Americans in the 1930s were faced with the largest economic crisis the United States has ever experienced in our 250 years as a nation. Rising to the moment, progressives responded with the largest jobs program the country had ever seen. They not only broke free of the Great Depression, but created a better nation through enacting policies like social security, and relentlessly defending democracy.
FDR’s New Deal was a product of collective mobilization, political courage, and most importantly working-class solidarity. This is especially impressive considering that unions had been stripped of their power in the decades prior, along with growing antidemocratic movements of 1930s American high society. This is not so dissimilar to modern times, where the country is facing a continued antidemocratic push, stagnant rule, and weakened labor power. Responding to any systemic ailment will undoubtedly be difficult — especially climate change — but FDR’s New Deal reveals a path forward.
I spoke with one of the foremost experts on the New Deal, Professor Harvey J. Kaye, on how America’s left could pass legislation of the same magnitude. No one knows FDR better than Professor Kaye, who has written extensively on the president, and persistently advocates for FDR-style policy in his weekly interview appearances, including the HillTV’s politics show Rising.
Perhaps the most troubling issue facing the modern left is the lack of labor solidarity, which if stronger, could act as a powerful force in pushing real action on climate change. Things are a little more hopeful, however, when one realizes that progressives faced a similar predicament in the early 20th century. Professor Kaye notes that “labor was actually very weak in the early 1930s. The numbers were low, and they had taken a real beating in the 1920s.”
American workers may have had little union power, but were able to make an impact through the allyship of the Roosevelt administration. According to Professor Kaye, FDR “actually told his own cabinet to encourage Americans to get organized and push.” Convincing Southern Democrats to vote through more ambitious aspects of the New Deal could only be achieved through mass public support. “Even though the Democrats controlled congress, he had to convince some of those folks in congress to go along with big plans because the southern democrats (later dixiecrats) liked the idea of the New Deal, but didn’t like that it would benefit African Americans.” Agricultural workers and household workers, who were disproportionately minorities, were unfortunately excluded from several New Deal programs like Social Security. Social Security only expanded later on during the Eisenhower administration due to shifting public opinion.
Overcoming the Supreme Court
Another barrier facing ambitious legislation is the overwhelmingly conservative Supreme Court. With a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court, it may seem like any climate legislation at the magnitude of the New Deal is doomed to be struck down. Fortunately, FDR succeeded when he had to grapple with a relatively hostile Supreme Court. Kaye theorizes that FDR’s threat of court packing “scared the shit out of the court” in such a way that they voted more favorably toward New Deal policies. Resulting from this dynamic, the Supreme Court only struck down a few important, but not critical elements of Roosevelt’s agenda. “By the time that the Supreme Court ruled that the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act) and the NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933) were unconstitutional, FDR was ready to abandon them anyhow.”
As Professor Kaye points out, during the depression, billionaires formed the American Liberty League (ALL) to counter FDR. Created in 1934, the American Liberty League was ostensibly a pro-corporate force that aimed to push back on FDR’s more radical policies. Fortunately, the ALL was ultimately unsuccessful and Roosevelt gained more votes in his 1936 re-election than in 1932. “But where they failed, the plutocrats of today succeeded,” notes Professor Kaye. This is definitely true.
Although America’s corporate class remains relatively unchanged in terms of priorities, the efficacy of modern conservative movements are much greater than anything the American Liberty League achieved. “The American Liberty League couldn’t generate a grassroots movement.” In the present day, however, the emergence of the Tea Party has certainly pushed Republicans even further to the right. “The Republican Party was already ultra-conservative, but over the last eight years, they have really turned into a truly reactionary political force,” adds Kaye. “Whereas before, they might have claimed that they were just conservative, now there are probably folks in their ranks that were involved in the invasion of the Capitol a couple weeks ago.”
With a threat like climate change, there is no room for half measures. Crafting ambitious climate policy that actually addresses all of the hazards associated with climate change will require some of the most ambitious government programs ever. Studying the lessons learned from the New Deal and using it as a strategic and tactical framework is a vital first step in creating these policies.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, public domain, Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill
Roosevelt Signs The Social Security Act: President Roosevelt signs Social Security Act, at approximately 3:30 pm EST on 14 August 1935. Standing with Roosevelt are Rep. Robert Doughton (D-NC); unknown person in shadow; Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY); Rep. John Dingell (D-MI); Rep. Joshua Twing Brooks (D-PA); the Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins; Sen. Pat Harrison (D-MS); and Rep. David Lewis (D-MD). Date 14 August 1935
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