Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2009 issue of National Review.
Last night, in his first prime time press conference, President Barack Obama repeatedly asserted that opponents of the stimulus bill want to “do nothing” and that they are married to outdated ideas and ideologies. He then went on to say:
Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. Now, you have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace. And, in fact, there are several who’ve suggested that FDR [President Roosevelt] was wrong to interfere back in the New Deal. They’re fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.
This is just the latest example of liberal consternation with the fact that conservatives are unwilling to let the New Deal stand as the useful myth of liberalism during the current economic crisis.
“A normal person,” the liberal economist Brad DeLong recently pronounced, “would not argue that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression.” New York Times financial columnist and Newsweek contributing editor Daniel Gross is even more emphatic. “One would be very hard-pressed to find a serious professional historian–I mean a serious historian, not a think-tank wanker, not an economist, not a journalist–who believes that the New Deal prolonged the Depression.” David Sirota, an activist-journalist, writes on the Huffington Post: “Every high school civics class teaches the broad truth about Roosevelt, the New Deal and how it helped end the Great Depression, and if the conservative movement has gone so off the deep end that they want to make crazy-sounding arguments that even high schoolers know are silly, then the progressive movement is in an even better position than we may have thought.” And in his syndicated column, he adds that any argument otherwise is “abject insanity.”
Sirota’s point about high-school civics classes helps explain the vitriol. The glory of the New Deal is, for liberals, settled dogma. To question it is akin to casting doubt on geocentrism in the 14th century. Worse, it is an attempt to erase liberalism’s most usable past.
Significantly, FDR has recently become more relevant and popular among “progressives” than he’s been for a generation. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi reportedly said that three words prove the Democrats aren’t out of ideas: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” This revival has many causes. One is surely the rise of the “netroots” and their renewed emphasis on reviving the Democratic party as a vehicle of progress. Since the Democratic party is still for all intents and purposes a Roosevelt cargo cult, any Democratic “comeback” would be a comeback for New Dealism as well.
Another part of the explanation is surely that the New Deal has been assaulted from all sides over the last decade. Bill Clinton proclaimed that the “era of big government is over,” which many took to mean the New Deal era was over. Some of the New Deal’s policies–such as the Glass-Steagall Act, which regulated banking–were dramatically overhauled. And, more recently, President Bush led an effort to renegotiate the terms of Social Security that was, according to liberals at the time, tantamount to destroying FDR’s “legacy.” At the same time, a number of books have taken dead aim at that legacy. Jim Powell’s FDR’s Folly, Amity Shlaes’s justly acclaimed The Forgotten Man, and most recently Burton Folsom’s New Deal or Raw Deal? are just a few of the revisionist works intended to peel back some of the mythology of the New Deal (my own book, Liberal Fascism, might be included in that list as well). Such sustained attacks on an argument liberals believed they had won in the 1950s were bound to trigger a sharp counterattack from progressive antibodies.
But the most relevant and recent reason for the New Deal’s resurgent popularity is that many people believe–and a dismaying number of progressives seem to hope–that we are on the verge of another Great Depression, and that therefore the times require another New Deal. Calls for a “new New Deal” are nothing new. Leading liberal intellectuals and politicians have called for one in response to, among other things, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and, of course, global warming. By contrast, most Americans, thanks to those very same civics classes, think New Deals are for combating economic crises, and nothing else. But the financial crisis seems finally to offer an excuse voters will accept for a massive new expansion of government. In interviews, Barack Obama has made no secret that he sees himself as picking up FDR’s torch, and the press has offered nothing but encouragement on that score. Shortly after the election, Time magazine blazoned on its cover a doctored photo of Barack Obama as Franklin Roosevelt, complete with cigarette holder pinched in his mouth, riding around in an open-air 1930s convertible. The headline? “The New New Deal.”