The misunderstood legacies of the New Deal

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had two legacies – a welfare state and a warfare state.

Admirers of FDR focus on the legacy of the 1930s – the creation of Social Security and strengthening of the social safety net, the massive public works programs and job programs, the guarantee of the right to collective bargaining and the growth of a powerful administrative and regulatory state.

But just as important – maybe even more important – is the legacy of the 1940s. The New Deal programs mitigated the Great Depression, but they did not end it.  That only happened with the coming of World War Two and an economic boom based on war production.

The war economy made possible the re-industrialization of the United States.  Wartime investment in manufacturing capacity produced seeming miracles in production that carried over into peacetime for decades.

The New Dealers established military bases in Europe and Asia, the beginning of the empire of bases that exists to this day.  They built the Pentagon.  They created the OSS and then the CIA.  They created the atomic bomb and incorporated the A-bomb into American military strategy.

If not for FDR and the New Deal, the atomic bomb would not have come into existence when it did.

It is not just that Roosevelt personally authorized the research program that produced the atomic bomb.  Without the New Deal’s great hydroelectric projects on the Tennessee and Colombia rivers, the U.S. would not have had the industrial capacity to create a uranium bomb (at Oak Ridge, TN) and a plutonium bomb (at Hanford, WA).

Under Harry Truman, FDR’s chosen successor, the U.S. government chose to continue its wartime alliances, maintain its overseas bases, incorporate atomic weapons into the nation’s war strategy and maintain full employment through war spending.

Two important positive things about the wartime New Deal, from the progressive standpoint, are that it gave the labor union leadership a place at the table in war planning, and that it at least gave lip service to the need for civil rights and equal employment opportunity for African Americans.  Both these things were needed for full war mobilization, and also for Democratic electoral victory.

I don’t deny the idealistic and reforming impulses behind the New Deal.  They were an important part of its legacy, but they weren’t the only part.  Idealism seldom wins without being allied to someone’s interests. 

The Great Depression shattered my parents’ lives.  For them, the New Deal was a lifeline.  They revered President Roosevelt as a leader who saved the nation from economic chaos, fought for the common people against the economic royalists and then led the democratic nations to victory against the Axis.

This was all true.  But the story didn’t end there.

By the time I came of age in the 1950s, the New Deal had become the status quo and the Democrats defenders of the status quo.  Democrats no longer saw themselves as reformers or insurgents, but as the responsible governing party, and the Republicans as reckless and irresponsible. 

The Democrats’ 1952 campaign song was, “Don’t let them take it away,” with “it” being the benefits of the welfare state.

Back then It was generally believed that American prosperity was based on military spending.  Like my peers, I accepted this, because I saw the big military budget, and also the nuclear arsenal, as regrettable necessities in our global struggle with totalitarian Communism.

Compared to now, labor unions were hugely powerful.  Strikes and threatened strikes by railroad workers and steel workers were national crisis.

Democratic presidential campaigns traditionally began in Cadillac Square in Detroit, in recognition of the power of the United Auto Workers.

I and my fellow college Democrats thought that we, as liberals, should be pro-labor, but we did not think unions or the working class needed to be more powerful than they then were.

We were concerned with two other things.  One was academic freedom and civil liberties generally, which we saw as threatened by demagogues such as Joe McCarthy.  The other was basic civil rights for black people.  There were not only huge areas of the South where black people were not permitted to vote, but huge areas of the North where they were not permitted to live.

Although I did not realize it, both these tendencies showed now the New Deal had changed the composition of the Democratic Party.

From 1832 to 1932, the Democratic Party had been, broadly speaking, the roughneck party.  Well-mannered well-educated humanitarian reformers tended to be Republicans and, before them, Whigs.  President Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to idealism brought intellectual do-gooders into the Democratic Party.

Also, members of the American establishment – Harvard University, the New York Times, the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations – shifted from Republican to Democratic during the New Deal era.

I think this happened for two reasons.  The establishmentarians saw the New Deal as a force for stability and a safeguard against revolution.   And they wanted to be part of the governing coalition.

