The New Deal at 75: An Inspiration, Not a Blueprint


Whatever your political perspective, Americans need to admire the New Deal for, if nothing else, its ambitious agenda. In a way unparalleled in the 20th Century, the New Deal left us a legacy of achievement – one that we can still see in big cities like San Francisco and small towns like Wishek, North Dakota.

The great genius of the New Deal lay not in ideology but in its pragmatism and practicality. People were out of work so it created jobs. The country’s infrastructure, particularly in the rural areas, was primitive, so it took on the task of modernization.

In some ways, this paralleled what was also being done under the Communists in the Soviet Union as well as under Fascists in Italy and under the National Socialists in Germany. This has led some conservatives, such as “Liberal Fascism” author Jonah Goldberg, to conflate the New Deal legacy with fascism. But this assertion is belied by the fact that we still live under a democratic and liberal political structure, one that by the 1980s had turned to oppose much of that legacy.

Yet I believe that even Ronald Reagan – himself once an avid New Dealer – would admit that the New Deal did much to expand America’s middle class. It did so not by promoting redistribution and welfarism or by moral cajoling – characteristics Mike Lind identifies with the more elite Progressives – but by practical actions that gave people the tools with which to build their own individual prosperity.

Economically speaking, it is also true that the New Deal failed to recreate prosperity (at least until the onset of the Second World War). But it cannot be denied that it literally brought light to large parts of the country – particularly the Southeast and the rural Great Plains – into the 20th Century. Among the New Deal’s great accomplishments, as Andy Sywak discusses, are its public works.A partial list of these accomplishments include:

• 22,428 road projects
• 7488 educational buildings
• Over 7000 sewer, water and other public buildings
• Employed over 3,000,000 workers earning who helped support 10,000,000 dependents
• Employed 125,000 engineers, social workers, accountants, superintendents, foremen and timekeepers scattered in every state and community

Ultimately, notes scholar Jason Scott Smith, the New Deal touched intimately the lives of more than fifty million out of a total U.S. population in 1933 of 125 million. Yet its legacy went well beyond the Roosevelt years, extending from Roosevelt and Truman all the way to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and, even to some extent, Richard Nixon.

As Sherle Schwenninger points out, The New Deal created the basis for the great, and widely shared, national prosperity of the post-war period. Through infrastructure spending, housing programs, the GI Bill and government-funded scientific research, the New Deal directly and indirectly helped make the United States the premier power on the world scene and by far its strongest economy.

America remains the preeminent country in the world, but there is a great, widely held belief that this status is slipping as other countries – China, Russia, Brazil, India – enact what amounts to their own New Deals. Our once vibrant middle class is under siege, our infrastructure is aging and even “progressives” seem more interested in promoting avant garde cultural values than in economic growth, upward mobility or maintaining technological excellence. Even in the field of conservation, a core value of the New Deal and progressive traditions, the focus is increasing less about preserving resources and open space for people, and more about how to preserve and insulate nature from the ill-effects of human carbon-based life forms.

Yet if we can be inspired by the New Deal, we can not simply repeat it. For one thing, our crisis today is less palpable and immediate, making it all but impossible to mobilize resources in the same way. At the same time, the public sector, small at the onset of New Deal, has already swollen to gargantuan size. The power of organized public employees, largely a non-factor in the 1930s and 1940s, threatens any government initiative by siphoning off too many local and federal resources due to their often extravagant demands in everything from salaries and work rules to pensions.

This can be seen in the morphing of the New Deal legacy in large cities including the greatest of all, New York. Under Mayor Fiorella La Guardia, a maverick Republican of the Theodore Roosevelt stripe, the city built new parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, roads, and sanitation systems with an almost messianic fervor. At one time, New York City was receiving one-seventh of all funds dispersed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Yet La Guardia’s expanded city government, notes Cooper Union historian Fred Siegel, still operated under an efficiency-oriented progressive administration. La Guardia and his parks commissioner, Robert Moses fired political appointees and dismissed incumbents, leading some public employees to identify him with the Italian dictator Mussolini. Rejecting narrow ideology, La Guardia famously claimed: “There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets.”

La Guardia’s successors, in New York and elsewhere, did not stick to this moral and administrative rigor. The share government workers in New York’s workforce expanded from 10 percent in 1950 to over 17 percent in 1970s but with increasingly little accountability. If a new New Deal means a large expansion of the unionized public workforce, in New York or elsewhere, it will be largely doomed.

So as we admire the achievements of the New Deal, we also need to keep in mind the shortcomings that grew out of its success. That we need a new powerful commitment to infrastructure and economic growth is undoubted, but in pursuing this we need to make sure it does not serve primarily the public employee lobbies and the well-organized rent-seeking private interests.

New solutions, such as tapping abundant capital resources from both here and abroad, need to be tried out. And given the overconcentration of power already in Washington, and the spread of technical expertise to states and regions, a greater emphasis on locally based initiatives may work better this time around.

Yet in the end, American still requires some form of broad initiative to overcome its current doldrums. This requires the same kind of bold, innovative and pragmatic spirit characteristic of the New Deal that three quarters of a century later remains its most useful legacy.

Joel Kotkin is the Executive Editor of

Other New Geography New Deal articles:

The New Deal & the Legacy of Public Works
New Deal Investments Created Enduring, Livable Communities
Progressives, New Dealers, and the Politics of Landscape
Public Investment, Decentralization and Other Economic Lessons from the New Deal
Emerald City Emergence: Seattle and the New Deal
Excavating The Buried Civilization of Roosevelt’s New Deall

Other New Deal sites:

New Deal Network (sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute)
New Deal Cultural Programs
California’s Living New Deal Project