Posts Tagged ‘New Deal’

The New Deal’s forgotten accomplishments

January 1, 2018

A widely accepted criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is that it never really ended the Great Depression.  It took rearmament, the military draft and the Second World War to bring about full employment.

Conrad Black. of all people, writing in The American Conservative, of all publications, pointed out that what these critics overlook is the millions of Americans put to work by the New Deal conservation and public works programs.

Between 5 million and just under 8 million workers were employed on New Deal projects during the 1930s, but, according to Black, they were not included in the employment statistics cited by most historians, including partisan Democratic historians.

Solid line counts workers employed on public works as unemployed; dotted line does not.  Source: The Edge of the American West.

Black, formerly a Canadian newspaper publisher, has written biographies of Richard M. Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt.   Reviewing Robert Dallek’s recent biography of FDR, Black wrote: —

He states that the unemployed stood at 10 million in 1940, when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the republic and went after his third term.

In fact, unemployment was somewhat under 10 million, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament program Roosevelt had initiated and to the country’s first peace-time conscription, which he called a “muster”.

But Dallek completely ignores, for purposes of calculating unemployment, the many millions  of participants in his workfare programs, who were just as much employed as, and more usefully than, the millions of conscripts and defense workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared.

[snip]  These programs kept between five million and nearly eight million people usefully employed at any time building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages for Roosevelt’s first two terms, until defense requirements and the public sector took over and completed the extermination of unemployment.

Those unable to work received Social Security, unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on.

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Where political change comes from

May 19, 2016

Keenanga-Yamahhta Taylor, a Bernie Sanders supporter, wrote this for the Boston Review:

When activists recall a Democratic Party that cared about ordinary people, what they really have in mind are the social movements and revolts that forced the party to respond to the needs and demands of those on the streets. 

RTW_protestThere would have been no New Deal without the Hoovervilles, rent riots, sit-down strikes, and Communist Party activism of the 1930s. 

There would have been no Great Society without Civil Rights protests in the South and rebellions in more than two hundred cities across the country during the 1960s. 

Even Richard Nixon, who won office appealing to a racist “silent majority,” waited out his first term before he began dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s welfare state, lest he provoke protests.

As the great activist and historian Howard Zinn put it, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”  He didn’t mean that elections are irrelevant, but he emphasized what citizens do to shape their world. 

The anger about inequality and injustice in the United States, which has been given some voice by the Sanders campaign and most certainly by the Black Lives Matter movement, should not be stifled by the pressure to organize through the Democratic Party.  It can’t be done.

Source: Boston Review

Sometimes the art of compromise is necessary, but nobody is going to compromise with you unless you represent something powerful enough that the other person feels they have to compromise.

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Captain America was a New Deal Democrat

October 21, 2014

Steve Attewell wrote the following on the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog:

Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City.

1.captainamericajoesimonobit1We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.

Steve Rogers grew up poor in the Great Depression, the son of a single mother who insisted he stayed in school despite the trend of the time.  His father died when he was a child; in some versions, his father is a brave WWI veteran, in others an alcoholic, either or both of which would be appropriate given what happened to WWI veterans in the Great Depression, and then [he was] orphaned in his late teens when his mother died of TB.

FDRcapshieldAnd he came of age in New York City at a time when the New Deal was in full swing, Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor, the American Labor Party was a major force in city politics, labor unions were on the move, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was organizing to fight fascism in Spain in the name of the Popular Front, and a militant anti-racist movement was growing that equated segregation at home with Nazism abroad that will eventually feed into the “Double V” campaign.

Then he became a fine arts student.  … …  And if a poor kid like Steve Rogers was going to college as a fine arts student, odds are very good that he was going to the City College of New York.  … …

2.captainamerica8nxjyo0qr1shdts2o3_500And this Steve Rogers, who’s been exposed to all of what New York City has to offer, becomes an explicit anti-fascist

In the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, he first volunteers to join the army to fight the Nazis specifically.  This isn’t an apolitical patriotism forged out of a sense that the U.S has been attacked; rather, Steve Rogers had come to believe that Nazism posed an existential threat to the America he believed in.  New Deal America.

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The old South vs. the totalitarian dictators

July 9, 2014

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany’s Nazis thought of American white Southerners as soul brothers.  But they were wrong.  The Southern Democrats in the U.S. Congress were the Nazis’ sworn enemies.

Fear ItselfIn a previous post, I summarized Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, and his account of how the Southern Democrats both supported and set limits on FDR’s New Deal reforms of the 1930s.  In this post, I carry my reading of Katznelson’s book forward into how the Southern Democrats shaped U.S. policy toward the Axis and then toward the Soviets.

