Wanted: a restoration of faith in government as an instrument of social and economic justice.
With deadlock in Washington and a recent spate of economic data showing that the so-called “recovery” of the US economy is growing weaker by the day, it appears more and more likely that the Great Recession which has been with us since the fall of 2007 will continue. This is very bad news for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, their homes, or both. It also places a terrible burden on the millions of young people about to enter the work force. It is hard to look forward to the future when that future is full of uncertainty. In this respect both the older generation of long term unemployed and the younger generation that has yet to take on their first job share much of the same anxiety. When, they ask, will this economic downturn come to an end?
This despair is not unlike that of the generation that greeted Franklin Roosevelt when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1933. The nation had never experienced anything like the economic conditions that existed that year, and there were real fears that liberal capitalist democracy itself was under siege.
To counter this despair Franklin Roosevelt famously urged the American people to remember that “the only thing they had to fear was fear itself.” But he also acknowledged — in the line that received the greatest applause in his first inaugural — that “this nation asks for action and action now.” He promised to deliver on that demand — and deliver he did. Within his first hundred days alone, FDR, working with Congress, passed 15 major pieces of legislation, including a series of banking and financial reform measures that formed the basis of our financial economy for more than six decades.
The rescue of America’s banking system and the regulation of the stock market helped restore the American people’s faith in these two key sectors of the economy. Moreover, the jobs created through the launching of such New Deal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the later Works Progress Administration did far more than simply help improve our environment or build our nation’s economic infrastructure, they also gave people hope.
This fundamental partnership between a government willing and able to act in the name of the public good, and a people willing to support it, formed the essence of the New Deal. Out of this partnership came many of the programs that we take for granted today, such as unemployment insurance and Social Security. But these things never would have happened without the leadership and vision of Franklin Roosevelt who time and time again admonished the American people never to forget that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” Bolstered by this new-found vision the President, the people and the Congress transformed the nature of the American society and government; created the economic infrastructure that made it possible for us to become the great arsenal of democracy in the Second World War and by 1945 would see the United States emerge the world’s first true and only super-power.
The New Deal was not always pretty. Mistakes were made, and the road to economic recovery was long and hard. But throughout it all the American people did not despair because they understood they were following the vision of a leader who was dedicated not to a single ideology or a pre-set series of ideas, but to the simple proposition that in the midst of the worst economic crisis this nation had ever seen the government had an obligation to act.
The legislative record of the New Deal — which has never been equaled by any administration before or since — stands as a testament to this commitment to action. It also stands as a testament to FDR’s overarching faith in government as an instrument of social and economic justice. It is clear to all concerned that our leaders in Washington today do not share this faith. Dedicated to the principles of free market fundamentalism and ideologically opposed to government intervention in the economy — even in the midst of crisis — they prefer to turn away from government and offer no real vision for the future except ever-more tax and spending cuts. Thanks to this misguided austerity, more workers are losing their jobs, the economy continues to falter, and hope is nowhere to be found.
Nearly eighty years ago, in the same inaugural address, FDR warned the American people not to embrace the false promises espoused by a “generation of self-seekers,” because “they have no vision, and when there is no vision, the people perish.” Indeed, “happiness,” he said, “lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.