History does not repeat, but it can be instructive.
During a recent 8-hour speech* on the evening before the House of Representatives approved President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy commented that “Nobody elected Joe Biden to be FDR.”
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shouted, “I did!” followed by other shouts of “me too!” Four grandchildren of FDR, his vice president, and two cabinet members just stood up and also said, “we voted for Biden to be FDR.”
I did too, and here’s why.
The New Deal gave Americans the chance to believe in a common purpose, and we need that focus again.
Outside of war, one of the last times Americans had a common purpose came in the 1930s. The country bonded in rejection of the austere economic policies of the Hoover administration and in overwhelming support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the grip of an economic collapse, the country’s labor force was facing massive unemployment. Many of the most vulnerable citizens in America lived in abject poverty.
Speaking in March of 1933, FDR told the American people that their country was about more than just business and money, and 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.”
Historian Eric Rauchway writes,
“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.”
It wasn’t perfect but the response worked.
- employed more than 8.5 million people;
- built more than 650,000 miles of highways;
- built or repaired more than 120,000 bridges;
- put up more than 125,000 public buildings;
- provided a social safety net for ordinary Americans, providing unemployment and disability insurance, as well as aid to widows, orphans, and the elderly;
- supported labor and regulated business, banking, and the stock market; and
- provided electricity to rural areas.
“When World War II broke out, the new system enabled the United States to defend the country against fascists. … (It) undercut fascism at home, too, where its adherents had been growing strong, and reminded Americans that when the government supported ordinary people, they could build a strong new future.”
The New Deal built the country’s first true middle class.
The scale of the New Deal was proportionate to the challenges the country faced in 1933. We face challenges of an equal or greater magnitude in 2021.
In the 1930s, the U.S. was fighting a global economic depression and the rise of fascism. Today, the U.S. is dealing with a global health crisis, the impacts of unremitting climate change, the rise of authoritarian oligarchs fueled by government-supported income inequality, and a coordinated and well-funded attack on democracy from both outside and inside our country. In the spring of 2020 millions of people lost their jobs, incomes plummeted, and spending fell to miniscule levels.
If ever we needed the country to recognize our essential interdependence and come together in a common purpose — a peaceable form of patriotism — it is right now.
Misinformation and obstruction are as old as the program itself.
Politicians backed by monied interests have fought the New Deal since its inception. Ronald Reagan’s administration began a systematic and decades-long effort to unwind its gains. Some free-market historians have tried to rewrite the history of the weak economic response of Herbert Hoover. The people overwhelmingly saw Hoover’s response for what it was in 1932 when they voted him out of office, even if the academicians in libertarian think tanks can’t see it now.
Heather Cox Richardson has outlined our responses to economic collapse from differing eras. The most recent is telling.
- In 2020, with a Republican in the White House, the Democrats in Congress worked across the aisle and helped pass two bipartisan aid packages.
- Then, after Biden took office, the Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March of 2021 over Republican obstruction. These bills put more than $3 trillion into the economy, raising incomes and enabling individuals to put money into savings. They were designed, at their core, to protect the demand side of the economy.
- Earlier this month, Congress passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law on November 15th. While some Republicans supported the bill, they were attacked as traitors to the party by others.
Build Back Better is the third of three critical pieces of legislation that will help reduce income inequality, one of the great — yet often unseen — threats to democracy. It is the centerpiece of the administration’s plan to have the country invest in Main Street and ordinary people rather than Wall Street. Republicans are working to block passage of the bill.
The response of the Democrats to our challenges is working.
Like the New Deal, the administration’s plan is working and is popular with Americans. With more than 5.5 million new jobs created in ten months, unemployment claims are the lowest they have been since 1969. The stock market has hit new highs, as did Black Friday sales this past weekend. Two-thirds of Americans are content with their household’s financial situation.
While a ferocious campaign of misinformation and lying by a committed political opposition has helped build a disconnect between the popularity of Biden’s policies and the president’s low approval numbers at the moment, journalist Magdi Semrau suggests that the media bears some of the responsibility for the disconnect as well.
The press talks about the cost of Biden’s signature measures without specifying what’s in them. It has focused on negative information and ignores the fact that Republicans have refused to participate in any lawmaking, choosing instead simply to be obstructionist. In my view, the press has two standards when reporting on the two parties. It is content to hammer Democrats for working hard to fix difficult problems while largely giving the Republicans a pass when they don’t even try.
Building things is hard, but it is time to get to work.
As Semrau puts it:
“Democrats want to fix bridges, provide childcare and lower drug costs. Republicans don’t. These are political facts and voters should be aware of them.”
The monied interests are attacking Build Back Better with misinformation and scare tactics as they have done since the 1930s.
It is time to recognize the obstructionism for what it is and move past the small, mean vision that is today’s Trump-dominated Republican Party. It is time to work from a bigger, more generous vision that recognizes our interdependence and invests in ordinary Americans. It is time to believe in a common purpose.
More to come…
Image: Early Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps camps, which employed young black and white men in the same jobs and same housing quarters. Credit: National Forest Service via Oregon Public Broadcasting.
*In calling it a speech, I’m being charitable … and I’ll just leave it at that.
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