The Newest Deal
Biden has overshot LBJ’s legacy and gone straight for FDR instead.
Dear Reader (including those of you ill-prepared for the lizard invasion),
Let me give a pithy summation of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency: LBJ came in like a roaring lion, and went out like the kind of mangy lion who could get his ass kicked by a surly lamb. Between the political capital he inherited from JFK’s assassination and his own formidable political skill, he racked up an impressive string of transformative accomplishments from the Great Society to the Civil Rights Act. He left office a beaten man, opting not to run again. His party was torn apart by internal fights, his political capital drained like a hacked ATM by Vietnam and racial unrest.
I bring this up because, in the months prior to President Joe Biden’s inauguration, I’d often ask guests on my podcast if they thought a Biden presidency would be more like the first two years of the LBJ administration or the last two years.
Right now, it looks like the first two years at a minimum. Heck, Biden seems to think that sets the bar too low. A bunch of historians told him he could be the next FDR, and he’s going for it.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been writing for years that the Democratic Party is addicted to New Dealism. Harry Truman wanted his own New Deal—the Fair Deal. Kennedy wanted his “New Frontier” (Not the cool one, though). LBJ—the only New Dealer other than FDR himself to be president—got his New Deal in the form of the Great Society. Clinton wanted one in his New Covenant and Obama tried with his New Foundation. Indeed, whenever there is a crisis, real or imagined, the call goes forth for yet another New Deal. Jimmy Carter didn’t call for a new New Deal, but he did believe the energy crisis was the moral equivalent of war, which is sort of the same thing. In the wake of 9/11, Chuck Schumer argued in the Washington Post, “the ‘new’ New Deal is upon us. The president can either lead the charge or be run over by it.” And of course, climate change requires a Green New Deal.
Now, as someone who thinks we didn’t need the first New Deal—or at least a lot of it—it shouldn’t surprise you that I certainly don’t think we need a second one, never mind a third one, if you count the Great Society, or a fourth one if you include the second New Deal.
That actually raises an important point. In a sense there wasn’t even a first New Deal. Imagine you’re some kind of alien watching the growth of government—not just in terms of spending, but in terms of scope and intrusion—on some fancy TV with the sound off. You’d see a big spike around the Civil War and then it’d trend down until Teddy Roosevelt, when it would suddenly start to tick up. Then there’d be a huge spike with Woodrow Wilson before another welcome downward slope. It would pick up again under Hoover. That’s right, Hoover. As Rexford Tugwell, one of the most prominent Brain Trust New Dealers, once remarked: “When it was all over, I once made a list of New Deal ventures begun during Hoover’s years as Secretary of Commerce and then as president. ... The New Deal owed much to what he had begun.”
Of course, FDR oversaw an even bigger spike, and we look at that and call it “The” New Deal. But that stuff was a grab bag. By FDR’s own account, his New Deal was about “experimentation”—doing whatever seemed like a good idea in the moment. Some stuff was good, some arguably good, some bad, and the rest arguably bad. But it wasn’t some coherent program with a serious public policy theory stitching it all together.
“To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Raymond Moley, FDR’s right-hand man during much of his presidency, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.” When Alvin Hansen, an influential economic adviser to the president, was asked—in 1940—whether “the basic principle of the New Deal” was “economically sound,” he responded, “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is.”
Now, that doesn’t mean the New Deal didn’t have a philosophy behind it. There’s a difference between philosophy and policy, after all. For instance, Henry Morgenthau Jr. told the story of how FDR set the price of gold:
I believe it was on Friday that we raised the price 21 cents, and the President said, “It is a lucky number because it is three times seven.” If anybody ever knew how we really set the gold price through a combination of lucky numbers, etc., I think that they really would be frightened.
There’s nothing—at least, nothing serious—policy-wise in that explanation. But there is a philosophy, or at least an attitude: The guys running the show have every right to do what they want, and shouldn’t be bound by things like conventions or rules.
For philosophy nerds, I believe that the New Deal was one of the 20th century banshees unleashed when the philosophical Pragmatists lifted the lid off of Pandora’s Box. William James, the father of the “Moral Equivalent of War,” and John Dewey, arguably the most important philosopher of what might be called “New Dealism,” championed the idea (in America) that the society was a clay that could be molded to the will of experts. Or as Dewey put it, borrowing from James, put it: We “live in a wide open universe, a universe without bounds in time or space, without final limits of origin or destiny, a universe with the lid off.”
Philosophically, the New Deal drew on—or at least reflected—Dewey’s and Woodrow Wilson’s contempt for the outdated vision of the Founders. The Founders “lacked,” Dewey wrote in Liberalism and Social Action, “historic sense and interest.” The Burkean and Madisonian vision of government simply serving to protect liberties and enforce fair, neutral rules was inadequate next to what could be accomplished with a sufficient application of will by experts given the power to provide meaning to every individual.
