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Book Review: Jason Scott Smith, A Concise History of the New Deal



Cheyenne women with mattresses they made, Federal Emergency Relief Administration project, 1940

I was a bit skeptical about reviewing Jason Scott Smith’s new overview of the New Deal because it is part of a series edited by Donald Critchlow, noted paid hack of the Koch Brothers and man who has claimed that any history that discusses race is “revisionist” and bad because it takes away talking about how awesome America is. But the book is published by Cambridge University Press and those standards apply regardless of editor, which is good because Smith has written a solid overview useful for most readers.

The most important thing about this book is how Smith positions himself within the mythology around the New Deal. For a long time, people criticized the New Deal from the left, asking why it was so tame and moderate in a time of leftism. “Did FDR undermine the potential for workers to take over the state through his corporatist policies” might be a leftist view of the New Deal. But those days are long gone in the national discourse. Rather, Smith sees his book as responding to the conservative attacks on the New Deal that perhaps dominate narratives of the period today. He attempts, convincingly of course since the original claim is absurd, to repudiate those who claim that New Deal were “radicals who were deeply opposed to capitalism or the vitality of the market economy.” Rather, they were “reformers who were deeply interested in fixing the problems of capitalism” (2). To me this thesis is so obvious as to be self-evident. But for a book written primarily for the classroom rather than scholars, that thesis is not so obvious. Certainly I run into students who know nothing about the New Deal except that FDR was an awful socialist who got in the way of American corporations running the economy in the natural laissez-faire ways they believe in like a religion. Since there’s a whole right-wing machine pushing this propaganda out, it’s probably more important to correct myths about the New Deal being a crazy leftist program rather than that it undermined real leftists, as it might have the argument 40 years ago.

Sad times, but there we are.

As for the heart of the book, largely it’s a fairly standard overview of the period that is useful for the general reader, while also providing a valuable addition to the surveys of the New Deal for scholars. Smith compares the Great Depression to Hurricane Katrina in that both are perfect storms of a series of factors leading to a true disaster: in the case of the Depression, “a combination of horrifically bad timing, the outcome of dimly understood economic changes and partially perceived structural changes, and the product of poor decision-making by American elites in government and business.” (15) Herbert Hoover has good intentions, but his voluntarist ideas during the Depression are “a dead and rotting ideology.” (24) Yet the early New Deal built on many of Hoover’s programs and attempted to shore up capitalism without creating enormous structural changes in society that FDR was uncomfortable with until 1935. It wouldn’t be until after the 1934 elections that using government to fundamentally reshape society would become a key part of the New Deal, a move created not only by the Democrats’ overwhelming victories in those elections but the strikes of earlier that year and the failure of the National Recovery Administration to right the lurching ship of American capitalism because it concentrated power too much in the largest firms and did nothing concrete for workers.

Smith strongly urges readers to see the New Deal as much as a political campaign as an economic program. The personal appeal of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were “a foundational component of the New Deal electoral coalition.” (66) Roosevelt and his advisers openly sought to use New Deal patronage to build the Democratic Party. WPA projects were intended to promote Roosevelt’s preferred politicians, both in primaries and general elections. Western states particularly benefited from public works projects because they were swing states as opposed to the old post-Reconstruction electoral map that still held through the early 20th century in much of the country. While court-packing was a major reason for the conservative reversal of the New Deal after 1938, as was the leftward tilt of the New Deal after 1935 that scared the South, the clear relationship between politics and public works projects also went far to alienate many, especially those not favored by Roosevelt.

The book is almost entirely political in nature, which is OK except that the “society and culture” chapter becomes something of a catch all for everything from the CIO and John Steinbeck to how liberals marginalized non-whites from the period’s populist cultural forms and the forced repatriation of Mexicans, including American citizens of Mexican descent. Such a chapter is a natural result of a book focused on politics and government, but one ideally wishes he had integrated these topics into other chapters rather than the standalone chapters that never quite mesh with the rest of a book.

Ultimately, the New Deal not only saved American capitalism but also shaped the postwar world in ways that include the creation of the middle class, the rise of the Sunbelt, and the creation of the nuclear state. It also helped build up the military before World War II, as both FDR and George Marshall saw the need for preparedness and viewed WPA projects as a way to build that infrastructure. Marshall routinely lauded the WPA in the press, giving it room to grow in a period of backlash to the overall New Deal. Smith closes the book by reiterating his major point–unlike what conservatives claim, government can and does create jobs, stimulate the economy, and improve the lives of everyday Americans. It’s sad we have to rescue these obvious points from right-wing mythology in 2015.

Finally, in an important bit of trivia to my life, Philadelphia was granted a new professional football franchise in 1933 after its previous team had gone bankrupt. It was named the Philadelphia Eagles after the blue eagle of the NRA because the New Deal was so popular. I did not know this.

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