Can Joe Biden Replicate FDR’s Success in Rebuilding the Democrats’ Coalition?Historians in the News
tags: books, New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt
Eric Rauchway’s latest book about the New Deal begins nearly two years before Franklin D Roosevelt took office in 1933, at the time of a clash over pensions for veterans of the First World War.
This era of US history is often portrayed in American textbooks through images of the Wall Street crash of 1929, the breadlines of the unemployed, and portraits of hollow-eyed Dust Bowl farmers. But Rauchway takes us to the scene of the 1932 Bonus March, when thousands of veterans walked across the country to demand Washington policymakers allow them access to their pensions.
Some of the march leaders had fascist sympathies, Rauchway argues, organising squads of khaki shirt militias in emulation of Benito Mussolini’s minions. Set against them was General Douglas MacArthur, who disregarded direct orders from the White House and broke up the encampments with extreme force. On both sides of the clash were forces that felt America’s democratic government had failed, and were willing to act outside of it.
“I think it's very important to see that episode through FDR's eyes, which is to say that there was the possibility of a fascist movement in this country,” said Rauchway, who is a professor of history at the University of California. “It could have gone in a number of different directions. It's important to illustrate the real live threat to democracy.”
Why The New Deal Matters, Rauchway's fourth book on Roosevelt’s time in office, is short, accessible, and mostly unfolds far from the corridors of power. Instead of focusing on economic policy conferences and harried diplomatic cables, Rauchway devotes a chapter to rural development and another to the little-known story of the New Deal in Native American lands.
“The book focuses on the way the New Deal created a country Americans could lay hands on, and that belongs to everybody,” Rauchway told me. “There's almost no place [in the US] where we're not looking at some legacy of the New Deal: in the American South, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Native lands.”
Although the New Deal era is bemoaned by modern conservatives as a time of burgeoning centralisation of government, Rauchway shows how the laws of the 1930s weren’t administered in a top-down way on the ground. In many cases, he argues, they empowered locals and helped democratise America through electricity cooperatives and Works Progress Administration councils. But as is often the case in the United States, the empowerment of local leaders doesn’t always create the conditions in which democracy can flourish.
Black Americans were often excluded from such benefits, chiefly in the American South, where local leaders were allowed to apply oppressive Jim Crow standards to their work sites. When New Deal programmes were administered by private interests, such as mortgage and real estate policies, they left lasting racialised scars on America’s cities and suburbs.
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