Monday, May 5, 2014

New Deal History: How should we do it?

(A WPA-built bridge in Allegany County, Maryland. In telling the history of this bridge, should our description be non-confrontational, e.g., "one of 124,000 WPA bridge projects," or should we actively compare the great infrastructure investments of the New Deal to the dwindling investments of today? See, e.g., "U.S. infrastructure spending has plummeted since 2008." Photo by Brent McKee, 2011).
Some types of history have--usually--a low degree of politics involved, for example, the history of toys. Other types of history might have a high degree of politics, but the issues are mostly resolved, for example, the history of women's suffrage (most people agree that women have the right to vote and hold office).

And then there's New Deal history.

It is nearly impossible to do New Deal history and avoid politics because the mere mention of the "New Deal" raises the political ire of those who fear bogeyman "big government" and/or those do not believe in taxation for the general welfare. The New Deal is in direct conflict with today's political right, which, for example, blocked legislation that would have created a CCC-type program for unemployed veterans.

 (The Post Office in Oakland, Maryland, built in 1940. In doing New Deal history, is it okay to note the nice public architecture of yesteryear, and then opine on the bland public architecture of today, or should we avoid comparisons? Photo by Brent McKee, 2012.)

How we do New Deal history is an important question, because people who practice history often rely on public funds and/or charitable contributions. With respect to the latter, there are probably many charitable foundations who would refuse (or have refused) to award grants for anyone or anything pertaining to the New Deal, due to the progressive nature of many New Deal policies and programs. I have worked in the  charitable foundation field, and I can tell you that politics definitely plays a role in the grant-making process. Also, non-profits have to be careful how they behave politically as there are limits imposed by the IRS in return for tax-exempt status (although these limits have been pushed beyond reason by some non-profit groups today. See, e.g., "Common Cause accuses conservative group of lobbying, seeks IRS probe"). 

Of course, each of us must make our own decision as to how we practice New Deal history--and there is certainly room and reason for different methods (and it would be pretty boring if we all thought and behaved exactly alike). As for me, I like the following statement from public historian Justin Champion, from the University of London:

"Good history is history that is honest - it is also history that is critical, informed, engaged and committed. It should expose tyranny, celebrate achievement, condemn crimes, explain prejudice, describe sacrifice, honour victims, commemorate the dead, but most importantly, provoke debate. Such history will try to preserve what is slipping from our grasp, and aim to recover what has been lost" (Justin Champion, "What Are Historians For?" Historical Research, vol. 81, no. 211, February 2008, p. 168).

(A CCC statue in Maryland's Gambrill State Park. In practicing New Deal history, is it okay to criticize our current political leaders for not creating a new CCC when, for example, youth unemployment is high and the National Park system has a maintenance backlog of $11 billion? Or, should we just try to preserve and commemorate New Deal history, and leave modern policy debates alone? Photo by Brent McKee, 2011.)


  1. You raise an excellent question, Brent, and one that's especially important because, as you point out, conservatives have been trying to repudiate and roll back the New Deal ever since it passed. Now, as we slip back into pre-New Deal levels of inequality and witness efforts in the Republican-led House to stigmatize the poor as lazy and undeserving, I believe New Deal history must stress the parallels between the conditions that led FDR to create the New Deal and the conditions of today that mirror those of 80 years ago.