Cohen: Well, a lot of people were brought out of dire straits by the New Deal. There still was plenty of inequality. And I would remind us that there was tremendous racial inequality in terms of access so that even an agency like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which is one of the earliest New Deal programs. It began in the north with integrated camps. But before too long, they were segregated.
So we have to remind ourselves that, although there was progress made, there were compromises that Roosevelt made in order to get many of these programs through. But what was so important about the New Deal is that it introduced into people’s lives the possibilities of what a federal government could do.
Wells: That’s interesting, especially now, because it feels like we’re in a time where the federal government is sort of abdicating its power in a way and throwing things back to states in terms of the coronavirus response. When we talk about the New Deal, I’m curious about what were the political circumstances that led to people being up for big reforms. A lot of people say we’re so gridlocked now and we have such deep divisions that there’s just no way that big reforms could happen. Was the government significantly more functional during that time?
Cohen: Well, that’s an important point. I think, first of all, remember that this is taking place over a long period of time. Roosevelt was president for 12 years. It is very gradual. And some of those things worked and some of them didn’t. And when they didn’t work, they threw them out and tried something else. So we shouldn’t assume that there was a blueprint that they put into action. They experimented. And that’s probably one of the most important lessons to take from the New Deal, that there was not sort of some ideological commitment, but rather a willingness to be improvisational.
Wells: Does that mean that Roosevelt was a capable and personal leader who knew how to connect? He had a way to build consensus. Are those things required for this kind of experimentation and reform to take place? And do we have them now?
Cohen: Well, Franklin Roosevelt was truly an amazing leader, I think. He had had no adversity himself, which I think bred compassion in him. But he was very personable. He was very clever, very articulate. And he was willing to compromise. You know, it’s hard to swallow some of the compromises that he made.
Wells: Right, some of the compromises increased or solidified a lot of racial injustice, right?
Cohen: Yes, exactly. You know, so that agricultural domestic workers were left out of Social Security and out of the Fair Labor Standards Act. There was a lot of popular support for anti-lynching legislation. He felt he couldn’t go there and still hold on to the support of southern Democrats, which he knew he needed for what he felt was the broader good.