Hitler despised black people, admired the Ku Klux Klan and regretted the defeat of the South in the Civil War, as a lost opportunity to create a society based on inequality and slavery.  He loved the movie, “Gone With the Wind,” which he watched while awaiting the news of the German invasion of the USSR.

While the Old South states were not dictatorships, they were similar to Hitler’s Germany in that all were ruled by a single party with restricted franchise.  In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt received 97 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 99 percent in South Carolina, with some counties reporting not a single Republican vote.  This is equal to what Hitler and Stalin got in their plebiscites.

But although Hitler had great esteem for the American South, this feeling was not reciprocated.  The South was the most anti-Nazi, pro-British and pro-interventionist region of the United States.

Katznelson is not completely sure why.  One explanation is that white Southerners were mostly of British descent, and felt sympathy for the mother country in peril.  There is something to this.  New England Yankees, also of British descent, were strong interventionists.  Ethnic ties never entirely die.

I think that, in addition, Southerners were sincerely devoted to their idea of democracy—limited government, legislative supremacy, state’s rights and individual freedom (for white people), which, for all their racism, was diametrically opposed to Hitler’s totalitarianism.

Also, the South is the only part of the United States with a historical memory of invasion and defeat.  That may have made the Nazi threat seem more real to them than to other Americans.

And finally, I don’t think the South is as war-averse other parts of the United States.   When I did my Army service in the 1950s, the career soldiers were disproportionately Southern, and I don’t think this was for economic reasons.   Southerners regard military service as honorable and worthy of respect.

Be that as it may, the South was united in support for Britain and resistance to Hitler in a way that the rest of the country was not.

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How the old South shaped the New Deal

July 9, 2014

I remember Jefferson-Jackson Day picnics and politicians’ speeches about the Democratic Party’s four great champions of the common people—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

What I didn’t think about was that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern slaveholders, and Woodrow Wilson was a Southern-born segregationist.

Fear ItselfNow I have just finished reading Fear Itself: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Timeby Ira Katznelson, which tells how the Southern white supremacists shaped the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman in ways that still affect the USA today.   It made me see the history of that era in a new way.

Without the Southern Democrats in Congress, the New Deal legislation would not have been enacted.  Lend-Lease aid to Britain and a military draft system would not have been approved prior to U.S. entry into World War Two, and the Cold War.

I grew up in a family that idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But the history of the New Deal era is more than the saga of FDR.

He might have attempted to rule as a dictator.   Katznelson showed how many people in 1933 felt that American capitalism and democracy were collapsing, and that the USA needed a Mussolini.  But he did not make the attempt.

FDR did claim and exercise sweeping powers greater than exercised by any previous President in peacetime.  But he never exercised any power not granted by Congress.  As a result the United States went through 20 years of crisis with its Constitutional structure intact.  The price of this was that U.S. policy was confined within what Katznelson called a “Southern cage.”

From most of 1933-1953, Democrats were a majority in Congress.  But a majority of the Democratic Senators and Representatives were Southerners, and, because of the seniority system, Southerners were chairs of key committees.  Without Southern cooperation, FDR’s proposals could not have been enacted.

Southern Democrats were not antagonistic to the New Deal as such.  They wanted curbs on the power of Northern banks, railroads and other corporations, federal public works and relief for the homeless and unemployed—provided that they got these things in a way that did not disturb white supremacy in the South.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas backed the New Deal, as one observer said, “so long as they fought the money power and the big industries—so long as they were pro-farmer and did not stir up the niggers [sic].”

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Looking back on the real New Deal

September 25, 2012

I picked up a 1984 book, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 by Robert S. McIlvaine, at the Bookends used book store in hope that the history of the Great Depression might throw light on the current Great Recession.

The most significant result of the Great Depression, according to Robert S. McIlvaine, was a change from the historic American individualism to communitarianism.  The New Deal was a response to this change and not a cause of it, he wrote.

Americans historically have regarded themselves as individually responsible for their own destinies, and economic misfortune as their own fault.  But during the Great Depression, the vast majority of the people were in trouble, including individuals highly respected by their neighbors.  If everybody suffers the same fate, people cease to regard themselves as personally at fault, and they look for collective action rather than individual enterprise.

Herbert Hoover represented the old American individualism at its best, McIlvaine wrote.  A person of intelligence and integrity, Hoover could not bring himself to respond to what the American public demanded, because he thought such a response would threaten basic American values.  He came to be hated as few if any American Presidents have been, before or since.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, a less admirable individual but a brilliant politician, understood public opinion and responded to it.

