Opponents of FDR’s New Deal called it a ‘disaster’

Innovation Hub
President Franklin Roosevelt poses for a photo with other men behind him in a historical image

If you’ve been tuning into Democratic presidential debates or campaign rallies, you’ve heard some bold proposals about universal health care, free college tuition, universal pre-kindergarten and affordable childcare. 

And it is not the first time that social change on this sort of massive scale has been proposed or implemented. Nearly a century ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt radically changed America with the New Deal.

During the painful years of the Great Depression, FDR introduced a federal safety net that included Social Security, and unemployment compensation. According to Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book “Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal,” we can still feel the impact of Roosevelt’s policies today.

“I think that we all, whether we know it or not, live inside the New Deal all the time,” Rauchway said.

From infrastructure to financial protection (due to a newly created FDIC), the country was transformed by FDR’s programs, but the process was far from easy. According to Rauchway, incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover centered his 1932 reelection campaign around the assertion that the New Deal was “inevitably going to be a disaster.”

“We underestimate Hoover’s sincere alarm at the potential of the New Deal to dramatically transform the United States,” Rauchway said. “He devoted himself to trying to reorient the Republican Party around this idea that it represented absolute opposition to any step in the direction of the New Deal.”

Having that kind of dissent from the start did not make it easy for these proposals to pass, but, despite the barriers, FDR got his policies through  —  with some compromises along the way in areas like childcare and health care. 

“During the war years, there was an effort to provide childcare for women war workers, but it wasn’t by any means successful or universal; it was more a gesture in a direction,” Rauchway said. “In the Social Security Act of 1935, the administration decided not to pursue public health care programs precisely because they’d been defeated by lobbyists in years prior,” he added. 

Some of this narrative may sound strikingly familiar to what Americans are hearing today: radical ideas that could drastically change the country, staunch opposition to those ideas, and even accusations of socialism or communism. Indeed, explicit comparisons to The New Deal have been drawn by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the sponsor of the Green New Deal proposal in the House. 

When it comes to the battle for these policies, Rauchway said that he even sees similarities in oppositional tactics. 

Related: The Green New Deal doesn’t include carbon pricing. Some say that’s a big mistake.

“[Today’s criticism] does sound very similar to Herbert Hoover’s strategy of how to criticize the original New Deal, in terms of condemning it as socialist or communist, as both [Sen. Mitch] McConnell and [President Donald] Trump have done. The president and the senate majority leader have both brought out that same kind of rhetoric,” he said. “Now, the question, of course, today is: Do Americans have the same thinking about socialism and communism as they did back in those days?”

In fact, opinions seem to have shifted. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans now see socialism as a good thing, as opposed to 25% in a similar poll in 1942. Some politicians are even openly leaning into that socialist title. 

Finding similarities between the 1930s and today does not mean that the proposals on the table are exactly like the New Deal, but the parallels are hard to deny.

Related: The ‘Green New Deal’ started with six college grads. Now, they’re recruiting an army of young people.

“We’re looking at a United States where a sense of insecurity is pretty widespread,” Rauchway said. “We might be getting towards a time where people are more supportive of greater degrees of change … I think it would shift the balance in the same direction that the New Deal shifted the balance, which is to say, to give the average American working person a greater sense of security in their circumstances.”

With the 2020 election just around the corner, it will ultimately be the American people who decide just how much change they really want. 

Sarah Leeson is an associate producer with Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbration. 

The story originally appeared on the Innovation Hub. 

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