America May Never Have Another New Deal

Roundup
tags: FDR, New Deal



Jefferson Cowie is the author of The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics.

Spilled across the pages of journals of opinion are demands for a new New Deal, a global New Deal, a New and improved Deal, to reNew the Deal, and even New Deal 2.0. The excitement following Barack Obama’s first election, just after the nation slipped into the abyss of a massive financial crisis, generated further New Deal analogies. Otherwise sober commentators began speaking of “Franklin Delano Obama.” Meanwhile, among union watchers, minor twists of the labor movement seem to generate unrestrained proclamations of the second coming of the union movement that swept across the nation during the Great Depression. Even before the coming of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the New Deal has been metaphor, analogy, political principle, and guiding light for all that must be returned to the progressive side of American politics.

Then, inevitably, comes the shock: the new Gilded Age seems to have a lot more traction in American political culture than did the hope of a new New Deal. The return of nineteenth-century-style plutocracy, crony capitalism, and shocking levels of inequality—disparities that continued even after the excitement of Obama’s presidency—suggest a conscious, confident, and powerful ruling class that has largely separated itself from the concerns of the nation’s working people. 

The New Deal and the postwar order it sustained once gave the illusion of permanence—for many, the inevitable domestication of capitalism. Marbled throughout its very creation, however, were a series of social and political fissures that help to explain its ultimate fall in the 1970s and beyond. Beneath the surface of the “fragile juggernaut” of America’s social democratic moment were a series of exceptions to U.S. history that are difficult to imagine being repeated: the massive but temporary transformation of the role of the state; the Faustian exclusion of African American occupations that kept the white South in the Democratic Party; the one-time leap forward in power of organized labor; the single period in American history in which immigration (and thus the politics of division) were closed off; and the temporary eclipse of the politics of culture and religion. Wrapping around all of these issues were the complex ideologiesof a Jeffersonian individualism, which were muted but never resolved even as the New Dealers waded cautiously into collective waters. 

Today’s politics are a regression to the norm. The fractious polity has chosen deeply rooted quarrels over individual rights, ethnic and racial hostility, immigrant versus native, and crusades over moralism and piety in lieu of a politics of collective economic security. 

The Obama administration ultimately offered precious little in terms of the politics of material security. Part of that was President Obama’s unwillingness to make a bold, decisive break from previous decades and make the case to the American people that the state could help build economic security and opportunity for all. The first two years of the Obama administration was a lost opportunity for the American reform tradition—not just on policy grounds but in making the argument that government had a role in helping regular people. Seemingly insecure in his position, the new president appointed economic insiders, many of whom had played a role in creating the crisis, while shying away from larger stimulus packages or initiatives that would halt the decades-long growth in inequality and wage stagnation. Banking, finance, and important industries like auto were saved. Meanwhile, working people continued to inhabit the exact same economy they had in the decades leading up to the crisis. ...




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