The End of the New Deal?

May 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

I teach a lot of US History.  And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked.  It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists.  To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.

They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens.  How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets?  How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?

And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal.  And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans.  They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.

FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government.  Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens.  Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies.  But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.

That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69.  In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses.  The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.

Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents.  A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown.  The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.

But it is under attack now.  One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls.  Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal.  This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.

But they are right.  Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans.  And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it.  And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America.  It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.

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