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6 April 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 6:26am

Can Joe Biden replicate FDR’s success in rebuilding the Democrats’ coalition?

In a new book, the historian Eric Rauchway argues the defence of American democracy requires permanent material gains for voters.  

By Jake Blumgart

Eric Rauchway’s latest book about the New Deal begins nearly two years before Franklin D Roosevelt took office in 1933, at the time of a clash over pensions for veterans of the First World War.

This era of US history is often portrayed in American textbooks through images of the Wall Street crash of 1929, the breadlines of the unemployed, and portraits of hollow-eyed Dust Bowl farmers. But Rauchway takes us to the scene of the 1932 Bonus March, when thousands of veterans walked across the country to demand Washington policymakers allow them access to their pensions.

Some of the march leaders had fascist sympathies, Rauchway argues, organising squads of khaki shirt militias in emulation of Benito Mussolini’s minions. Set against them was General Douglas MacArthur, who disregarded direct orders from the White House and broke up the encampments with extreme force. On both sides of the clash were forces that felt America’s democratic government had failed, and were willing to act outside of it.

“I think it’s very important to see that episode through FDR’s eyes, which is to say that there was the possibility of a fascist movement in this country,” said Rauchway, who is a professor of history at the University of California. “It could have gone in a number of different directions. It’s important to illustrate the real live threat to democracy.”

Why The New Deal Matters, Rauchway’s fourth book on Roosevelt’s time in office, is short, accessible, and mostly unfolds far from the corridors of power. Instead of focusing on economic policy conferences and harried diplomatic cables, Rauchway devotes a chapter to rural development and another to the little-known story of the New Deal in Native American lands.

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“The book focuses on the way the New Deal created a country Americans could lay hands on, and that belongs to everybody,” Rauchway told me. “There’s almost no place [in the US] where we’re not looking at some legacy of the New Deal: in the American South, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Native lands.”

Although the New Deal era is bemoaned by modern conservatives as a time of burgeoning centralisation of government, Rauchway shows how the laws of the 1930s weren’t administered in a top-down way on the ground. In many cases, he argues, they empowered locals and helped democratise America through electricity cooperatives and Works Progress Administration councils. But as is often the case in the United States, the empowerment of local leaders doesn’t always create the conditions in which democracy can flourish.

Black Americans were often excluded from such benefits, chiefly in the American South, where local leaders were allowed to apply oppressive Jim Crow standards to their work sites. When New Deal programmes were administered by private interests, such as mortgage and real estate policies, they left lasting racialised scars on America’s cities and suburbs.

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Rauchway argues that the toxic influence of white supremacist Southern Democrats was diluted, however, when New Deal programmes were administered from Washington. The Works Progress Administration was staffed with prominent civil rights activists and had a non-discrimination policy, which provoked much controversy at the time. Roosevelt also established the Civil Rights Unit in the justice department.

“The politics of the New Deal were very complicated,” Rauchway said, with FDR trying to court white supremacist Southern powerbrokers and the growing black vote in the cities of the North. Although the New Deal was tainted with racism through Roosevelt’s alliance with the Southern members of his party, it also marked the point at which a majority of black Americans left the Republican Party for the Democrats.

The fact that African Americans joined the Democratic coalition despite the New Deal’s racist aspects shows how Roosevelt won new constituencies by proving that the federal government could provide clear-cut aid.

Today, although President Joe Biden has been courting an idea of his presidency as a latter-day companion to the New Deal, Rauchway said it takes more than spending a lot of money to reshape America’s political coalitions.

The recently unveiled American Rescue Plan is a strong start, but if all Biden provides is an act of stimulus – no matter how large – that is not enough to emulate the New Deal.

[See also: Joe Biden’s $1.9trn Covid stimulus isn’t transformative – yet]

“The New Deal wasn’t really a massive stimulus, it was a programme to rebalance the scales of justice in the American economy,” said Rauchway, who has a problem with the notion of stimulus, which implies Congress can simply shoot money through the system to get things back to normal.

“Normal”, he notes, hasn’t been very good for many Americans, and a lot of the Rescue Plan’s most ambitious provisions, such as the new child allowance, will be phased out after a year, even if Democratic policymakers have said they intend to extend them.

“Does the current structure of relief create constituencies who will insist on continuing to be served and have their lot improved by the federal government?” This is the important question, Rauchway believes.

He suggests a permanent and ambitious expansion of the safety net could win back key segments of the Latino and white working-class constituencies which have been voting Republican. It could also reaffirm the commitments of middle-income suburban and black voters, who were the backbone of Biden’s support. What better way to lock in future support than via material benefits?

“If we get Congressional action renewing and amping up the ways in which this act reinvests in the US, then we will see something more like the New Deal,” said Rauchway.

That isn’t what happened in the last moment of crisis, however. Barack Obama’s administration was notable for its technocratic nature, delivering what benefits it could through administrative tweaks and quiet tax breaks. This means the last massive stimulus Biden was part of did not have the necessary scope, and its benefits were not made obvious enough to cultivate constituencies. The result was a sluggish recovery that left many behind, and a resurgent far right that threatens American democracy.

Rauchway writes of a different political strategy in Why The New Deal Matters: Roosevelt’s policies were grand in scope, helped a majority of Americans and changed voting patterns as a result.

As Biden and his Democratic allies turn their attention to a proposed $2trn infrastructure bill, there will be a chance to create more public works and bring more public benefits to left-behind regions of the US. We will see how well the government learned the lessons Rauchway imparts.

[See also: The long road ahead for Joe Biden’s $2trn infrastructure plan]

Jake Blumgart is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, US.