Nostalgia is the enemy of an informed electorate. I, myself, am guilty of romanticizing FDR’s New Deal as the golden age of public policy. Pardon my hubris, but I’m probably right or at least more correct than modern historical revisionists who praise Reagan or Clinton the first.
We learned in October that 50% of America made less than $30,000 this year and 38% made less than $20,000. Half of America teetering on the poverty level proves that our nation’s middle class is indeed disappearing. The last 30 years of Reaganomics and the Clinton legacy has undone the previous 50 years of American prosperity. National politicians talking about rounding up a minority group and tagging another shouldn’t be the only thing that reminds you of the 1930s. The American economy looks a lot like that of the Great Depression right now, and not at all the one of copiousness most Americans are nostalgic for.
What became of our abundance? When Reagan gutted the unions and deregulated the markets coupled with Bill Clinton‘s deregulating Wall Street, passing the North American Free Trade Agreement and gutting the social safety net, the policies of the New Deal were undone. Years later, a new era of the corporate barons the Greatest Generation took down have once again risen to shackle the average American worker into a life of poverty.
I can have a pleasant and engaging conversation with someone who romanticizes Nixon. At least Nixon talked about poverty. When is the last time you remember hearing a current Republican mention poverty? Unlike Reagan or Clinton, Nixon’s evils are at least part of popular zeitgeist. Reagan and Clinton fans refuse to acknowledge the many flaws of their equally scandal-ridden presidencies. Folks who romanticize Reagan or Clinton, in my opinion, are tedious at best, with half-truths and oddly affectionate crushes used as rationale. I’ll gladly sit through yet another Nixon going to China speech of adoration to avoid the Reagan or Clinton denominations of either political party.
I do, however, find it to be of interest when these two factions of the same belief structure attack each other. Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats hate each other. I’ll never understand how the devout followings of these two identical Presidencies became enemies. It’s akin to Methodists and Baptists blaming each other for water that never turned to wine, when the well has long been empty. Agnostics know that each of these congregations are behind the drought. How do we convert these two large denominations so they’ll help us find water? The wine can wait until after we save our economy! Let’s dig a well!
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
― Marcel Proust
The New Deal was a hearty combination of policies that passed through Congress and many that the President signed into effect through executive orders during FDR’s first term (1933–37). He announced the plan during his first inaugural address. “First of all,” he said, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That famous quote is about fearing for one’s economic well-being. It is about fearing for your family and loved ones falling trap to the cycle of poverty. It was to give Americans hope that they could have abundance. He continued on to say America would “wage a war against the emergency” just as though “we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
The first thing FDR did was close the banks as he pushed through the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which broke up the too-big-to-fail and closed the most criminal among them. He then went on the radio to explain what was done to the American people and assure them that it was safe to do commerce again with the new, moderated financial institutions.
After these protections that saved America’s economy were undone decades later by Reagan and Clinton, banks went back to their old tricks again and we had another economic meltdown caused by deregulation in 2008. This time, however, instead of worrying about the fiscal solvency of the American people, the government gave the bankers blank checks written on the back of the taxpayers. We bailed out the banks, but not the people.
The second thing we did to get out of the Great Depression was end alcohol prohibition. Yet, since the 2008 economic collapse, only a handful of American cities have had any discussion on how the War on Drugs is an economic and social drain on our society.
Roosevelt doubled down in his second term and delivered what he called, “the second New Deal,” which went even further than the first in strengthening the social safety net and putting Americans back to work. The second New Deal brought forth what are, in my opinion, the single most important political solutions ever produced through American economic policy: the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Social Security Act of 1935.
The Social Security Act created the social safety net, which strengthened American labor movements and re-birthed a once thriving middle class. The WPA built roads, bridges, national parks, post offices and more. WPA projects were not allowed to compete with private industry, so it was America’s public infrastructure that was strengthened and expanded while American laborers got back to work. Artists and cultural infrastructure also benefited, as the nation invested in the arts and employed actors, musicians, painters and the likes to forge an American renaissance as creativity became part of our national values.
There I go, romanticizing again. If we are to find the devil in the details, the truth is, an honest historian would report that all of the aforementioned FDR policies helped future generations much more than they did for those who survived the Depression. It took time to pull the economy back out of the rabbit hole. It certainly took all three of FDR’s terms to correct course. Similarly, it took a decade after Clinton for his economic policies to, pardon the pun, break the bank. Despite it taking time to see the result of an economic policy, the idealist in me is forever smug in the knowledge that FDR’s opponents had to amend the constitution to stop Americans from reelecting him and championing his populist ideals. People believed prosperity was coming, and turned out to the polls in support of FDR. This was all before redistricting and disenfranchising voters. Poor people still turned out to vote back then.
Democrats weren’t alone in protecting labor, increasing the social safety net, rebuilding infrastructure and putting Americans to work. These were shared values for all Americans. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency was built around those very values. However, this is America, so people of color, women and homosexuals didn’t have full access to the American Dream yet. I’ll update this column if they ever really do. I imagine if that day comes, we will all be rewarded with renewed prosperity and I’ll be able to afford the time to update it. An America that provides opportunity to all people will be rich with upward mobility and Americans reaching for their best versions of themselves. Or so I like to romanticize.
My point is, America’s history has proven that trickle-up economics work and trickle-down economics do not. When Bernie Sanders announced his WPA-like jobs and infrastructure plan back when he announced his candidacy for President, I tingled from head to toe with nostalgia for the New Deal. Mostly because so very much of his platform was in concert with FDR’s. When Hillary Clinton announced her light-beer version of a jobs program this week, I remembered that her husband was one of the villains in our current economic horror story. I fear her proposal relies too much on corporate buy-in and will merely be song and dance in comparison to the substance of the Sanders platform. Without the other elements of a new New Deal, like Bernie Sanders endorses: regulating and breaking up the banks by restoring Glass Steagall, decriminalizing marijuana, strengthening the social safety net, and increasing the minimum wage to a living $15 per hour wage; an infrastructure based jobs program is just a temporary bandage. If used as part of a larger program, like FDR pushed through and Sanders endorses, real change can happen over time. We shouldn’t endorse an infrastructure jobs program that ultimately rebuilds America for our corporate overlords to enjoy, labored for and paid for by the American tax payer. I, for one, would like to see our tax-dodging corporate overlords foot that bill, and allow regular American families the opportunity to drive on those rebuilt roads and bridges. The average American should be able to visit America’s great national parks without fear of having to secretly camp there permanently because they’ve lost their homes.
Everyone is entitled to think sentimentally about their heroes and favorite leaders, but when discussing things like policy and record, we should also be careful not to paint caricatures of these people and how their politics affected our country. Likability never honestly reflects integrity nor accomplishment. When there is a proven track history in our economic history for how to accomplish true economic recovery and restoration of a middle class, that is the path we should be following. Neither Reaganomics nor the rebranded version for Democrats, Clintonomics, will get us traveling down that path. The thing about nostalgia is, when you try to repeat something you remember better than it really was, you always end up disappointed.
Originally published for TheElizabethian.