In an attempt to cure his paralysis, a 42-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt began to visit Warm Springs, Georgia in the mid-1920s, soaking his weak legs in the town’s soothing mineral waters. It was here that Roosevelt — who in less than a decade would become President of the United States — would see a part of the nation new to him.
And it was miserable.
“He saw the reality. He had never seen poverty like that. He saw a family of eight living in a tar paper shack, farming on depleted soil,” Paul Sparrow, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, said in an interview.
Roosevelt never could cure his late-onset paralysis. But FDR would heal many of the economic plagues of the nation with a massive government-funded work mobilization: the New Deal. By the early 1930s, the woes Roosevelt saw in the South had become pervasive after the Great Depression set in. “People were starving in the streets,” said Sparrow.
Some eight decades later, grandiose visions of the New Deal have resurfaced with the introduction of the Green New Deal. It’s an emerging energy infrastructure plan to combat a disrupted climate that scientists around the globe have found is unmistakably the consequence of amassing carbon in the atmosphere — now likely at its highest levels in some 15 million years. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and veteran lawmaker Senator Ed Marky announced a visionary framework for the Green New Deal last week, which states in no uncertain terms that they seek an economic mobilization on “a scale not seen since WWII and the New Deal.”
“We have acted on the scale before, and must do so again,” Marky said on a lawn in front of the Capitol Building on Feb. 7.
For context, the Federal Reserve estimated that the cost of the New Deal was the equivalent of around $653 billion in today's dollar value. But it was an immense chunk of the early 1930s economy, accounting for 40 percent of the nation's output.
“Our first step is to define the problem and to define the scope of the solution,” added Ocasio-Cortez, who emphasized that the formal resolution is just the inception of the climate legislation and is intentionally short on details.
The scope — if such a program ever truly comes to match the scale of the original New Deal — wouldn’t just put millions of Americans to work, but could very well transform the mood, culture, and spirit of the United States in the 21st century. The Green New Deal would likely become a topic taught in every 10th grade U.S. history class, just like the New Deal. And if it worked, it almost certainly wouldn’t be forgotten by Americans afforded the chance to live in a relatively stable climate (other nations would need to slash emissions too) and the many who might be economically uplifted by the socioeconomic mobilization.
After the successful New Deal mobilization, FDR remained a venerated figure in the South, decades after the depression ended. Nick Taylor, a New Deal historian raised in North Carolina, told me that he’s spent a lot of time in old Southern homes, and many of them have two pictures in common hanging on the walls.
“One would be of FDR,” said Taylor. “And the other would be of Jesus Christ.”
Animation showing the evolution of global mean temperature vs. carbon dioxide concentration since 1850, now updated to include 2018.
Though 2018 is a bit cooler than recent years, it still is one of the warmest years ever and lies close to the trend line of #GlobalWarming. pic.twitter.com/eK7zvUqWyT
— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) February 10, 2019
A national makeover
More than 8.5 million people were put to work during the New Deal, at a time when one in four working Americans were jobless. Many of the biggest projects stand tall today and power vast swaths of the nation, like the sprawling Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). But there were thousands more projects — like countless schools and hospitals.
“There are tens of thousands of projects that are still being actively used by Americans that were built during the 1930s,” said Sparrow.
"It was totally transformative," Gray Brechin, a historical geographer and New Deal scholar, said in an interview.
A critical point is that the New Deal wasn’t just paying people to build things. People were doing fulfilling, nation-improving work. They planted three billion trees. They built many of the nation’s bridges and roads. Today, we drive under their tunnels and walk through their parks.
“Those men at the end of their lives would take their families back to show them what they had done — because they were quite proud of it,” said Brechin.
The New Deal promoted burgeoning technologies of the day. “It introduced the age of aviation to the United States,” said Taylor. New York City didn’t have an airport, so the New Deal built LaGuardia and airports around the country.
The mobilization also brought electricity to a large swath of the nation.
“It radically transformed the South,” said Sparrow. “It brought cheap electricity to people. It raised the living standards for millions of rural Americans.”
The New Deal built my elementary school. The same classrooms are still brimming with students today. In fact, the New Deal resurrected schools all over Los Angeles, after a severe earthquake devastated the city just days after FDR was sworn in as president.