McIlvaine wrote that the initial Roosevelt policy was not a populist program, but rather an attempt to forge a business-government partnership, much as President Obama has tried to do. But when corporate business leaders turned against Roosevelt, and the American people turned against big business, Roosevelt lost nothing by saying, “I welcome their hatred”.  It was to Roosevelt’s benefit, McIlvaine wrote, that conservatives depicted his program as more radical than it was.  Most Americans today disapprove of the Wall Street bailouts, but we have nothing like the anti-business sentiment that existed back then.

Roosevelt had sympathy for the underdog, shaped by his personal struggle with polio and the important influence of his wife Eleanor.  But the main reason for the New Deal was the need to respond to popular discontent.

McIlvaine said historians have classified pro-FDR radicals, such as the Progressive Party in Wisconsin, the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California movement and the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations) as left-wing and liberal, and anti-FDR radicals, such as Huey Long of Louisiana, the political radio priest Father Coughlin, and Dr. Francis Townsend, author of the Townsend pension plan, as right-wing and fascistic.  Historians ignore the Communists, who were more influential in the labor movement than liberals like to remember. But all these movements were in fact more alike than they were different.  They all reflected popular discontent with the status quo, the rich and the corporate elite.  This discontent, however, fell short of support of socialism.  The majority of Americans wanted to correct abuses of the capitalist system, not overturn it.

The New Deal era accomplished far-reaching reforms—Social Security, unemployment insurance, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other big hydroelectric projects, legislation recognizing labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively—until the Republican-Southern Democratic alliance crystallized after 1938, after which further change was blocked.  Over the next 30 or 40 years, the Republican Party absorbed its conservative Southern Democratic allies, and became more internally consistent and more disciplined.  President Obama faced the equivalent of FDR’s post-1938 opposition from the day he took office.

The most interesting chapters were about popular culture and public attitudes.  In the movies, rich people were often criticized not for being rich, but for being out of touch with American life.  An heiress would become involved with a penniless newspaper reporter, or a playboy with a chorus girl, and learn the true meaning of life.  Gangster movies were often implied criticisms of society.  Movie gangsters were depicted as victims of society or as examples of ruthless amoral greed.  But there was rarely if ever any questioning of the capitalist system itself.

McIlvaine thought the changes in attitudes brought about by the Great Depression were more significant than the actual reforms of the New Deal.  He saw the Ronald Reagan administration as an attempt to restore pre-1929 individualism and mistakenly thought this attempt had run its course in 1984.  Instead the Reagan administration was the beginning of a reversal of attitudes which has continued to this day, and which the Obama administration accepts as political reality.

The lesson of McIlvaine’s book for the present day is that if you want progressive change, it is not enough to pin your hopes on a charismatic leader.   During the 1930s, the labor union movement was a strong force that did not did depend for its strength on either of the two political parties.  There were third-party movements with the potential to draw votes away from the two major parties, and progressive reformers within both political parties.  Progressive change is not handed down from above.  It has to be demanded from below.

Did the New Deal work?

January 30, 2012

Currently a strong effort is being made to discredit the New Deal by opponents of public works, unemployment insurance and other government programs to revive the economy in recession.

The case against the New Deal is that unemployment never fell to pre-1929 levels until the coming of World War Two.  But by other economic measures, the New Deal was in fact a success.  The top chart above measures Gross Domestic Product in terms of by what percentage it was higher than its low point in March 1933.  The bottom chart above measures industrial production by what percentage it was higher or lower than in October 1929 when the Great Depression began.

The two charts showed that economic recovery began when President Roosevelt took office, and faltered only in 1937 when he decided that his economic recovery program had achieved its goal and did not need to be continued.  Full recovery came in the run-up to World War Two.

Now it is impossible to be certain to what degree recovery was due to the New Deal and to what degree it was due to the natural swing of the economic cycle.   The only way you could have proof one way or the other would be to have two timelines, one with a New Deal and one without, which is impossible outside science fiction.   The case for the New Deal is that economic recovery started to falter in 1937 with President Franklin Roosevelt started to curtail government spending and return to a balanced budget.  The only way you could convince me that the New Deal was futile would be to show me a nation that brought about economic recovery through economic austerity.

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A blast from the past

August 3, 2011

Listen to this 1936 re-election speech by President Roosevelt to get an idea of what a liberal President sounded like 75 years ago.

President Roosevelt won re-election by a landslide, with 61 percent of the popular vote, carrying every state except Maine and Vermont.  Today the Washington press corps and political establishment would consider somebody who used language like this a member of the lunatic fringe.

Click on Speech at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936 for the complete audio and transcript of President Roosevelt’s speech.