This is what the lid-less, unconstrained universe had to offer planners. Indeed, even the idea of individual rights was a bygone relic. “Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology,” Dewey explained. Rights can only be properly secured through “social control of economic forces in the interest of the great mass of individuals.” For Dewey, humans were “nothing in themselves”; the General Will was everything.
If you take the New Deal in its totality from FDR’s first hundred days through his radical “Second Bill of Rights” State of the Union Address, the underlying vision behind it was that the government in Washington should manage the economy (and really, society itself) from above with big businesses, trade associations, labor unions, state governments, even the Catholic Church, as junior partners in the endeavor. This is the real definition of “corporatism”—not government by big business, but government defined by the “enlightened” collusion of the major stakeholders run by the existing elites. It was the idea that markets were dumb—markets caused the Depression, after all—and experts were not just smart, but smarter than the market. And when I say “the market,” I mean that in the broadest sense, as in the people making personal and group decisions about how to run not just their businesses but their lives.
The New Deal itself was a continuation of Woodrow Wilson’s “war socialism” which yoked all the major institutions—governmental and otherwise—to a single cause. Wilson’s attempt to ditch the Founders’ vision of limited government and divided powers didn’t survive his presidency. But progressives didn’t let the dream die. They insisted that the “social benefits of war”—John Dewey’s phrase—on the domestic front were too wonderful to abandon. “We planned in war,” was their mantra during their brief and all-too-partial exile from power in the 1920s. And when FDR campaigned in 1932, he vowed to revive Wilson’s wartime methods to fight the Great Depression.
Now, I understand that—if you’re still with me at all—this might feel a little disorienting. Was the New Deal a serious philosophical enterprise, or was it pure adhocracy? The answer is: It was both.
The philosophical aim of the New Deal was to replace mere government by erecting a State. It was to supplant what Wilson decried as the “dumb clockworks” organization of government with a Darwinian vision of all parts of the body politic working together. The State, or in Wilson’s case, the president, would be the brain.
The policy that came with this was far less sophisticated: More. More money. More power. More control. More.
(By the way, I should say that many of the new “NatCons”—national conservatives, or post-liberal whatevers—seem to share a similar view. They just have a different vision for what money, power, and control should be used for. But that’s an argument for another day.)
If you were that alien watching the growth of government, you’d see the line go up and down here or there. But if you zoomed out then you’d never see it retreat completely to pre-spike levels. It’s a step ladder, a series of plateaus, and then the ascent resumes. In the moment it can be hard to see, what with our incredibly stupid arguments about how a cut in the rate of growth is an actual cut. But again, if you step back, you can see how far down this road we’ve come. “[T]he United States in the 1920s,” writes William Leuchtenburg, “had almost no institutional structure to which Europeans would accord the term ‘the State.’ Beyond the post office, most people had very little interaction with or dependence on ‘the government in Washington.’” That seems like another world, because it is.
Joe Biden’s trillion-here, trillion-there approach is as ad hoc as FDR’s in many ways. You look at some of the outlays in his proposals—a hundred billion for this, a hundred billion for that—and it becomes clear that the important thing is just to spend a hundred billion, or $2.4 trillion; what the money actually goes to is an afterthought.
Similarly, his conception of “infrastructure” is very New Deal-y. “So many people said, ‘Oh, the $400 billion that are being proposed for the home care workers or the home care sector, that’s not really infrastructure,’” White House economist Cecelia Rouse argues. “Well, I beg to differ. I can’t go to work, if I don’t have someone who’s taking care of my parents or my children.”
I can’t go to work without pants either, that doesn’t mean the government should launch a pants-buying program.
I have problems with a lot of the people on both sides of the aisle who throw around the term “socialism” without knowing what socialism is—and isn’t. But at some point, if everything is “infrastructure”—which Biden basically defines as anything that makes your life easier—than we’re going to stumble into precisely that. It may still be “democratic,” but the range of stuff you’ll be allowed to vote for will be quite Deweyan. That was Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s hope. In 1947, he wrote in Partisan Review, “There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.” All it would take is the empowerment of the “politician-manager-intellectual type—the New Dealer,” to make it happen.
We’re on our way.
The Deplorification of the GOP
I once met a guy who was way too into the Kennedys.
This guy’s dad would write letters to then-Sen. Ted Kennedy and frame the responses, hanging them prominently amid pictures of the Kennedy family. The replies were utterly banal: “Thank you for your letter. We are working hard to blah blah.” But you couldn’t tell him that they were form letters, written by staffers and signed by an autopen. He really believed he had a special relationship with the Kennedys.
