“Words are important,” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo reminded during one of his daily news conferences on the covid-19 outbreak. “Words matter.” We should take his admonishment to heart and pay attention to his words. For in choosing how to frame the covid-19 pandemic tormenting his state, Cuomo has turned to a political language that Americans rarely hear nowadays, but which is crucial to minimizing the damage from the novel coronavirus: the language of interdependence.
Almost 90 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt, another New Yorker, gave this language its most powerful American statement. Elected president in the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt urged Americans to recognize their mutual reliance on one another in the face of economic crisis.
The guiding principle behind his plan for national recovery, the new president announced in his 1933 inaugural address, was “the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States.” Interdependence wasn’t just regional. Roosevelt called on all Americans to see that their fates were intertwined, and to join forces to solve “our common problems.”
Speaking in these terms bolstered Roosevelt’s efforts to wield the power of the federal government to combat the Depression. Above all, his talk of interdependence served to justify the New Deal, the bundle of programs enacted to provide relief for suffering Americans and to reform the national economy. Roosevelt stressed that each of these programs, despite their targeted nature, worked to the general advantage. Aid to drought-stricken farmers helped hungry wage earners in New York City; aid to the arts served to enrich the culture of the working classes, aid to the elderly helped everyone.