Scholars gathered in a forum at UC Davis on Thursday evening to discuss Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its relevance to the present-day economic crisis.
Eric Rauchway, director of the Center for History, Society and Culture and UC Davis professor, said the discussion was inspired by the media’s sudden interest in the New Deal.
“If you open The New York Times on this day, Nov. 13 – 75 years ago – in 1933,” Rauchway said, “you would have seen on the editorial page a list of proposed costs of New Deal programs – looking at the prospective costs of farm subsidies, environmental policies, industrial policies, banking policies, etc. – and The New York Times concluding that it was not wise to be too spendthrift in a time of crisis.“
“If you open The New York Times and The Washington Post today, you will see much of the same thing,” he said. “Many historians and many economists [however,] will tell you precisely the opposite.“
The New Deal, a collection of programs President Franklin D. Roosevelt created to help the country recover from the Great Depression, included public works programs, government intervention in the economy and industry reforms.
Panelists included David Kennedy of Stanford University, Andrew Cohen of Syracuse University and Sarah Phillips of Columbia University.
David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, said that the Obama administration’s response to the political culture today will be to revisit the institutions that Roosevelt created.
Quoting Rahm Emanuel, the Obama administration’s chief of staff, “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste,” Kennedy said that a crisis is a moment of fluidity. It is during a crisis in which the political system can be made to yield results in such a way that is normally very difficult, if not impossible, to do under normal conditions, Kennedy said.
“It’s impossible to imagine [the New Deal] happening without a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression,” Kennedy said.
Andrew Cohen, author of The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940, said there are two groups of historians of the New Deal – the idealists and the cynics.
“The idealists argue that the Great Depression created a mass of impassioned voters disappointed by the failure of the free market to produce the affluence promised by corporations in the 1920s,” Cohen said. “Roosevelt heard citizens‘ pleas and he provided assistance.“
“[The cynics] see the New Deal itself as something of a disappointment – a set of policies that co-opted intense popular anger to serve the goals of corporate capitalism,” he said.
Cohen suggested a third group, the realists. The realist approach is one that understands the New Deal as an alliance between the pure and the corrupt, or the higher ideals and the “gritty” realities of American politics.
Sarah Phillips, author of This Land, this Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal, further discussed the relationship between the Great Depression and the New Deal.
According to Phillips, the New Deal used a universalistic language, but failed to enforce universalism.
“The consequence of a universalistic language in the New Deal and the absence of genuine universalism has led to a kind of backlash,” Phillips said. “This is why we have a hopeful convergence of New Deal scholarships at the current moment.“
Approximately 90 people attended the forum at the University Club.
The event was sponsored by the Center for History, Society and Culture and the Institute of Governmental Affairs.
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