Requiem For The New Deal?

Historian Lawson says FDR's brainchild may be under the knife, but it is a revolution still incomplete

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The 1990s may seem an inauspicious time to explore the New Deal, says Assoc. Prof. Alan Lawson (History), since many in government and elsewhere are questioning the need for welfare, Social Security and other social programs that typified the New Deal.

But with the New Deal all but declared dead, Lawson believes it is vital to grasp its legacy to American society. Lawson, author of the forthcoming book Ideas in Crisis: The New Deal and the Mobilization of Progressive Thought, feels that too often the New Deal is regarded as "an emergency program" hurriedly put together in response to desperate economic and social conditions of the Great Depression.

Assoc. Prof. Alan Lawson (History)-"There is really no counterpart to the New Deal in American history. It is the only time progressivism occurred in bad times rather than good. Now, we appear to be seeing the epilogue and it raises questions: What's happening to the New Deal? Is it going away? Are we going back to something else, or will there be a new New Deal?"

In fact, Lawson says, the New Deal represents an unprecedented melding of talent, skill and philosophy, and its roots lie deeper than is commonly believed.

"There is really no counterpart to the New Deal in American history," Lawson said. "It is the only time progressivism occurred in bad times rather than good. Now, we appear to be seeing the epilogue and it raises questions: What's happening to the New Deal? Is it going away? Are we going back to something else, or will there be a new New Deal?"

Most popular writing on the New Deal has focused on its architect and director Franklin D. Roosevelt, or on its major events, such as the "100 Days" of 1933 when Roosevelt pushed many important pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress. But Lawson's book studies the people who made the New Deal happen - from major players like Harold Ickes and Felix Frankfurter, to lesser known figures like Arthur Morgan and Frances Perkins - and the influences which shaped them.

"When we think of the 100 Days, it is understandable to see the New Deal as spur-of-the-moment," Lawson said. "It sounds like a great story, but it's not very plausible. These were very involved, complex programs and Roosevelt could not have suddenly concocted them on the spot. There were antecedents to the New Deal which went back years, even decades."

The "New Dealers," Lawson said, came from a wide range of backgrounds. Some drew inspiration from late 19th century utopian movements or the Progressive era of the early 20th century, he said, and were active in women's suffrage, the settlement house or anti-child-labor movements. Others were involved in emerging areas of expertise, such as the use of statistics. Their disparate experiences represented "a valuable coming together of public and private purpose," Lawson said, largely stifled during World War I and the Coolidge-Hoover administrations but in full bloom under FDR.

"The New Deal gave these people opportunities to do things they did not have earlier," Lawson said. "For instance, when the stock market crash struck in 1929, it was considered unseemly to publicize things like unemployment figures. But under the New Deal there was a great demand for persons who had the statistical skills to track unemployment, or money circulation."

Examining this background is necessary, Lawson said, to truly assess the New Deal's accomplishments and failures, and determine whether its requiem is at hand. Ironically, even as conservative political ideologies have superseded the New Deal, Lawson says it has undergone a transformation in many scholarly circles. Scholars once challenged the New Deal's degree of radicalism, he said, but most now view it as "a permanent, unfinished revolution" more progressive than was previously regarded.

The New Deal's revolutionary nature is evident in such ground-breaking measures as Social Security, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the National Recovery Act's endorsement of collective bargaining for labor, Lawson noted, but so are its limitations.

"There was ultimately not enough protection for the workers, or the small farmers, and - as we see now - they didn't nail down Social Security enough," he explained. "Yet in his own patrician way, FDR wanted to go much farther. The New Deal would have altered income distribution, for instance, and established a strong government-business partnership. But those things didn't happen."

As welfare reform scales back the federal government's role in social programs, and presidential candidates discuss tax cuts for big business or closing the Internal Revenue Service, Lawson wonders if the US, in trying to leave the New Deal behind, is moving backward rather than forward.

"The rhetoric one hears," he explained, "about relying on local or private charities to help people in need, or cutting taxes so corporations can make investments that will eventually help everyone, sound an awful lot like the late 1920s and early '30s. Those ideas seemed very convincing. But once the crash of 1929 came, and then the Depression, it was clear something else was needed. So, my question is, what if it all happens again? What's going to make up for the departure of the New Deal?"

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