The Living New Deal: The Unsung Benefits of the New Deal for the United States and California



The New Deal was one of the great public experiments in American history. Crafted pragmatically by the Roosevelt administration to fight the Great Depression of the 1930s, it helped the country recover from economic disaster and put millions of desperate people back to work. In the long run, it ratcheted up the role of the federal government in business affairs and injected a unprecedented measure of shared responsibility for the welfare of all people. It also marked a dramatic shift in class power over the workings of U.S. democracy.

The recent crash of the global economy — now referred to as the Great Recession — has revived interest in the efficacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s panoply of experiments in reform and recovery, and renewed debate over what the New Deal actually accomplished. Yet the New Deal’s legacy has been largely forgotten or expunged except for a few highlights recycled in national memory.

Sirens of the Right deny that the New Deal had any beneficial effect at all or even prolonged the agony of the Depression (Powell 2003, Shlaes 2007, Folsom 2008). Such critics are not only wrong, they are busy recycling the hackneyed ideas of FDR’s contemporary enemies. Even postwar liberals, who took Roosevelt’s accomplishments for granted, came to stress the limitations of the New Deal as the enthusiasm of the era gave way to new social movements of the 1960s (Leuchtenburg 1963, Bernstein 1967, Zinn 1990).

So when we speak of a “Living New Deal” we mean two things. The first is recovery of the lost legacy of New Deal programs — a kind of archeological dig into America’s past where so much remains buried from public view. It is testimony to a kind of collective blindness, for the remains of the New Deal are ubiquitous and in plain sight, but are mostly unseen and unappreciated. They live on in tens of thousands of public works still standing, still functioning, and still providing benefits to unwitting millions of Americans over generations. And they live on in public programs such as Social Security and mortgage guarantees that have changed the face of economy, society, and the landscape.

California’s Living New Deal project at the University of California, Berkeley campus is an unprecedented attempt to identify, map, and interpret the physical legacy of the New Deal legacy in one state. That legacy encompasses tens of thousands of mostly unmarked buildings, dams, pipelines, roadways, amphitheaters, and much, much more. Remarkably, most of it is still extant, waiting to be sifted from the surrounding landscape. As the project advances, the picture becomes clearer: beneath the dusty lapse of memory lies a lost civilization built in less than a decade.

The second legacy of the New Deal is the ‘civil’ in that lost civilization. The New Deal era represents, more than anything else — more than economic recovery and long-term investment – the ideals of civil society, collective governance, and social well-being that animated an era. Those ideals have been progressively eroded by the réal politique of the Cold War American empire and the right-wing politics of neoliberalism, with its distaste for government, disdain for the welfare of the many, and advocacy for the enrichment of the few. Roosevelt’s ideals stand opposed to crass power politics and neoliberal doctrine. How distant from our own times his declaration: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

The New Deal and public works had beneficial consequences for the United States that have been ignored for too long. We review the short-term and long-term effects in the two sections to follow. After that, we turn to California, to reinforce the case for the benefits of New Deal programs on the country’s most populous and dynamic state.

Any discussion of the full impact of the New Deal must necessarily be broad, so we can only touch on the highlights, but it should include five major elements: economic recovery and development; employment, income and consumption; public works (infrastructure), housing and cities; education and culture; and government, politics and democracy. All three sections of this paper will be built around those five topics.