Today’s Green New Deal seeks similar technological and societal transformations, though in a way that will, by 2050, result in net-zero carbon emissions. This almost certainly means ramping up the use of solar and wind, carbon-free energy (like nuclear), weaning our transportation from fossil fossils, and sucking carbon out of the air. To work, it will require a decarbonized economy that will necessitate a big, interconnected transformation in all sectors of society.
FDR successfully transformed American society in the 1930s. But, like today, not everyone was pleased with the idea of a giant government investment in the nation. Especially the rich, who saw higher taxes.
“They hated that man [FDR],” said Brechin.
The fight for a deal
The history of the United States is intertwined with the history of an argument: How much control should the federal government have?
“This argument goes back to the very founding of the republic,” said Sparrow. “However you feel about today’s political environment, this is nothing new. We’re going to continue to have this fight forever.”
And in the case of the New Deal and Green New Deal, it boils down to big government programs building big things. Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, while benefiting millions, roiled those that ostensibly hoped matters would, sooner or later, correct themselves.
“They [the wealthy] didn’t want interference in business at all, despite what happened in 1929,” said Brechin, referring to the “Great Crash” of the stock market.
Already, vicious and mocking words have been directed at the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez, and Democrats generally.
U.S. Senator Tom Cotton compared the Green New Deal to a socialist takeover that would lead to The Gestapo (Nazi Germany’s secret police). President Donald Trump has promoted the myth that the Green New Deal wants to eliminate airplanes and cows. Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson has spread the same talking point using intentionally divisive language.
“Climate change is not a market glitch to be fixed through pricing... but part of a dire social crisis.”
The GND Resolution’s purpose is to *define the scope* of a climate solution.
Now, from investing into battery tech to fixing water pipes, we can draft projects in the plan. https://t.co/q9faiP2dUA
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 10, 2019
Although FDR and Green New Deal politicians both faced opponents, Roosevelt had an edge: The economic crisis was apparent to most everyone — and it hurt. But the consequences of climate change — while increasingly felt by more and more Americans — aren't yet hitting the nation like starvation. Instead, climate change is expected, with high degrees of confidence, to grow increasingly grim as the years progress.
FDR’s predecessor President Herbert Hoover, however, had unquestionably left Americans in dire straits, leaving Roosevelt with an opportunity for dramatic reform in 1933.
“Not only was Hoover completely discredited — so was his party,” said Brechin. “He [FDR] had a rubber stamp.”
The New Deal that ensued is not a simple story. “There were dozens of programs over seven years and as many failures as successes,” noted Sparrow. “The New Deal was hundreds of pieces of specific legislation.”
But the New Deal had one other, invaluable advantage: FDR himself.
While there’s no question that Ocasio-Cortez has rapidly developed into an influential political player and has ignited a national conversation about climate policy, the 29-year-old isn't even eligible to be on a presidential ballot anytime soon. But the Green New Deal will need the power, influence, and support of the executive branch. Already, a majority of mainstream Democratic presidential candidates have backed the idea of a Green New Deal — but will ever they shepherd the cause like FDR’s unwavering support of the New Deal?
Every week, FDR spoke to the nation using a new technology, the radio.
The first question I was asked in Iowa was about #GreenNewDeal. The hard truth is climate change has imperiled our planet—it’s going to take bold action now to save it including dramatic investment in green energy that will create the jobs of the future. We can do this. pic.twitter.com/zdU26AjcNN
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) February 8, 2019
“People would gather around the radio in shops and elsewhere,” said Taylor, noting that most people still didn’t have the luxury of their own radios.
Over the airwaves, FDR wouldn’t just promote the New Deal, but comfort the nation and assuage American’s anxieties.
“The common people, they loved that man, literally loved him,” said Brechin. “People saw him as literally the father of the country. He was the exact opposite of Trump, who projects a vindictive father.”
FDR ushered in, and enabled, a spirit that might seem odd, or foreign, today. It went beyond grand investments of billions of dollars. It was a (largely) unified effort to remedy a growing crisis. And as historians agree, much of the United States’ 20th century success was built on the back of the New Deal, and the life it breathed into the nation.
A Green New Deal, then, isn’t just asking for historic congressional battles. It’s asking for a new Zeitgeist. It’s asking to look ahead. Far ahead.
“The New Deal Americans believed in planned for a better future,” said Brechin.