Lizabeth Cohen is one of our most prominent historians of the mid-20th century. Now that we are in the early stages of what looks like the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we are hearing a lot more about the New Deal. We were before this too, with the Green New Deal. But it’s critical to go beyond a hazy glowing history that we can facilely use for our current politics today and understand just how it happened. Or to use Cohen’s words:
But if we want to use the New Deal as a model for creating opportunity out of catastrophe, we will need to understand more than just its policies and programs. Building a new and improved United States, post-coronavirus, will require understanding how Roosevelt and his associates, labor leaders and activists, and ordinary Americans combined their efforts during the bleakness of crisis to build a better future. We need to know not just what they did, but how they pulled it off.
Yes! This is absolutely critical. That includes dealing seriously with the problems of the New Deal without then just dismissing the entire thing as racist, as sometimes is happening on the left. Of course it was racist, but the why and how are just important as the fact itself, especially if we want to be serious about how to get legislation passed and policies implemented in the real world of 2020. An excerpt from Cohen’s essay delineating some of this:
The New Deal’s success had one final, and crucial, ingredient: the cultivation of empathy.
For labor leaders, it was a practical necessity. Herbert March, a Communist organizer in Chicago, was typical in worrying that “it would not be possible to achieve unionism because you had the split of black and white and too many nationalities … that they [employers] would play against each other.” These sorts of ethnic and racial divisions had helped doom the 1919 organizing drives. Unless unions could inculcate an ideal of racial inclusion and class solidarity, white working people might well retreat to their segmented ethnic and racial worlds and push their African American co-workers back into the arms of employers as strikebreakers.
To avoid that danger, the leftist leaders of the CIO worked hard to cultivate what I have called an inclusive “culture of unity” within the evolving union movement. Black packinghouse worker Jim Cole told an interviewer in 1939 that the CIO had “done the greatest thing in the world” by bringing workers together, and dispelling the “hate and bad feelings that used to be held against the Negro.” Enlightened activists helped working people transcend their prejudices at a critical moment.
The New Deal, too, made this work central to its project. Alongside their many new and unfamiliar agencies, the New Dealers set out to document how Americans were weathering the Great Depression. These undertakings were spurred by multiple motives, including generating publicity for New Deal programs and employment for out-of-work artists and actors. But most fundamentally, these projects educated people about their countrymen and women and bred empathy. “We introduced America to Americans,” is how Roy Stryker, the head of the Farm Security Administration, put it many years later.
The FSA images taken by such legendary photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and Ben Shahn are probably the best-known such initiative, but almost every New Deal agency mounted its own photography project to document its impact on the American people. The WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project sponsored life and oral histories, ethnographies, and portraits of diverse cultural communities, including recent immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans. And the Federal Theater Project produced documentary plays in its “Living Newspaper” performances.
While it’s very easy to overstate the level of racial division throughout the New Deal, and I think Cohen does here, at least parts of the program did intend to build empathy toward each other. And honestly, is there anything this nation needs more today than empathy? The pernicious influence of Ayn Rand, with its explicit “empathy is for the weak” philosophy, has greatly damaged this nation and gravely threatened our democracy, both political and economic. If a New New Deal can rebuild empathy in the age of mass gun violence, internet conspiracy theories, and rising fascism, then it truly would be revolutionary.