Also, most of them at the time were WASPS – descendants of the original British settlers – who wanted the U.S. to enter World War Two on the side of England.  The isolationists were mainly Republicans.  A number of populist Democratic isolationists became Republicans the late 1930s and early 1940s, while interventionist Republicans became Democrats.

We college liberals identified w felt democracy was threatened, not by centralized government power, but by demagogues such as Senator Joe McCarthy and the anti-intellectualism of his followers.

At the time, I thought academic freedom and civil liberties were vital and I still do.  But for the purposes of this post, I’m writing about the political impact, not the merits, of the issues.  

And the long-term political impact of the fear of anti-intellectualism was the alienation of college-educated Democratic reformers from the Democratic Party’s wage-earning, blue-collar voting base.

The growing concern with civil rights reflected the changing composition of Democratic voters.  Prior to 1932, the Democrats appealed mainly to Catholics, Jews and southern white people.  Republicans appealed mainly to northern white Protestants, plus such African-Americans who were permitted to vote.

The core of the Democratic Party was the one-party white South, plus urban political machines in big Northern cities.  President Roosevelt kept these sources of power while bringing new voting blocs into the party – organized labor, insurgent farmers idealistic reformers (including progressive former Republicans) and also African-Americans.  

In 1928, the overwhelming majority of black Americans voted for the party of Abraham Lincoln.  In 1936, a majority voted for the party of Franklin Roosevelt.  Much has been made of the failure of the New Deal to give black Americans equal benefits with white Americans.  But FDR was the first president since U.S. Grant to give them anything at all.

This created dilemmas for the Democrats.  One was the contradiction between the Democrats’ theoretical ideals and the reality of white supremacy in the South, where black people could be murdered with impunity for claiming the most basic rights.  This was especially embarrassing in world affairs.

The other was the conflict between the need for votes of the Solid South and the fact that Democrats needed black voters to provide the margin of victory in the Northern states.  Eventually the Democrats, to their credit, chose a Northern over a Southern strategy, partly out of self-interest but also because it was the right thing to do.

President Lyndon Johnson was a product of the New Deal era and he was the only American President to make a serious attempt to be another Franklin Roosevelt.  The history of his administration was a kind of parody of the history of the New Deal – the enactment of an ambitious reform program followed by a backlash and entry into a major war.

His administration is responsible for the legislation that gave full civil rights to black Americans, knowing the political price the Democrats would pay for this.  His civil rights legislation was an important and lasting success, but his overall anti-poverty program failed because of its unpopularity .

That is because conditions in the 1960s were different from conditions in the 1930s.  The civil rights program succeeded because there was a strong protest movement demanding these changes.  The anti-poverty program failed because there was no powerful poor people’s movement.  The Vietnam intervention also failed because most Americans saw no direct threat to the nation, as in 1940 and 1941.

As Republicans pointed out, World War One, World War Two, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict were “Democrat wars.”  The peace movement that arose in response to the Vietnam intervention arose within the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party.  

The only peace candidate to be nominated for the Presidency in my lifetime was George McGovern, a Democrat, in 1972.  He was opposed not only by Republicans, but by the Democratic establishment, and went down to a crushing defeat.

Since then both Democratic and Republican administrations have committed to the warfare state, the Democrats more so than Republicans, and have chipped away at the welfare state, the Republicans more so than the Democrats.  I don’t expect the recent election to change much of anything in this respect.

The USA of today faces multiple crises.  It is no wonder that some of us look back to the New Deal era for inspiration, but we should not look back naively.  

History sometimes rhymes, but it never repeats.  And the record of the past is rich in examples of unintended consequences.


The Democracy by Dave Denison for The Baffler.

When Politics Becomes Professional by Corey Robin for Jacobin.

The War We Won: America’s Economic Breakthrough During World War Two by Doris Goodwin for The American Prospect.

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One Response to “The misunderstood legacies of the New Deal”

  1. Eric Says:

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .


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