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Lessons for Today: from the New Deal

For a brief introduction to our ideas, here is a set of ten pointers for thinking about a Green New Deal in light of the lessons of the original New Deal of the 1930s. Further, read Richard A Walker’s new essay on how the New Deal provides a solid foundation for thinking about policy today in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic collapse.


by Richard A Walker, Director of the Living New Deal

The greening of America in the face of intense climate change is absolutely necessary. But if such a program is to succeed it needs to be based on some key lessons from the original New Deal. That’s where the Living New Deal can be of use in reminding policy makers of what made the original New Deal capable of revolutionizing American politics, government and civil society.

FDR and the New Dealers never set forth a list of principles because they were responding in the heat of a national emergency and were notoriously pragmatic. Their genius lay in a willingness to experiment on every front, launching dozens of programs to aid farmingindustryhousing, education, workers, elders, and many more. Some of their innovations failed, but most succeeded and some were quite brilliant.

Here are ten principles that explain the success of the New Deal:

  • Create Universal Programs. The New Deal succeeded by initiating universal programs like pensions for all elders, work relief for all unemployed, and investment in all corners of the country. In so doing, it gave income, hope and voice to millions of Americans.
  • Reduce Inequality at Both Ends. Inequality is a plague that drags down the economy, breeds resentment, and rots the foundations of democracy. The New Deal dramatically reduced inequality by heavy taxes on wealth, curbs on speculation and lifting the fortunes of workers through the right to organize, fair wages from contractors and a federal minimum wage.
  • Modernize the Economy. America has suffered from industrial closures, financial speculation and sluggish investment. The New Deal was the first to use fiscal stimulus to spur growth, while pushing modernization through research, investment, and education.
  • Think Big. America’s foundations are crumbling, leaving unsafe water, potholed roads, and failing electric grids. The New Deal made a priority of investing in modern infrastructure and in so doing laid the foundation for prosperity far into the future.
  • Think Small. Not all public works need to be large. The New Deal built every kind of small project that local communities wanted, whether parks, schools or water systems, using the labor of local unemployed workers and jobless youth.
  • Invest in Lagging Places. The gulf between rural areas and big cities has to be addressed, just as the New Deal did through programs such as rural electrification, soil conservation and roads — bringing work, income and hope to forgotten places.
  • Let the People Serve. Americans want to work for a higher purpose than personal gain, and the New Deal gave them the means to rebuild their communities and reconstruct the nation through public works, social service, education and the arts.
  • Restore Faith in Government. Too many people feel that government does not serve them. The New Deal proved otherwise, making FDR the most popular president in US history. It showed that leadership must be based on high morals and personal honor.
  • Build a Greener AmericaConservation was a pillar of the New Deal and a reason for its popularity. It showed that environmental improvement and social justice are the same thing by bringing clean water, free parks and reforestation to every corner of the country.

Combating climate change is a worthy centerpiece of a new New Deal, but it must be part of a program of national reconstruction and renewal for all. This great nation can rise to the challenge if it has the right vision and good leadership. We did it before and we can do it again.

Living New Deal. Still Working for America.