FDR and the New Dealers were idealists, but their genius lay in a hard-nosed pragmatism and a willingness to experiment. The Green New Deal is still mostly a set of potential policies and hoped-for outcomes. To succeed, it needs to take seriously ten lessons from the first New Deal.
- Advance universal programs. The New Deal succeeded by serving a wide range of Americans, rather than targeted populations. All seniors would receive pensions, all jobless qualified for work relief, and all localities were eligible for public works.
- Fix income inequality. The New Deal dramatically reduced income inequality by taxing high incomes and corporate profits, curbing financial speculation and lifting the fortunes of workers through the right to organize, fair labor practices and federal minimum wage. As a result, the postwar era was the most equal in American history.
Create good jobs.The New Dealers understood that Americans do not want handouts; they want jobs that provide dignity and a living wage. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired 3.5 million young men to build parks, plant trees and fight wildfires in exchange for family income and education. The Works Progress Administration trained and employed 9 million workers in useful jobs in their communities.
- Fiscal stimulus pays. New Dealers rejected the conventional wisdom about balanced budgets that had hamstrung the Hoover Administration and used fiscal stimulus to spur economic recovery. The higher tax revenues from growth meant the deficit stayed within reason.
- Modernize the nation. The Public Works Administration and other agencies invested in big infrastructure, such as airports, dams and bridges, laying the foundation for the nation’s future prosperity. Most of these New Deal public works are still in use today.
- Invest in lagging places. The New Deal closed the gulf between urban and rural America by aiding rural areas through programs such as the Farm Credit Administration, Soil Conservation Service and Rural Electrification Administration. It improved the lives of people everywhere through new schools, hospitals, parks, housing and more.
Involve local communities. The New Deal worked with state and local governments to build hundreds of thousands of small-scale projects—parks, sidewalks, waterworks, etc. —requested by local officials. These brought visible benefits to local communities across the country and made Roosevelt the most popular president in U.S. history.
- Focus on the public good.The New Dealers sought the public good over private profit and put public careers ahead of personal gain. This spirit of public service pervaded a nation previously in despair.
- Restore faith in government. The New Deal rekindled Americans’ belief in government by programs that aided ordinary people and by the example set by the New Dealers. Corruption was extremely rare because it simply was not tolerated.
Go green. Conservation and environmental restoration were central to the New Deal’s agenda. It provided clean drinking water and new sewers; built thousands of parks and wildlife refuges; and planted billions of trees. Restoring the land and the people were two sides of the same coin.
While the centerpiece of the Green New Deal is climate change, its advocates understand the need to address inequality, jobs and infrastructure. They now need to come up with dozens of concrete ways to attack the many problems facing the nation, as did the New Deal.
Meanwhile, critics calling the Green New Deal pie-in-the-sky need to learn the greatest lesson of the New Deal. A climate program that does not address the needs of ordinary Americans is not only unjust, it is doomed to failure. Only a sweeping call to rebuild the country while serving the people will galvanize Americans to work for their common betterment.
A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post.