International Labor and Working-Class History

Scholarly Controversy: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History

A New Deal Restoration: Individuals, Communities, and the Long Struggle for the Collective Good

Jennifer Kleina1

a1 Yale University

Much of the literature on the New Deal over the last fifteen years has sought to extend it in time and scope. The New Deal has become the New Deal Order. More than the legislation and programs of the Great Depression years under President Roosevelt, it encompasses or designates particular political coalitions brought together under a dominant Democratic Party, expanded citizenship rights, Keynesian economic policymaking, rising standards of living through collective bargaining and public investment, checks on the prerogatives of business, and working-class enfranchisement that continued well beyond the Roosevelt years.1 We talk about the New Deal when we refer to the G.I. Bill, Truman's economic and social policies or organized labor's gains in the late 1940s, Republican President Eisenhower's extension of Social Security in the 1950s, Lyndon Johnson's enactment of Medicare, and can even include the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws in 1970 as the New Deal's last gasp, under President Nixon. Other historians have extended the New Deal back in time, linking its programs more firmly with social policy and industrial relations experiments in the Progressive Era, the First World War, and the 1920s. Widow's pensions, war labor boards, unemployment insurance, industrial democracy became the basic building blocks of the New Deal.2 Historians have also been revising the histories of later social movements, such as the African-American freedom struggle or the women's movement, and relocating them as New Deal movements.3 So we no longer think in terms of the “interwar period”—which was always more of a European periodization—just as we no longer talk about the New Deal as emerging full-blown from the forehead of Roosevelt and an inner-circle, male Brain Trust and ending with the Supreme Court packing incident.

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