From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age:
The New Deal in Context

FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932

FDR and farmers
FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932
Photo Credit: Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, arguably one of the forgotten eras of U.S. history, grew out of earlier, also largely erased reform efforts. The Grange Movement’s roots are in the mid-19th century when, after the Civil War, Midwestern farmers organized to oppose the monopolistic railroads and grain elevator companies that charged exorbitant rates to move their crops to market. At its peak, the Grange Movement had over 850,000 members in several states.

By the late 1800s the Farmers’ Alliance, another populist movement, fought back the robber barons. It grew to three million members, spreading the gospel of farmers’ co-ops, conservation, and mutual aid through a network of some 40,000 lecturers and organizers. The movement eventually led to the Populist Party, which garnered well over a million votes in the national election in 1892. Its platform included nationalizing the telegraph, telephone, and railroads, a graduated income tax, and “postal savings banks,” a solution often cited for today’s struggling postal service.

As the Farmers Alliance waned at the end of the century, muckrakers exposed Gilded Age injustice and corruption. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency as a “trustbuster.” His successor, Woodrow Wilson, oversaw passage of the progressive income tax.

Following World War I, Wall Street went off the speculative deep end, bringing on the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal revived many ideas of the early Progressives, including those of FDR’s cousin, Teddy.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Labor’s gains in the 1930s came out of FDR’s push for legislation requiring collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to organize, providing a counterbalance to corporate power. Empowered, unions pressed for the progressive reforms that raised the standard of living for the middle class and provided some economic security to the elderly, disabled, and poor.  Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Grange members, and supported creation of a cooperative farm loan association to limit foreclosures. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944 posited that all humans have inherent economic rights.

The country’s turn to the Right in the 1980s and neoliberal austerity ever since gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the needy. Free market economics unleashed deregulation and moved to privatize the public sector. Union membership has fallen precipitously—thanks in part to so-called “right-to-work-laws.”

Graduation Day protest

Student Debt
Graduation Day protest
Photo Credit: Nation of Change

There are signs of resistance. The American Postal Workers Union has formed Grand Alliance Save our Public Postal Service. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local activists, and city governments have sued the U.S. Postal Service over the sale of historic post offices to private developers. And millions of young people saddled with student debt are beginning to demand relief.

As history has shown, these are how reform movements start, and how Americans can come together again to address the biggest wealth gap since the Gilded Age.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

Federal Appeals Court Restricts Workers’ Rights


One of the pillars of the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) gave American workers the right to organize in most workplaces. Prior to 1935 employers had free rein to prevent workers from forming unions. Bitterly opposed by the Republican Party and Big Business, the new law set off an explosion of unionization in the 1930s and 40s that, in turn, formed the basis for the postwar prosperity of working families—also known as the Great American Middle Class.

Under the NLRA it became illegal for an employer to punish organizers for trying to form a union (though they often do).  In unionized workplaces, the law requires employers and unions to bargain in good faith (though they often do not). Yet, while workers have these rights under the NLRA, under a recent court ruling, they don’t have the right to be informed of them.

Recently, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals knocked down an attempt by the National Labor Relations Board to rectify a long-standing loophole in the original law. The Board had issued a new ruling that would require employees’ rights to be posted in the workplace, just as minimum wage, health, and safety rules must be posted.

The court, considered the most important in the country after the Supreme Court because it decides cases on government policy and regulation, thought otherwise. Bowing to powerful interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it overturned the Board’s ruling.  Apparently such posters would interfere with the smooth operation of business.

The court’s stance is no surprise, given that its judges are largely holdovers of the Bush Administration. Thanks to Republicans obstructing President Obama’s judicial appointments in the U.S. Senate, only one new judge has been approved to serve on the D.C. Court despite several vacancies.

This is just the latest in a series of attacks on the NLRA going back to the Reagan Administration. Conservative appointments and court rulings have hamstrung the NLRB, which itself is weakened from vacancies, further undermining the labor movement. Presently, the Board does not even have a quorum because of Republican and business opposition, and a failed effort by Obama to do an end-run around the Senate by making recess appointments.

Download NLRA Employee Rights PDF

Richard A Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.