The New Deal Today

FDR had to find ways to meet the desperate need for action, which seemed to call for collective, modern methods of government and social activity, while at the same time reinforcing the capitalistic, individualistic ideals of the American Dream.

Kenneth Bindas

Although we have spent a semester examining the implementation of the New Deal along with the underlying problems it attempted to address, the enormity of President Franklin Roosevelt’s task has only begun to strike me now, as I attempt in some small way to remodel his efforts in a modern context. Where does one begin to try to understand the needs of a nation as diverse as ours, let alone address them?

I take the Bindas quote above as a starting point. Americans prefer being put to work over being provided with anything that hints of charity; the situation warrants “collective” action but with “capitalistic, individualistic” overtones. Harry Hopkins, the first chief administrator of the Works Progress Administration, is quoted by Bindas as, “promising that the government would not ‘refuse responsibility for providing jobs to those who private industry does not hire.'”

I think our current socioeconomic situation would be better examined after it has been broken down into smaller components. First, we have the health and safety of our citizens; their ability to receive timely testing and healthcare, both for COVID-19 and for other conditions which might cause them to come into contact with COVID-19 patients. Second, we have an increasing economic divide between those who are able to work from home or can afford to be out of work for eight months or so and those who must go back to work under unsafe conditions or rely on loans they are unlikely to be able to pay back. Third, we have the emotional needs of people becoming increasingly isolated from each other and yearning for both human interaction and the opportunity to get outdoors.

A modern New Deal would have to address all of these. I don’t think I would be alone in arguing that our healthcare system already needed an overhaul; I think the flaws inherent in the current multi-payer system have been further exposed by the pandemic. Implementation of a single-payer system would, I think, be consistent with the spirit of the New Deal.

The growing economic divide is an incredibly complex problem and one that could not be reasonably addressed in a single essay. In general, I would suggest employment programs reminiscent of the Civilian Conservation Corps or similar New Deal projects. However, I think that even such enormous projects as those would be unable to thoroughly address the economic inequality inherent in our capitalist society. As Cheryl Greenberg notes: “The New Deal did not–perhaps could not–overcome the racism, both personal and structural, that kept black people locked into second-class citizenship.” Mitigating efforts like those designed to save the economy following the Great Depression were often only stop-gap, even if they were intended to be permanent, because the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Although the current situation could be a driving factor in helping pass sweeping reform legislation along with relief efforts, I find it unlikely that any such drastic changes would last.

The engine of the arts in the ’30s was not escapism, as we sometimes imagine, but speed, energy and movement at a time of economic stagnation and social malaise.

Morris Dickstein

As a musician, music teacher, and wildlife biologist, I have spent a great deal of time recently reflecting on my third point: yearning for human interaction and the outdoors. My music classes have shifted to Zoom; I am forced to mute all of the children while I sing and have them unmute themselves one at a time in order to contribute. We are not able to sing together live–such a basic human need which they may be unable to fulfill at home. The emotions feel remarkably similar to what Morris Dickstein describes above as “social malaise.”

I think some of the mental health consequences of quarantine could be met by an improved health care system. But a new Federal Arts Program could also do wonders for the American spirit. Bindas writes, “It was apparent to many that the depression was as much about rebuilding and redefining America’s national will as it was about economic recovery.” Similarly, now, after programs are implemented to address the economic gap, I would consider the “national will” to be the next most important aspect of the pandemic to address. There has been a great deal of conversation recently as well about the importance of artists and art in helping people maintain their spirit while quarantined; compare this to how Bindas describes the goal of the Federal Arts Projects: “…to create a nation-wide arts program utilizing those on relief rolls and, further, to meet the artistic needs of the American people.”

Important to remember as new programs are implemented is the delicate interplay between federal and state governments. The more local the government, the more accurately you would expect it to know its citizens needs. Further, federal leadership has not made a stunning impression as they attempt to control this pandemic. People may also feel more invested when they feel they are locally involved in projects and change; Mattea Sanders quotes R.L. Spalsbury, the Superintendent of the Office of Indian Affairs in the Eastern Band for the Civilian Conservation Corps, as saying: “For years, I have felt that much of the dissatisfaction on the part of the Indians has been due to the fact that programs were announced without consulting them.”

On the other hand, local biases may need to be overruled by federal regulation and enforcement. Greenberg notes that many federal programs of the New Deal explicitly banned discrimination based on race, but local officials in charge of implementing those programs refused to enforce the ban. In racist Deep South areas, “Officials explained that because black people had lower living standards, they required less money to meet their needs.”

Along with 1848, 1886, and 1968, 1934 is an emblem of insurgency, upheaval, and hope.

Michael Denning

The upheaval and hope which Denning describes above were each prompted by disaster. It is difficult to imagine how good could come of our current situation, but I’m sure it was difficult to imagine in 1934 and 1968, too. All we can each do is try our hardest to create the world we want to inhabit.


References

Sanders, Mattea V. 2014. “‘I Got to Do Something to Keep My Family up’: The CCC-Indian Division Offers a New Deal for the Eastern Band of Cherokees.” Prologue, 2014. https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2014/winter/ccc-cherokee.pdf.
Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. 2009. To Ask for an Equal Chance African Americans in the Great Depression. The African American History Series. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Bindas, Kenneth J. 1996. All of This Music Belongs to the Nation: The WPA’s Federal Music Project and American Society. University of Tennessee Press.
Denning, Michael. 2011. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New Edition. Verso.
Dickstein, Morris. n.d. “How Song, Dance and Movies Bailed Us out of the Depression.” Los Angeles Times. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/la-oe-dickstein1-2009apr01-story.html.

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