I think about this every now and then because, for some people, certain politicians are special beings—sanctified leaders judged by different standards. Their feces don’t offend our olfactory senses. Not only do I think this is gross (and I don’t just mean that sentence), I think everything about it is unhealthy. It’s bad for democracy. It’s bad for governing. It’s bad for the worshippers and it’s bad for the worshipped. There are few shorter routes to self-destruction than actually believing your own idolaters. “Memento Caesar; es mortalis,” and all that.
(By the way, in the Wednesday G-File, I wrote about the dangers of historical ignorance and the benefits of knowing what came before you. I should have included this fantastic line from Fahrenheit 451: “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’”).
Adulation doesn’t just breed arrogance in politicians, it fosters contempt for the adulators. If you take literally Donald Trump’s claim that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and “his people” would still love him, he’s saying that they are barely even people; they’re political golems, fanatics who have lost the faculty for moral reasoning. If your affection for a mere politician is so unbreakable that your faith can survive watching him commit wanton murder, then I’m sorry to say that you really are deplorable. Now, I don’t actually believe what Trump said is literally true. I can even manage, if I try hard, to credit him with awareness and say he doesn’t believe it, either. Take him seriously, not literally, and all that sophistry.
But I do have a question: Am I supposed to take the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) literally or just seriously?
By now you’ve probably heard about their latest gimmick to bilk donors:
Shane Goldmacher @ShaneGoldmacherThis is quite the prechecked box the NRCC is using on WinRed https://t.co/Urf4CJbUbm
I find this almost awe-inspiring. I feel like Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now marveling at the sheer Nietzschean will of the Viet Cong to chop off the inoculated arms of children. “And I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”
Let’s be clear what the NRCC is saying and who they are saying it to. These are people who are already giving money to the National Republican Congressional Committee. But making a one-time donation isn’t enough. You must agree to give money in perpetuity. You must indenture yourself indefinitely to the cause. And if you don’t, they will tell Donald Trump you’ve joined the enemy camp. It’s one thing for an individual politician, whose narcissism makes conventional politicians seem humble, to believe he is some sort of God-King. That’s not this. This is the institutionalization of reverence as the sole litmus test for whether you’re good or bad.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that (most) of the political hacks running the NRCC believe this nonsense. But it’s very clear that this is what they think of their donors. Or at least the small ones. You know, “the forgotten men.”
The NRCC thinks there are people who actually believe someone is going to march into Trump’s office at Mar-a-Lago and tell him, “Bud Gretnik in Albany has defected to the forces of darkness, because he only made a one-time contribution to the NRCC.”
This is corruption. And not the sort of conventional corruption we associate with bribes or whatever Matt Gaetz’s wingman Joel Greenberg was up to. This is moral and intellectual corruption. And if it actually works, that’s even worse.
Various & Sundry
A note on last Friday’s G-File. In my broadside against Matt Gaetz, I recounted how I saw him with a woman who looked like, well, one of the women he's allegedly been Venmoing. Last weekend, the passage became a source of controversy on Twitter because I was accused—wrongly—of disparaging one of Gaetz’s staffers. Not only was that not my intent, I am confident that the women I had in mind were not staffers. I had been told more than once, and by more than one person, that Gaetz routinely brought dates—or “dates”—to Fox’s DC studio for his appearances. The way he behaved with these women did not suggest to me that they were in fact staffers. And if they were, well, that’s interesting. But it’s not what I meant to convey. Any assumption otherwise is projection or distortion.
All that said, I could have probably been clearer. I can also understand why some readers were offended by the line, even if they didn’t make that erroneous inference. Sometimes I just go on a tear in the G-File. But I have zero tolerance for the bad faith nonsense hurled at me in response to that specific “news”letter, particularly by apologists for Donald Trump and his behavior. I can take to heart sincere criticism about judging women unfairly by how they dress. But pseudo-feminist posturing from apologists for, say, the Access Hollywood tape or the credible allegations of sexual assault against Trump just leaves me cold.
Also, on a much different note: Some of my longtime readers may know that there are few pundits out there who've dedicated more time to worrying about the volcanic menace beneath our feet. Watch this (which was partially inspired by my dire warnings). Forewarned is forearmed.
Canine update: The girls are all doing fine. Zoë in particular is very excited that it’s warm enough to leave the upstairs window open. She spends a lot of her time monitoring the goings on the block like Heimdal guarding the Bifrost. Sometimes passersby are a bit flummoxed when they hear loud barking and then fearsome “aroos”—her barbaric yawp—from above. But that’s the price you pay for canine vigilance. Pippa is easing into middle age well enough. She doesn’t chase tennis balls like she used to, but she insists on carrying one on every walk, just in case the mood strikes. When home, she’s even more of a lapdog.
And now, the weird stuff