Forces today that would fracture community and democracy in order to gain money and power are reminiscent of challenges from an earlier era. It was March of 1933, and the nation had just chosen a new path out of an economic depression and in the midst of global uncertainty. The leader selected was a new, optimistic president who wanted to get things done.
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 country must pull together, and ‘realize as we have never realized before our interdependence.'”
In a wonderful new book in the Yale University Press Why X Matters series, historian Eric Rauchway has written Why the New Deal Matters. Rauchway has not sugar-coated the failings of Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to pull the country out of the Great Depression. But he understands — at a fundamental level that the right-wing and libertarian commentators at places like the Cato Institute will never grasp — why it meant so much to America at the time and why it still has resonance today.
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 (emphasis added).
Rauchway, one of the best historians to ever write about the New Deal, takes the reader to five specific places to look at the impact and legacy of FDR’s brainchild to pull the country from the worst crisis of the 20th century. He ties this work to our present time as a source of inspiration as to how we can respond to the greatest crisis to date in the 21st century. In the process, Rauchway shows how much of the safety net that we take for granted even in the midst of a pandemic — Social Security, rural electrification, small business loans, federal insurance on your bank deposits, a minimum wage, disability insurance, unions, regulation of global finance — is a benefit of the New Deal.
Rauchway begins his trek at Arlington National Cemetery at the graves of two World War I veterans who were shot and killed in Washington, DC, while participating in the Bonus Army. When veterans began to die of starvation in the early onset of the Great Depression, many came to Washington to make the case for government assistance and to demand bonuses that were rightly theirs. The story of that army “allows us to see what might have happened to American democracy if the New Deal had not begun in 1933 and if, instead, the United States had continued policies akin to those of the preceding administration.” As we saw in the 1930s and as we are seeing today, democracy is not a given in the U.S. or around the world. “The foundational belief of the New Deal,” writes Rauchway, “was the conviction that democracy in the United States — limited and flawed though it remained — was better kept than abandoned, in the hope of strengthening and extending it.”
A visit to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Norris Dam on the Clinch River shows that the New Deal matters not only for the legacy of public works projects, but for the visionary thinking about ecology and clean, sustainable energy. Rauchway connects the dots between the economic development in an impoverished section of the country, electrical power, modernist design, and the development of the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, powered by the energy of the Tennessee River to create “the most destructive force ever put to use in the history of war.”
The Navajo Nation’s Window Rock, along with San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point, are used to address the failings of the New Deal to combat the country’s racism toward Native Americans, Blacks, Asian Americans, and Latinos. At Hunter’s Point, a whole region was transformed in ways that especially affected African Americans. But Rauchway notes that while people of color may have had less reason to feel positive about the New Deal, many of them nonetheless saw the greater promised it held out for the country in the future.
Finally, Rauchway asks us to take a walk around outside our homes, in our neighborhoods. It almost doesn’t matter where you live, because you will find elements of the the New Deal all across the country, in either concrete or abstract ways. It may be a Works Progress Administration-era (WPA) building, such as our old post office, or a WPA roadway, such as the Sligo Creek Parkway, both in Silver Spring. It may be one of the twenty-four thousand miles of new sidewalk laid by the WPA, as near our home in Woodside Park. It may be the commitment to a more inclusive man-made world (to borrow Roosevelt’s phrase), which was the most important characteristic of the New Deal programs for public works and can be seen in sidewalk ramps that were important to a president who struggled with accessibility. It may be through artwork, which told the story of democracy and depicted the value of New Deal labor, playing an outsize role in the program’s success.
My father was an engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority, graduating from Vanderbilt University after World War II on the GI Bill. He worked his entire career to build “for the public good” as the New Deal motto of TVA phrased it. With the inspiration provided by my father, I grew up believing in the common good and in the value of community. I was a child of the New Deal, and believe Rauchway has written a stirring call for using this flawed but ultimately important program as inspiration for our times.
“The ongoing crises of our times have, like the Depression, shown that we need something of the New Deal’s effort to restructure the nation and the world.
The New Deal sought fundamentally to change the United States by introducing, in the phrase Roosevelt used, ‘the broadening conception of social justice’ to American life. The Depression revealed to a wider public the injustice and poverty long visited upon whole classes of Americans: tenants, laborers, farmers — as Roosevelt said in 1937, ‘one third of a nation’ — and the New Deal sought to redress these issues….As he had stated in 1932, the nation could not address the present crisis by seeking ‘merely to restore’; it must ‘restore and at the same time remodel.’…
The New Deal’s effort, incompletely realized but doggedly pursued, of improving the economy by improving democracy, remains an outsized ambition even today.”
More to come…
Image: Norris Dam from TVA Design for the Public Good