Historian Harvey Kaye: Biden has Never Wanted to be FDRHistorians in the News
tags: political history, New Deal, presidential history, Joe Biden, Franklin Roosevelt
Harvey J. Kaye is professor emeritus of Democracy & Justice Studies and the director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay, and the author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms.
In a near-exact repeat of 2009, Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory prompted a flurry of speculation about a transformative political moment in the making. For the first few months of the Biden presidency, even critics on the Left perceived something of a break from the norm as the administration tabled big spending plans and quickly passed the American Rescue Plan. Others, meanwhile, remained skeptical of the burgeoning comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, which became something of a cottage industry throughout the media.
In the following interview, conducted exactly one year after Biden’s inauguration, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with prominent New Deal historian Harvey J. Kaye for a wide-ranging discussion of the administration’s first year in office, the political battles of the 1930s, and why Biden has fallen far short of the gushing proclamations that initially heralded his election.
How would you characterize the New Deal as a political settlement? What were its constitutive elements beyond specific pieces of legislation that passed through Congress?
Whenever I’m asked to talk about or interview on the New Deal and Second World War, people want me to focus on FDR. But when I wrote The Fight for the Four Freedoms, I did so to redeem not only FDR but also the generation that became the Greatest Generation — indeed, the generation that, to my mind, was the most progressive generation in American history. I think there emerged a real democratic and decidedly progressive dialectic between a president and a people in those years — a dialectic in which a democratic leader and a democratic people inspire and encourage, challenge and compel, and enable and propel each other to transcend themselves and the status quo.
There’s no question that FDR ran a progressive campaign in 1932, in some ways a radical one. As governor of New York he had pursued progressive initiatives, and was determined to pursue them as president to fight the Great Depression. Too many historians fail to appreciate that. As a consequence of his campaign, major union leaders like Sidney Hillman and John Lewis (Hillman was a socialist and Lewis a Republican) imagined an FDR presidency would afford real possibilities for labor and working people. Incumbent Herbert Hoover, in classic Republican fashion, accused FDR of being a radical (which, in that moment, could have meant either a fascist or a communist!) — and, notably, Roosevelt himself told a close friend that America needed to go “fairly radical for at least a generation.”
So there’s no removing FDR from the front of the picture. But when he was running, in 1932, he told a journalist that he didn’t want to get too far out in front of the American people. At the same time, American working people themselves were not passive. Workers, employed and unemployed, were marching (both socialists and communists had organized “unemployed leagues”). World War I veterans had staged a massive occupation of DC demanding their promised veterans’ bonuses. Workers fought corporate goons. Farmers in the Midwest organized boycotts and direct actions to block deliveries to market. Leftist college students were organizing youth groups and connecting with labor. All of which made politicians anxious. But it also gave FDR a certain confidence that Americans wanted not just relief but also real political and economic change.
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