Prelim Readings: What A New Deal!

It was a New Deal weekend here on the Bench, and I got through nine books.  Too bad I’m now two days behind, but whatever.

William Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Piss off, says Leuchtenberg to all the New Deal naysayers: the New Deal was truly a revolution, transforming the terms of political debate, the power of the executive, and invigorating a stagnant spirt of practical reform.  Those New Dealers were doing the best they can–and they did a lot.  I’m inclined to agree.

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.  Hang on, there, Billy Leuchtenberg and Dickie Hofstadter–don’t forget the regular folks; workers helped make the New Deal.  In this case, ethnic workers in Chicago, who (a) understood the limits of local relief institutions (b) demanded that the federal government step up to the plate and deliver where welfare capitalism had failed (c) voted in overwhelming numbers for FDR and (d) were fundamental to the formation of the CIO, which was one of those nifty countervailing forces of which Eric Rauchway writes.  She goes deep on this one, and scores.

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s: The culture of capitalism caused the ecological and economic disaster that was the Dust Bowl, and the culture of capitalism precluded plainsmen and New Dealers from trying a sufficiently revolutionary approach to living on the Great Plains.  I love it; Worster minces no words, and it may be blunt, but it’s on the money.

Sarah Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal.  The philosophy (or ideology?  Policy pattern?  That’s not entirely clear) of New Conservation–use resources efficiently and make sure the benefits are distributed to farmers as well as cities–shaped the agricultural policies of the New Deal (AAA, TVA, REA), and its inherent conflicts (though perhaps not contradictions) eventually led to a shift from an agrarian to industrial approach.  Although slightly muddled in its explanation of New Conservation, still a good book for getting a sense of the importance of agriculture to the New Deal and of the various approaches within New Deal agricultural policy.

Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement.  We all like the CCC–dude, have you seen Timberline Lodge?–and so did FDR and the rest of the country.  The CCC served a couple of purposes: (a) it spread support, geographically and ideologically, for New Deal programs and the growth of the federal government; (b) it transformed conservation into the environmental movement by bringing more people into touch with nature (through trails, parks, publicity, work) and by sparking debate over conservation/preservation because of the CCC’s occasionally anti-wilderness behavior.  Fascinating thesis, well-developed argument, and lots of great examples.

Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956.  Boy, those New Dealers sure built a lot of stuff–and they meant to, too, says Smith, who says we need to remember that fact when assessing the New Deal, which was, ultimately, a series of programs designed to use public works to encourage economic development; ending unemployment was gravy.  He goes too far with the latter part–we know that many of the New Dealers, like Hopkins and FDR himself, were interested/obsessed with unemployment–but his main point re: New Deal liberalism as Keynesianism state-spending for the purposes of economic development is sound.  Plus: buildings and bridges are neat.

Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War.  The Roosevelt Recession and World War II foreclosed on the imaginative, potentially revolutionary elements of the New Deal, instead creating a particular form of rights-based liberalism, focused on ensuring the rights of the individual, but uninterested in a class-based or economic planning approach.  Seriously, how does Brinkley do this kind of stuff?  Amazing.  He provides an explanation of modern liberalism that seems to flow naturally out of the pressures of the late New Deal and World War II.  Dammit this guy is good.

Faster and Gerstle, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980.  A post-mortem of New Deal liberalism, these essays mostly focus on how the 1940s spelled the end of it all (it’s Brinkley’s thesis, written 7 years earlier and with less coherency).  My favorite is the essay from Ira Katznelson, who argues that the lost opportunity of the Great Society was actually lost in the 1940s.  It’s like a case study of what Brinkley argues.

Elizabeth Bordgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights.  The ideas of the Atlantic Charter–to individualize human rights and guarantee them for “all the men in all the lands”–came at the right historical moment (when people were ready to think internationally) and found their embodiement in Bretton Woods (IMF and World Bank), the United Nations, and the Nürnberg trials, heralding a brief moment when the United States (for selfish purposes, naturally) sought to be a positive actor on the world stage.  As she states in an afterword, this is a book about ideology, which I usually don’t like, but I’m down with this book.  It’s got an interesting thesis–the Cold War wasn’t inevitable; the US was on the path to internationalism–and although Borgwardt doesn’t explain that thesis fully (what about US actions that brought on the Cold War, like the Marshall Plan, its actions throughout Germany at the end of the war, dropping the A-bomb on Japan?), she effectively demonstrates that there was a powerful strand of enthusiasm for a New Deal-y approach to foreign affairs.

My summary of the New Deal: The emergency of the Great Depression effectively silenced economic conservatives for a few years and opened doors for all sorts of policies that (more or less) permanently enlarged the power of the federal government.  Though policy specifics were set by the New Dealers (Hopkins, Ickes, Wallace, etc.), the general idea came from the interaction between FDR and the masses of people suffering through the Depression.  FDR started off as a conservative economic voice, but he faced voters who wanted–desperately needed–economic help, though most were not willing to take the fatal step to socialism.  The result was far-reaching, but at times tentative, programs.   When the New Deal didn’t immediately stop the Depression, conservatives got back in the game and were able to stop the flood of systemic changes, instead pushing New Dealers toward an intervene-during-emergency-only, individual rights-focused approach, capturing an anti-state tradition that has deep roots in American history.  Nevertheless, the New Deal left a permanent and irreversible mark on the American landscape, electoral system, and body of political ideology.  Something like that.

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