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The New FDR?


Eric Rauchway is perhaps the finest working historian on the New Deal. He sees interesting parallels between Roosevelt and Biden, as this interview with Greg Sargent shows.

Sargent: In the 1932 election, Hoover represented clearly the position that the type of aid Roosevelt campaigned on was a threat to the American experiment, while Roosevelt said that it was necessary to rescue it. Crisis created the space for a major debate along those lines.

I wonder if it took coronavirus and the subsequent economic collapse to force the same thing.

Rauchway: The Depression laid bare the vulnerability of middle-class people and urban professionals who thought they were immune.

What the pandemic showed was how deeply unjust and nonfunctional many parts of our society are, in a way a lot of us had been oblivious to. With the schools closed, it suddenly became apparent how many children rely on schools for food.

There are lots of ways the pandemic revealed how we’ve allowed our civic bonds to decay.

Sargent: Another big theme is the degree to which transformative economic reform was seen by FDR as something to ward off fascism. FDR thought that failure to respond adequately would continue deepening the desire for a dictator, for authoritarian solutions.

Roosevelt deliberately framed the need for reform as something that would restore faith in government’s ability to deliver for people — and protect democracy from the authoritarian and fascist temptation.

Rauchway: The New Deal was really Roosevelt’s program for defusing extremism. For a long time, a lot of folks on the left saw the New Deal as preventing communism from arising. Roosevelt really wasn’t that fussed about communism.

Roosevelt was very worried about fascism. He was very worried that something like that could happen in the United States.

Sargent: The Biden plan talks about retrofitting a future decarbonized economy. I wonder if there’s a way to give working people of all stripes a sense of a stake in such a green economy so it’s not seen as pointy-headed climate regulations, and more as job creation and public works.

Rauchway: I think there is. There’s obviously a certain hard-hat element to building green infrastructure that would show that it’s about job creation.

Lots of people who were poor and dispossessed worked on dams for the TVA, which was green energy in the 1930s.

An analogy to today might be something like solar farms, wind farms — ways to produce power that is sustainable in the future. The other kind of thing is flood control and pumping mechanisms to protect America’s coastal areas — adapting to the climate crisis while putting the public purse to work.

It’s far too early to say of course. But the whole interview is quite interesting and I do have to say that I have been rather shocked at just how good Biden has been on domestic policy (foreign policy is clearly another matter). So, yeah, I don’t know, maybe. It’s not as if FDR was obviously a transformational president in March 1933. Keep pressuring Biden, see how far we can go.

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