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The New Deal: Implications for 2016, part 1

March 12, 2015

In 1998, the US Navy stationed me at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. The other LT, with whom I shared an office, and I used to have long discussions about history and politics (we were military officers, so it was an occupational hazard). Since the base was named for FDR, a discussion of the New Deal was probably inevitable. We probably didn’t cover any new ground, but we were able to debate and explore some questions at some length during our “down time.”

If we accept as true the assertion that the New Deal was incipient socialism, why did the American voters so overwhelmingly go along with it? I believe this is a question with and simple but true answer that provides some basic insight into our current political situation. The answer also holds implications for the future.

I’ve met some folks who like to derisively toss about the term “low information voters” to describe those who vote for things the speaker or writer opposes. In spite of how it sometimes seems to be used, the term refers not to a lack of intelligence but to a lack of knowledge about politics. Incidentally, in spite of his claims to the contrary, Rush Limbaugh almost certainly did not coin the phrase. Credit properly goes to Samuel Popkin.

So, given that even during the Great Depression, there were people who were aware of the socialistic nature of the New Deal, was its acceptance by so many a sign that the voters of that age, too, were of the low information variety? It may be convenient to think so, but it’s neither necessary nor helpful. There were newspaper articles written at the time that warned of the nature of the New Deal. There were socialists in other countries who lauded praise upon FDR for his actions as “first steps” towards the socialist ideal. So, it’s not entirely true that people were, of necessity, uninformed. Why, then, did they accept the New Deal? It’s really simple. People like to eat. They like for their families to eat. If you and your family are truly struggling to survive, it makes little difference where your food comes from as long as it’s food. There is no need to call the voters of the 1930s low information voters. Call them what they were. They were people who needed the “big 3” of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, food, clothing and shelter. That the New Deal, and Hoover’s late-in-his-presidency intervention, extended the Depression is largely irrelevant in this regard. While it didn’t end the Depression, it made it bearable.

So, people accepted the New Deal because people like to eat. People might prefer a free market with little to no government intrusion, but if it comes down to a choice between a free market that will make things better in a few months to a couple of years and being able to feed a family now, people will opt for knowing their kids can eat. They can’t wait even a few months. It sounds good to say “I want my kids to grow up learning that a free market is more likely to produce freedom and prosperity than socialism can ever hope to provide.” I want that for my kids. It sounds horrible to say “I’ll let my kids starve before I’ll accept food from some sort of socialistic program.” I’m reminded of Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, in the movie “The Patriot.” When when he initially refuses to join in the coming revolution because he is a widower with several children, someone suggests he has abandoned his principles. His response is important to remember when we consider the New Deal: “I’m a parent. I don’t have the luxury of principles.”

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