It Didn’t Have to Be Like ThisHistorians in the News
tags: economic history, New Deal, inequality, 2020 Election
Roosevelt’s New Deal, as an economic program, pulled the United States out of the Great Depression. But it was not just an economic program. As the historian Eric Rauchway wrote in Winter War, “The animating principle of the New Deal was the desire to perpetuate and reinvigorate the admittedly grubby, frustrating, discriminatory, and often grossly unfair institutions and practices of representative democracy in the United States, lest they be replaced by fascism.”
The New Deal was not just about money, but also about power. Not just about deficit spending and tax rates, but also about democracy. At the 1936 Democratic convention, accepting his nomination for a second term, Roosevelt cast the New Deal in the tradition of the American Revolution, pitting himself and the American people against “economic royalists” who sought to “hide behind the flag and the Constitution.”
“For too many of us, the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives,” Roosevelt said. “These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.” Roosevelt was no Marxist. He did not believe in class war for class war’s sake. But he also did not believe in unilateral disarmament in the face of oligarchy.
Roosevelt failed to keep many promises. At Howard University in October 1936, he pledged that “among American citizens there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races.” But the New Deal was a segregated affair, owing to the Democratic Party’s powerful southern barons and their determination to restrict prosperity to white people. Time and time again, Roosevelt yielded to their influence.
The disparities in wealth and power that Jim Crow Democrats insisted on maintaining as the price of their support for the New Deal persist today. But the Dixiecrats could not fully contain the democratizing impact of the New Deal, and despite their efforts, it inspired a revival in black political participation. In turn, black Americans’ stake in the Democratic Party resurrected the promise of multiracial democracy that had lain dormant since Reconstruction.
Trump’s theft of the meager economic gains since the Great Recession may foil his bid for a second term. But if Biden takes office and fails to heed Roosevelt’s example, then he will be leaving the majority of Americans in the same place they were at the end of the last recession: defenseless against calamity. The vast queues of struggling Americans lining up for food will not just be the nation’s present, but its future.
Reviving the economy will be difficult. Reinvigorating American democracy will be much harder.
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