History has a way of crashing into itself on occasion. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s unrepentant praise for a white supremacist segregationist last week — which, according to the presidential candidate, was taken out of context and is not actually a reflection of his hidebound mid-20th century worldview so stop saying that — caused a multi-car pileup in history’s HOV lane. Untangling the wreckage informs us on not just where we’ve been, but where we could be headed in 2020.
Biden’s kind words for Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Mississippi), one of the most ruthless defenders of Jim Crow in the South, ripped the scab off some uncomfortable truths regarding the Democratic Party, the New Deal, and institutional racism. Biden summoned Eastland into his argument as a means of praising a time when lawmakers could “get things done” even with terrible people in a bygone era of “civility.”
As much as it was just and proper to confront Biden’s serial talent for missing the point, particularly when he summoned the racist slur “boy” with no apparent sense of its vicious context, the fact remains that the Democratic Party mollified its segregationist wing in order to pass the New Deal. By doing so, they deliberately left Black citizens out of the equation, even as they enacted new laws and regulations that remade the U.S. economic and political landscape.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambitious program, enacted in pieces over several years to end the long slog of the Great Depression, changed the way the country lived and worked. Minimum wage and child labor laws, protections for bank customers and new muscle for unions, strong stock market regulations, and new infrastructure for plumbing and electricity remade the nation from coast to coast and border to border. The establishment of Social Security meant that for many people, growing old did not have to mean growing destitute, and laid the groundwork for Medicare and Medicaid, two of the most successful government programs ever put forth.
In passing his slate of reforms, however, Roosevelt placated the segregationist wing of his party, represented toward the end of his long administration by men like James Eastland. Many Black workers were denied the benefits of Social Security and the bargaining power provided by the National Labor Relations Act so Southern oligarchs could maintain their pool of cheap Black laborers. Black people were likewise denied government mortgage subsidies granted by the Federal Housing Act, also at the behest of those same Southern oligarchs.
“The south as a whole was the region that received the greatest economic benefit from the New Deal,” writes Richard Lyon for The Huffington Post. “It provided a transfer of wealth from the northern industrial states to the south. However, it was overwhelmingly white southerners who benefited from the operation. The force of Jim Crow was able to exert control and influence all along the way. The results of those efforts still have impact on the lives and wealth of African Americans today.”
In this, the New Deal resembled the Enlightenment, a social and political movement centered around freedom and equality which became the framework for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Like Roosevelt’s revolution, the Enlightenment had no interest in the rights of people of color, nor did it have any use for the rights of women or the poor.
“Race as we understand it — a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination — is a product of the Enlightenment,” writes Jamelle Bouie for Slate. “Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery.”
The Enlightenment emerged as an answer to centuries of religious and governmental prosecution. The New Deal arose from the ashes of the first iteration of institutional American capitalism. In both instances, its adherents chose to follow a bold new path rather than adhere to the familiar course of a visibly failed ideology. Yet for all their great advances, both the New Deal and the Enlightenment left millions of people behind.
We stand today at a similarly monumental crossroads. The presidency of Donald Trump, perhaps more so than any administration since Lyndon Johnson, has brought the nation face to face with disquieting facts some would like to ignore in favor of maintaining a lucrative (for the few) status quo.
Modern American capitalism is failing on an economic and social level, and is largely responsible for the environmental damage that has given birth to climate disruption. Institutional racism, misogyny, heterosexism, transphobia and ableism shield the intolerance of a white male minority from the needs and demands of the majority. The ongoing Republican assault on essential government assistance programs and even the basic nature of science place the gains of the New Deal and the Enlightenment in peril. Furthermore, we are all in peril due to the greedy failings of the current system, because the ocean is coming.
Voters mired in the Great Depression were bold enough to choose a different path, and in doing so, made strides toward the Enlightenment ethos of “all men are created equal.” They took a chance on wholesale change and transformed a nation, yet that work remains incomplete and unfulfilled for many.
Can we, knowing what we know and with all the problems we face due to a calcified, racist status quo, dare to be any less bold? This moment does not call for timidity, “centrism” or a safe course that will inexorably lead to more of the same.
The Enlightenment and the New Deal were tremendous steps forward in the fight for equality, but the glaring gaps built into those reforms remain with us today. The 2020 election provides us with a rare opportunity to fulfill the promise of those ideals. This time, finally, we can make the choice to establish policies in which all people are indeed equal under the law.