Rethinking the New Deal

Last week’s post explored some recent texts that examine the growth of the federal state. Today, I’d like to take a look at some works that address the period frequently credited with the development of the modern State: the New Deal.

The driving questions underpinning these texts is assessing the historical impact of the New Deal, a question that’s as historically specific as the WPA itself. During the 1960s, for instance, many assessments were positive, reflecting the optimism of the proposed reforms associated with the Great Society. During the 1970s, in the wake of stagnating wages and the oil crisis, scholars associated with the Marxism of the New Left took a more critical position, arguing that the New Deal didn’t so much transform society as maintain extant capitalist structures. During the 1980s, the New Deal’s influence was further questioned in light of President Reagan’s neoliberal policies and the resurgence of free-market advocacy. 

Today, the results continue to remain mixed. On the one hand, scholars working through feminist, critical race, and other lenses have rightly pointed out that the New Deal supported white male workers over all other populations, reflecting the nation’s white supremacy.  As a result, the questions have shifted somewhat from asking whether the New Deal was effective, to asking what kinds of structural preferences or inequalities shaped its outcomes. At the same time, the New Deal remains a paragon for the government as service provider and security net because its the most extensive American example we have. Democratic politicians in particular continue to invoke the New Deal when seeking to provide government aid to citizens, a phenomenon that we’ve seen most recently with the Green New Deal as well as Government stimulus checks.

One of my readings, Beyond the New Deal: Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, is itself a response to an earlier volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published in 1989. Edited by Gary Gerstle (the same person behind one of last week’s books, Liberty and Coercion), this book offers a very different outlook on the New Deal than its 1989 predecessor. Whereas that earlier volume argued that the New Deal era ended as a result of the political and social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, Gertsle now argues that the conservatism associated with today’s political moment has had a much stronger presence historically than previously believed. In short, the conservatism we see nowadays is a legacy of the New Deal, because there was resistance to it from the beginning.

This seems to be the angle Jefferson Cowie takes in The Great Exception. He posits that the New Deal didn’t signal the onset of a new political era, but rather represents an anomaly within an otherwise conservative political and social history. He argues that the only reason the New Deal worked at all was that the working-class population was more homogenous than usual. This in itself stemmed from restrictions on immigration, policies that favored white male working people, and the continuation of systemic racism in light of FDR’s willingness to ignore the Jim Crow policies of Southern Democrats. As a result, the working class was more open to progressive, labor-focused policies because white men were the primary benefactors. As soon as you started introducing other demographics, the population became fragmented and less willing to agree on different issues. 

Other works are decidedly more optimistic about the New Deal, particularly Nick Taylor’s American Made. Published in 2009, the book appeared in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Whether he anticipated the recession while writing the book or not, I always find it interesting that the New Deal gets brought up whenever we entered a new economic crisis. The Green New Deal, for example, has been a lot of attention for the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that the New Deal will get renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19.

Most of the texts I’ve read take a more ambivalent stance, reflecting the complexities that intersectional scholarship seeks to underscore. While a lot of scholars know that the New Deal did accomplish things, they also argue that it was systemically flawed due to policies that favored white men over other populations. As a result, the long-term impacts of the New Deal were always going to be limited because its reforms maintained the social status quo. 

At the same time, we still live with the ongoing effects of the New Deal, even if a lot of the social programs associated with it have been dismantled. Typically we think of Social Security when we think of ongoing New Deal legacies, but Jason Scott Smith takes a more concretized approach in Building New Deal Liberalism, which focuses on the actual infrastructure that was developed during this time. He argues that we continue to live with, and rely on, New Deal infrastructure, including roads, dams, and other projects, for better or worse. As somebody interested in traveling to structures and their role in the production and consumption of our, I found Smith’s book particularly interesting.

In terms of recent scholarship the most interesting work doesn’t address the New Deal itself directly, per se, but rather the response of conservatives. As scholars such as Angus Burgin observe in works like The Great Persuasion, the conservative strain in American politics was not a radical outlier during the New Deal and Great Society eras. On the contrary, it remained a prominent part of American politics throughout these eras of reform and government expansion.

So why study the New Deal then? In terms of urgency, a lot of historians continue to look to this era, and the conservative response, for the roots of Trump and his policies. Trumpism, they argue, is not anomalous, but has developed from decades of conservative mobilization in terms of advocating free market, neoliberal policies and courting a disenfranchised white male population. Looking at The New Deal and the Great Society through the lens of conservatism reveals that this approach has been an underlying current throughout America’s political, cultural, and economic history. In this regard, the emphasis in recent scholarship is not so much the growth of big government (although that is still a prominent aspect) but rather the growing conservative reaction against such expansion. It’s not so much an abandonment of one topic for another as it is a shift in perspective from the New Deal’s supporters to its opponents.

As someone interested in the New Deal era, I naturally found these readings interesting, even if my own focus is on the arts rather than politics per se. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these political arguments because they impacted the Community Art Center Project. The broader arguments about political reforms, big government, and individual liberties, moreover, continue to affect the current cultural landscape, something that I’ve been following through the museum world in particular.

As a lot of smaller museums and cultural institutions struggle financially in the wake of COVID-19, difficult questions are being asked regarding whether some museums will ever reopen. On the one hand, the idea that a museum should be able to sustain itself financially reflects classical liberal ideas of the free market taking its natural course. Museums that cannot support themselves, according to this line of thought, should be phased out so that better, more efficient institutions can take their place. Conversely,  non-profit museums require a substantial donor base in order to subsist, and such donor bases usually only exist in larger cities. Consequently then, allowing smaller museums, especially those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, implies that poorer populations don’t deserve museums, an attitude that runs counter to the philosophies of the Community Art Center Project. To complicate things further, museums themselves are problematic institutions (art museums are particularly complicit in white supremacy, given their collections), so we need to have some difficult conversations before we scramble to save them. In short, like everything in our society, the issue is complicated and raises all kinds of questions about what kinds of institutions we need.

Ultimately this narrative is still ongoing, but having a better sense of the political background of the New Deal, and especially the conservative reaction to it, will provide context for my future research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *