When Big Government Saved America

At the time FDR’s New Deal saved America, people came to believe in the power and benefit of the government. But what happened to that belief? Historian Mason B. Williams on recapturing the spirit of those days.


The recent bridge collapse along I-5 north of Seattle was in some ways a freak accident, yet to many Americans it seemed emblematic of a public sector in crisis. As gridlock and dysfunction reign, the U.S. government seems to lack the capacity to adopt even the most popular and necessary measures—even to maintain the physical structures upon which American life depends. In the meantime, this crisis of the public sector is mirrored by—and fed by—Americans’ lack of faith in public institutions.

Eighty years ago this month, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first “hundred days” wound to a close amid the Great Depression, the United States was in far worse shape than it is today. And yet, then, the American government responded to economic catastrophe not by treating public services as extravagances to be traded off in the name of “belt tightening,” but rather by expanding them dramatically. They not only built what by some measures was the most generous social-spending regime in the world, but also a political culture in which public institutions were trusted and esteemed far more than they are today.

How did America’s political leaders manage something so large? And why did the public accept—even acclaim, and indeed help to make—this vast expansion of “government’s role” in American life?

The story of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal really begins in the Progressive Era, when reformers and radicals driven by a conception of the interdependence of modern society envisioned new ways of deploying government in the interest of social progress. When he entered the White House in 1933, FDR not only inherited Progressive Era ideas and policy approaches; he also encountered a political situation remarkably favorable to the kind of bold, vigorous government response he envisioned. Three years of economic misery had discredited not only Herbert Hoover and his Republican Party, but also received wisdoms about the proper scale and scope of government. The Democratic Party, which had emerged a generation earlier as a champion of government intervention in the economy, had amassed huge congressional majorities. Not least important, a robust (though partial) economic recovery began almost exactly when FDR took office, endowing him and his party with extraordinary popular support.

But things did not go just as Roosevelt hoped. Business activity revived but reemployment lagged; policymakers confronted what would today be called a “jobless recovery.” Facing intense popular pressure for a government solution to this jobs crisis, Roosevelt and the Congress opted to pay unemployed people to work on public projects proposed and to a large degree carried out by local governments. Supporting innovative local projects became in many ways the core of the New Deal program.

The nation’s largest locality, New York City, became emblematic of the New Dealers’ resolve to build on the community level. With the national government’s support, New York built the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels, the West Side Highway, FDR Drive, and LaGuardia Airport. It also created two new college campuses, launched a program of working-class public housing, opened 11 monumental swimming pools and hundreds of neighborhood playgrounds, and opened and staffed neighborhood health clinics, which helped reduce infant mortality in the city substantially.

By linking people to their governments in new ways, projects of this sort helped change popular attitudes toward government. Many activists and ordinary citizens saw their own ideas and values reflected in the New Dealers’ efforts to build wealth in local communities—indeed, many were active in pushing for those measures. With the opening of local parks, health clinics, and affordable housing, many citizens came to view government as a potentially valuable resource in their own efforts to build their families and their communities.

The New Deal also reshaped what citizens thought their governments could do. For decades, working people had demanded that government serve as employers of last resort so that they could continue to feed their families and pay their debts when jobs were scarce. Now the New Deal had shown that the federal government could put 4 million unemployed Americans to work in a matter of weeks—and indeed, the claim that government should do so had been validated by the president himself. For years, advocates for the immigrant tenement districts of New York had clamored for more adequate recreational facilities; now their demands had been answered in the form of massive, modern swimming pools and neighborhood playgrounds—and public officials spoke of these facilities as a “right” of urban citizenship. In short, the New Deal encouraged a more active democratic citizenship by demonstrating that popular demands could produce tangible results.

Today, the story of the New Deal seems almost foreign. Now, bridges are not raised; they collapse. The vast ambitions of the 1930s are gone: not since the Great Society declared war on poverty and provided health insurance to all over the age of 65 has the United States government attempted to solve a domestic social problem on the scale of the mass unemployment of the 1930s. Although the polling-place apathy of the 1990s has been reversed somewhat in recent years, Americans’ faith in public institutions has rarely been lower.

But it is precisely this odd, “foreign” quality of the New Deal story that should capture our attention. For the New Deal demonstrates that there is nothing “natural” about our own political moment; not that long ago, things were very different indeed. Our contemporary political (dis)tempers do not reflect some innate national distrust of government, nor is public incapacity solely a product of inherent limitations on the efficacy of government action (though these exist, to be sure). Rather, they are a product of historically specific efforts to undo what the New Deal produced. Only by understanding more fully the history of those turbulent times do we gain perspective on our own.