It is amazing how, as history rushes by, American culture, fixated on the “now,” can be cut off from its roots. Just as college professors meet recent generations who can not tell World War I from World War II, more and more can not tell Franklin D. Roosevelt from Franklin Pierce.
That’s one reason why over the past month a cabal of conservative Republicans and members of the Tea Party have been able to use the budget crisis to trash the accomplishments of perhaps the most significant decade in modern American history: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They behave as if we could just type the words “New Deal” on the screen and then push the delete button. Poof! It’s gone. And as the words disappear, they hope, so will the once common belief that America has a moral obligation to use its collective wealth to protect the weak and poor in our midst. And yes, the rich have a civic duty to pay higher taxes than the poor. The New Yorker catches the spirit of our times in its latest cover where three fat tycoons in tuxedoes and high hats stretch out in their lifeboat with martinis and cigars while on the horizon their ocean liner goes down, impaled by a sharp, plunging arrow of the stock market, drowning everyone else.
A few months after F.D.R. took office, I experienced the Depression and the New Deal as a child growing up in Trenton, N.J. My father was an editorial writer for the Trenton Times, and he worked for three other papers on the side. My mother taught school. So we had enough, but not a lot, of money. I remember that poor, hungry men in rags came to our back door and they would be invited in to eat with us. When our father took my brother Dave and me to a band concert in the park, he explained that it was a WPA band made up of unemployed musicians hired by the Works Project Administration. The government created the jobs to give the musicians the dignity of work and to give the joy of music to the public.
In Sunday’s Washington Post David F. Weiman, a Barnard College economics professor, depicts what our world would look like if there had been no New Deal. “It would be a fight for economic survival with no coordinated effort at recovery.” The Civilian Conservation Corps put three million young men to work on the environment in three years. The New Deal enhanced the quality of life: infant mortality, which had risen sharply during the Depression now fell dramatically. The WPA added new roads and electrical power networks. With government leadership we built Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the West and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South. The New Deal electrified rural America through cooperatives that delivered cheap reliable power. New York commuters can thank the New Deal for the F.D.R. Drive, the Triborough and Whitestone bridges and the Lincoln Tunnel. It built up the south with new roads, hospitals and schools.
Most significant, the New Deal empowered otherwise marginalized groups like industrial workers with the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act by creating the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, and improving overall working conditions for all workers, not just labor unions. Weiman writes, “The New Deal gave us the weekend. Would we have one without it?”
As a result the working people, the middle class, gained a political power to which they were entitled to balance off the otherwise unlimited power of the big corporations. Meanwhile “federal agencies mediated conflicts and forged compromises between private interests.” Weiman concludes: “This last legacy of the New Deal—fairness—may be its most important. If the House Republicans have their way, we may be stranded in a world without it.”