Still, in today’s climate of endless war and uncontrolled greed,
drawing upon the heritage of the 1930s would be a huge step forward.
Perhaps the momentum of such a project could carry the nation past
the limits of FDR’s reforms, especially if there were a popular
upsurge that demanded it. A candidate who points to the New Deal as a
model for innovative legislation would be drawing on the huge
reputation Franklin Roosevelt and his policies enjoy in this country,
an admiration matched by no President since Lincoln. Imagine the
response a Democratic candidate would get from the electorate if he
or she spoke as follows :
"Our nation is in crisis, just as it was when Roosevelt took office.
At that time, people desperately needed help, they needed jobs,
decent housing, protection in old age. They needed to know that the
government was for them and not just for the wealthy classes. This is
what the American people need today.
"I will do what the New Deal did, to make up for the failure of the
market system. It put millions of people to work through the Works
Progress Administration, at all kinds of jobs, from building schools,
hospitals, playgrounds, to repairing streets and bridges, to writing
symphonies and painting murals and putting on plays. We can do that
today for workers displaced by closed factories, for professionals
downsized by a failed economy, for families needing two or three
incomes to survive, for writers and musicians and other artists who
struggle for security.
"The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps at its peak employed
500,000 young people. They lived in camps, planted millions of trees,
reclaimed millions of acres of land, built 97,000 miles of fire
roads, protected natural habitats, restocked fish and gave emergency
help to people threatened by floods.
"We can do that today, by bringing our soldiers home from war and
from the military bases we have in 130 countries. We will recruit
young people not to fight but to clean up our lakes and rivers, build
homes for people in need, make our cities beautiful, be ready to help
with disasters like Katrina. The military is having a hard time
recruiting young men and women for war, and with good reason. We will
have no such problem enlisting the young to build rather than
"We can learn from the Social Security program and the GI Bill of
Rights, which were efficient government programs, doing for older
people and for veterans what private enterprise could not do. We can
go beyond the New Deal, extending the principle of social security to
health security with a totally free government-run health system. We
can extend the GI Bill of Rights to a Civilian Bill of Rights,
offering free higher education for all.
"We will have trillions of dollars to pay for these programs if we do
two things : if we concentrate our taxes on the richest 1 percent of
the population, not only their incomes but their accumulated wealth,
and if we downsize our gigantic military machine, declaring ourselves
a peaceful nation.
"We will not pay attention to those who complain that this is ’big
government.’ We have seen big government used for war and to give
benefits to the wealthy. We will use big government for the people."
How refreshing it would be if a presidential candidate reminded us of
the experience of the New Deal and defied the corporate elite as
Roosevelt did, on the eve of his 1936 re-election. Referring to the
determination of the wealthy classes to defeat him, he told a huge
crowd at Madison Square Garden : "They are unanimous in their hatred
for me — and I welcome their hatred." I believe that a candidate who
showed such boldness would win a smashing victory at the polls.
The innovations of the New Deal were fueled by the militant demands
for change that swept the country as FDR began his presidency : the
tenants’ groups ; the Unemployed Councils ; the millions on strike on
the West Coast, in the Midwest and the South ; the disruptive actions
of desperate people seeking food, housing, jobs — the turmoil
threatening the foundations of American capitalism. We will need a
similar mobilization of citizens today, to unmoor from corporate
control whoever becomes President. To match the New Deal, to go
beyond it, is an idea whose time has come.
C 2008 The Nation All rights reserved.
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