Learning From the New Deal—For the Next Recovery

A black-and-white photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt, sitting in a chair and looking at the camera
Associated Press

A few days ago, I was talking with the mayor of a medium-sized “red state” city about how his community was weathering today’s public-health and financial crises. I told him I was mainly curious about his observations, rather than looking for on-the-record quotes. We talked over some details about his town, and then I asked him about prospects for post-pandemic recovery, in the broadest sense: restoring lost jobs, reviving lost businesses, regaining economic momentum, recreating opportunities for people and communities that have been left out. How did the upcoming wave of national and global trends look, from his perspective a long distance from Washington?  

“When I got into politics,” he said, referring to the late 1980s and early 1990s, “it was the era of Jack Kemp for the Republicans, and Bill Clinton for the Democrats. Balance the budget, lean government, and so on.” Twenty-five years ago, in his 1996 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton had memorably declared, “The era of big government is over.”

“All of those things were important, of course,” the mayor said. “But unless I’m misreading things, people now are really ready for a different approach.” That different approach, he said, would be more growth-minded, less constrained by fear of deficits. More Keynes and New Deal, less balanced-budget amendment.

These are not radically novel views to express in early 2021. An excellent, long New York Times Magazine story by Noam Scheiber recently went into this shift, as do frequent reports in The Atlantic and practically every other publication. Personally I’m all in favor of the change, toward a Keynesian/New-New Deal mentality—but my point for the moment is that this mayor volunteered it as the coming trend.

“I have a sense that we’re moving toward an environment where there’s broader support for public spending,” he said. “And that is exactly what cities need. In one word, infrastructure. Roads and bridges and sewers”—and, obviously, electric power systems. “They’re getting old, and they’re expensive to rebuild. My sense is not only that we need it, but that we’re in a political moment where it may be possible.”

That is the drama we’ll be seeing play out on the national stage, as the new administration at the national level either can or cannot enact its new policies. And we’ll see the real test of effectiveness, adaptability, and innovation played out as the policies are implemented city by city, region by region, and state by state.

That too would have resonance with the original New Deal, when the big, sweeping changes that were launched from Washington often drew from earlier experimentation at the local or state level—and took different effects as applied place-by-place. If national-level policy, in the Biden era, is now trying to support economic recovery and renewal of left-behind areas, ideas on how to do that, and the experimentations and implementations on getting it done, are largely going to occur at the local level. (In The Washington Monthly, Daniel Block has a new piece on how a federal renewal effort can best take advantage of the local ability to adapt and innovate.)

As a prelude to more chronicles of this national-local and rural-urban interaction, here are a few leads to reports, ideas, and developments worth note.


Reimagine Appalachia: This is one of the most interesting and ambitious regional-renewal developments now underway. The heart of the idea is to convert America’s stereotypically coal-dependent Ohio River Valley into a center of renewable energy and other forward-looking technologies. You can read an introduction to the project by Bill Lucia at the Route Fifty site here, and see the main site here. A summary of the Reimagine “blueprint” is available on PDF here, and the full blueprint is in a downloadable PDF here.

“Appalachians have a long history of hard work, resilience, and coming together to face enormous challenges,” the blueprint begins. “… Now is the time to put our ingenuity to use and imagine a 21st century economy that works for the people in the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia.” Among the specifics in its proposals, and of more obvious importance after the Texas electric-grid disaster, is a call to modernize the electric and broadband grid of the region, specifically with infrastructure projects involving union jobs:

The Rural Electrification Program, a New Deal innovation, brought electricity to rural areas in Appalachia and the South, where there was no market or financial incentive for private capital to invest ….

It is time for an upgrade: the Rural Grid Modernization Program. Policymakers must invest in a modern rural grid that brings efficient and affordable energy to industries and families. Like the Rural Electrification Program, this program will create tens of thousands of construction, maintenance and utility jobs. Unlike the Rural Electrification Program, this time policymakers must make sure the investment benefits all of us, no matter what we look like or where we live ...

We need a smarter grid, with more efficient and decentralized generation built by union labor, including utility-scale solar farms on remediated brownfields …. [And] High quality, affordable broadband is foundational for a prosperous 21st century Appalachia.

