When we Americans imagine the end of the world as we know it, the world we are thinking might end is the one the New Deal built. And if we tell ourselves we need a new New Deal to build the world afresh so it will be proof against crises like this one and the others that plague our imaginations — like, for example, the anthropogenic warming of the planet — we are drawing inspiration from the transformative project of the original New Deal and its concern for the sustainable use of natural resources.

Like the proverbial fish that does not know it is wet because it never leaves the water, Americans sometimes have trouble discerning the properties and extent of the New Deal because it is the medium through which we move all the time. We scarcely know where it begins. Which helps to explain why many of us, like that fish whose watery habitat is imperilled by poisons it cannot see, are not entirely aware of how the New Deal has eroded over the past few decades.

The New Deal matters most of all because it marked a dramatic shift of power away from corporate boardrooms and bank headquarters, a shift that accompanied an unmatched period of widespread prosperity. This change proved so popular among American voters that for a time even the most conservative of politicians did not dare challenge it directly. •

This is an edited extract from Why the New Deal Matters, recently published by Yale University Press.