The New Deal refers to both the presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932–1945) and its legislative response to the Great Depression and World War II. Most historians recognize three distinct New Deal eras. During the first New Deal era (1933–1935), policy was governed by conventional economic wisdom and confined its attention to short-term relief, business recovery, and the stability of the banking system. During the second New Deal era (1935–1937), policy turned to more dramatic solutions, including the landmark Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), both enacted in 1935. During the third New Deal era (1937–1945), reformers retreated somewhat in the face of opposition from congressional conservatives and populist critics, the persistence of the Depression, and the very different challenges posed by mobilization for World War II.
While meager by international standards and disappointing to many on the Left, the New Deal marked a dramatic change in the role and responsibilities of the federal government. Before 1932, federal responsibilities extended little beyond foreign policy, trade and tariffs, and certain aspects of interstate commerce (such as railroads). By 1945 the federal state claimed extensive responsibilities as a regulator of economic activity, a provider of relief and social assistance, and a referee of labor relations. This “big bang” of institutional innovation was contested by many employers and states' rights conservatives (especially in the South) and remained on uncertain constitutional ground until the late 1930s. In 1935 the Supreme Court held that the New Deal's first major initiative, the National Recovery Act (NRA), violated the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause by overstepping the rights of states to regulate the economy. Facing similar legal challenges to the second New Deal, Roosevelt openly threatened to pack the Supreme Court with three additional justices. This plan, though widely condemned, ultimately proved unnecessary, for in 1937 the Court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of both the Social Security Act and the NLRA.
Increasingly, historians of the New Deal place the entire era's social movements—including protest by the unemployed and farmers, nascent welfare rights organizations, and unions of industrial workers and sharecroppers—at or near the center of the political narrative. While there remains little agreement over whether the New Deal was an effort to repress or represent these social movements, there is little disagreement that they shaped both the debate and the course of legislation. New Deal labor policy, for example, was an ongoing and frantic response to the efforts of workers to organize around both the misery of the Depression and each tentative step taken by the administration. While early New Deal labor policy was quite meager, it sparked a wildfire of strikes and new organizing. In response the administration moved to formalize the rights of employers and employees with the NLRA in 1935. In turn the NLRA encouraged renewed labor activism, highlighted by the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as an alternative to the staid conservatism of the craft-based American Federation of Labor (AFL). As it organized mass-production industry, the CIO not only gave meaning to the NLRA but also made the labor movement a prominent force in local and national politics.
Although far-reaching, the New Deal's reforms (and the social movements they encouraged) were also deeply compromised by race and gender. Because the national Democratic Party depended heavily on the “solid South” in both national elections and congressional politics, New Deal programs were often cut to address the needs of segregationist Southerners who were leery of both popular organization and universal social programs. This was accomplished largely by exempting various occupational classifications (such as agricultural or domestic labor) from labor and welfare policy or deferring policy administration to the individual states. At the same time both the raft of new federal programs and the heady democratic rhetoric of the war after 1941 gave African Americans new opportunities to confront segregation in the South and discrimination in the North.
Women, too, suffered inequity in New Deal programs, most of which assumed that full employment of male breadwinners was the core goal of recovery politics. Relief programs typically barred married women from participating. The Social Security Act was cleft between those titles that aimed contributory “social insurance” benefits (pensions and unemployment insurance) at male workers and those titles that offered relatively meager “welfare” assistance to women, children, the elderly, and the disabled. The conviction that men should work and that women (as mothers or potential mothers) should not was both widely held at the time and deeply ironic given the postwar trajectory of welfare politics. Owing to occupational segregation women were also less likely to benefit from labor or welfare policy and more likely to face uneven local administration of New Deal reforms.
Beyond its economic programs the New Deal also sparked an explosion of cultural production and cultural politics. New Deal art and culture programs served a number of purposes. In part they were simply unemployment relief or public works programs for artists, writers, and performers; in part they were a way of representing and promoting the New Deal itself. The results were impressive, including the painting of thousands of murals in post offices and other public buildings, a vast body of graphic and poster art (most representing New Deal or war-effort themes), an extensive photographic record to accompany many New Deal programs, new work in popular and radical theater under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project, and a wide range of sponsored scholarship and research (such as the famous Works Progress Administration interviews with the last generation of African Americans who had lived in slavery). These programs were torn almost immediately by the charges that would plague federal patronage of the arts for decades to come. Some praised enlightened public support of the arts; some warned of the totalitarian dangers of “state art”; some accused the government of suborning cultural production that was anti-American or obscene. Against a backdrop of state weakness and an antistatist political culture, the New Deal represented a rapid and chaotic era of political, ideological, and cultural innovation. In turn, the political response to Depression and war recast American politics and political culture around new and persistent concerns—including state responsibility for economic stability and growth, the politics of the welfare state, the rights of workers, the civil rights of African Americans, and state support of the arts.
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