As this passage mentions, in the 1930s the Rural Electrification Administration genuinely transformed much of rural America, by bringing electric power to rural and impoverished places that had never had it before. The imprint was such that, when he was campaigning for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter could remind crowds in the South about the difference the REA had made in his own life, and many of theirs. (Carter spent his boyhood in a farmhouse in rural Georgia with no electric power.) Today’s electric grid needs modernization everywhere; the gap in rural and urban broadband coverage is a rough parallel to the rural-electrification inequalities that the New Deal set out to correct.

When Deb and I can travel again, we look forward to seeing and reporting on some of the Reimagine projects and sites.


Why Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide Might Save Our Lives”: That is the title of an interview by Maddie Oatman, in Mother Jones, with Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cramer is the author of The Politics of Resentment, a book on the way that “rural consciousness” in Wisconsin paved the way first for Scott Walker as governor, and then for Donald Trump. She has a number of practical tips about reviving the New Deal/REA-type spirit of “we’re all in this together.” For instance:

What has worked for me has been to be with people on their own turf, and just stop talking as quickly as possible. And make it clear that you’re there, whether it’s virtually or in person, to listen and not to convince them of anything, not to persuade them to behave a certain way, but basically to say, ‘What are your concerns? What are your challenges? What is life like here?’ It’s so valuable in a lot of ways because it conveys respect.

As Deb and I have noted countless times in this space, the questions to ask definitely do not include: “What do you think about [Trump / Biden / Obama / Limbaugh / Fox News / the mainstream media]?” or any other instantly polarizing question. Ask one of those, and you’ll never hear anything enlightening. Ask “what is life like here,” and it’s like opening a novel.

Katherine Cramer also has advice on how public-health officials could get across word about the pandemic, masks, and vaccines:

I would send the most down-to-earth ambassadors to local talk radio programs. I would, I’m not kidding. Radio has a lot of power in rural America. A lot of times there’s no other local media. And a lot of these folks have jobs for which they can have radio on in the background the whole time. A lot of times these tractor cabs have satellite radio, all the bells and whistles for really good radio reception. Also they drive a lot, whether it’s to shop or, when school is in session, to get their kids to and from school.

These talk radio shows, they’re like little on-air communities where the callers seem to recognize each other, and the host recognizes the callers, and I think they’re really important sources of opinion leadership.

Also from Mother Jones, see “There’s No Such Thing as Trump Country,” by Becca Andrews, about the stereotyping damage it does to lump rural America into that category.


Relocation plans: This report from Uri Berliner of NPR, and this in the Wall Street Journal by Kerry Thompson, look at the ways in which smaller cities (plus some big ones, like Tulsa) are trying to attract residents who might otherwise head to Chicago or Atlanta—and how the dislocations wrought by the pandemic might change rural/urban patterns. Northwest Arkansas is investing more than $1 million in a program called Life Works Here, which offers a $10,000 cash incentive (and other bonuses) for people to move to the region

Resources and guides. Here’s a list of ones to consider:

  • Reopen Main Street,” from the Michigan Main Street organization. This is a library of tips and guides for small businesses that are struggling to survive during the pandemic shutdowns and to recover afterwards.

  • We’re Building a Vaccine Corps.” In an essay for The Conversation, Michael Collins, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, proposes another New Deal-inspired project. In essence this would enlist health-care professionals and students in an emergency effort to get Americans vaccinated. As Collins says:

“As new, potentially more dangerous variants of this coronavirus spread to new regions, widespread vaccination is one of the most powerful and effective ways to slow, if not stop, the virus’s spread.

“Mobilizing large “vaccine corps” could help to meet this urgent need.

“We’re testing that concept right now at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I am the chancellor. So far, 500 of our students and hundreds of community members have volunteered for vaccine corps roles. Our graduate nursing and medical students, under the direction of local public health leaders, have already been vaccinating first responders and vulnerable populations, demonstrating that a vaccine corps can be a force multiplier for resource-strained departments of public health.”

  • Going Home. Steve Grove grew up in Minnesota; went to college in California; worked on the East Coast and overseas (including as an intern at The Atlantic, when it was based in Boston); and then spent a decade at Google. He was head of News and Politics at YouTube, and ran the Google News Lab. Then in 2019 he went back to Minnesota to take what he calls “a government job,” as Commissioner of Employment and Economic Development for the state. Recently Grove wrote an essay for CNN called “I left Google for a government job. Why more people should do the same.” Very much worth reading.