The United States just endured its worst economic quarter in recorded history. If this trend had continued for an entire year, American economic output would have been down by about a third.
So I’m hoping Joe Biden and his team are reading up on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The New Dealers succeeded in a moment like this. Their experience offers some powerful lessons for Biden as he campaigns and if he wins:
Offer big change that feels familiar.
Economic and health calamities are experienced by most people as if they were natural disasters and complete societal breakdowns. People feel intense waves of fear about the future. They want a leader, like F.D.R., who demonstrates optimistic fearlessness.
They want one who, once in office, produces an intense burst of activity that is both new but also offers people security and safety. During the New Deal, Social Security gave seniors secure retirements. The Works Progress Administration gave 8.5 million Americans secure jobs.
Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan is a perfect encapsulation of this mood of simultaneously longing for the safety of the past while moving to a brighter future.
Broadcast pragmatism, not ideology.
New Dealers were willing to try anything that met the specific emergencies of the moment. There was a strong anti-ideological bias in the administration and a wanton willingness to experiment. For example, Roosevelt’s first instinct was to cut government spending in order to reduce the deficit, until he flipped, realizing that it wouldn’t work in a depression.
“I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is,” one of his top advisers admitted. That pragmatism reassured the American people, who didn’t want a revolution; they wanted a recovery.
Even in a crisis of capitalism, embrace capitalism.
Historian Richard Pells notes that flagship progressive magazines like The Nation and The New Republic did not endorse F.D.R. in 1932, but rather his socialist opponent, Norman Thomas. As the New Deal succeeded, many progressive intellectuals mobilized a barrage of criticism against it. By 1934 they were producing books with titles like “The Coming American Revolution” and calling for the creation of a new political party of the left.
They understood Roosevelt was a liberal capitalist, not a socialist. “I want to save our system, the capitalist system,” he said at one point. “My desire [is] to obviate revolution,” he said at another. He was seeking to save capitalism from the capitalists, who had concentrated too much power in themselves. He was trying to reform capitalism to preserve it.
Get capitalism moving.
The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, run by Jesse Jones, a Hoover administration holdover, gave bankers incentives to take the capital that had been sitting in their vaults and get it out into the community. The Federal Housing Administration backed mortgages. As Louis Hyman of Cornell notes, the F.H.A. induced more private lending in a few months than the Public Works Administration spent during the entire decade. The New Deal was more clever and diverse than just tax-and-spend liberalism.
Huey Long, Father Coughlin and Francis Townsend were leading a populist revolt that threatened to bring an era of bottom-up authoritarianism. F.D.R. tried to co-opt them a bit, but mostly he just outperformed them with talent. He staffed his administration with a very bright and unabashedly “brains trust” array of lawyers, professors, economists and social workers.
Look for imbalances.
Capitalist economies get out of whack from time to time. The New Deal brought balance. It made it easier for workers to unionize and deal on more equal terms with business. Wall Street was too powerful. The New Deal reined it in.
Devolve power to Congress.
Historian Ira Katznelson argues that too much attention is paid to F.D.R., when the real action was in Congress. If you want to unleash a torrent of action you have to let individual members of Congress drive their own initiatives, not concentrate power in the White House or House speaker’s office.
The New Deal didn’t produce an instant economic turnaround. But it did show that democratic capitalism could still function. His enemies called Roosevelt a socialist or a populist, but in reality it was Roosevelt who defeated socialism and populism. In America at least, they were spent forces by 1939.
F.D.R. also demonstrated that the most effective leaders in crisis are often at the center of their party, not at left or right vanguard. Abraham Lincoln took enormous heat from abolitionists. But he’s the one who defeated slavery. Theodore Roosevelt had a conservative disposition and lagged behind many Progressives. But he’s the one who led Progressive reforms. F.D.R. was able to pass so much legislation precisely because he was so shifting and pragmatic and did not turn everything into a polarized war.
We’re not going to have another Roosevelt. But in a time of crisis, in an ideological age, he showed it’s possible to get a lot done if you turn down the ideological temperature, if you evade the culture war, if you are willing to be positive and openly experimental.
That’s the New Dealers’ big lesson for Biden & Company.
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