Thursday, January 15, 2009

Debating FDR and the New Deal

It is natural that Americans are looking to history to try to make some sense of the current economic {pick one: crisis, malaise, recession, impending depression, clusterfuck} and in that context the logical place to look is the New Deal. And naturally any look at the New Deal is going to get us going on all sorts of politicized tangents. Two recent articles, one in The New York Times the other in The Boston Globe give a sense of some of this discussion.

I am teaching my US 1929-1945: Depression and War class this semester, and I think it is no coincidence that it is packed this time around, with more students than seats or tabletops. The last time I taught this class, two years ago, it had fewer than 15 students. Last semester when I taught the first of my three-course modern US trilogy, covering the period from 1877-1929, a dozen students showed up for the final exam. Suddenly, though, students are clamoring to take this class, and it seems the reason is obvious. They want to try to make some sense of the world around them, and this class its on the two major issues of our time: economic crisis on the home front and American wars abroad.

I find most of the FDR/New deal arguments largely uninteresting. Conservatives and Republicans have taken a reasonable, indeed factually indisputable argument -- the New Deal did not end the Great Depression -- and turned it into an unreasonable, wrong one, namely that the New Deal failed. If we start out from the basic principle that there really is something to the idea of the "Three R's" of the New Deal: relief, reform, recovery, we understand that FDR's programs certainly addressed two of these with some remarkable successes even if the recovery phase never really kicked in. I have never heard an even vaguely viable argument about how the wonders of a market that had quite clearly failed, and had seen the economy hit its nadir during the Hoover administration, was going to magically come up with the millions of jobs that various New Deal relief programs provided. Nor has anyone arguing New Deal failure adequately explained FDR's successful re-elections, especially the 1936 landslide. The New Deal was an imperfect response to a nearly unfathomable catastrophe. Those who point out that the Second World War, and not the New Deal, ended the Great Depression have a point, though they also probably ought to acknowledge that had FDR had his druthers we would have been far more engaged not only in that conflict, but in its run-up, and that the economic benefits thus derived would have come far sooner.

The quest for a usable past is understandable. But the desire to use a cartoonish version of that past to brandish ideology today both abuses and diminishes the past in ways that will inevitably do harm both to history and to the future.

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