Friday, March 25, 2016

America May Never Have Another New Deal. By Jefferson Cowie.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Gold Reserve Act, January 30, 1934. Wikimedia Commons.

America May Never Have Another New Deal. By Jefferson Cowie. The New Republic, March 15, 2016.


Why FDR’s massive reforms probably won’t be repeated.

Spilled across the pages of journals of opinion are demands for a new New Deal, a global New Deal, a New and improved Deal, to reNew the Deal, and even New Deal 2.0. The excitement following Barack Obama’s first election, just after the nation slipped into the abyss of a massive financial crisis, generated further New Deal analogies. Otherwise sober commentators began speaking of “Franklin Delano Obama.” Meanwhile, among union watchers, minor twists of the labor movement seem to generate unrestrained proclamations of the second coming of the union movement that swept across the nation during the Great Depression. Even before the coming of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the New Deal has been metaphor, analogy, political principle, and guiding light for all that must be returned to the progressive side of American politics.

Then, inevitably, comes the shock: the new Gilded Age seems to have a lot more traction in American political culture than did the hope of a new New Deal. The return of nineteenth-century-style plutocracy, crony capitalism, and shocking levels of inequality—disparities that continued even after the excitement of Obama’s presidency—suggest a conscious, confident, and powerful ruling class that has largely separated itself from the concerns of the nation’s working people.

The New Deal and the postwar order it sustained once gave the illusion of permanence—for many, the inevitable domestication of capitalism. Marbled throughout its very creation, however, were a series of social and political fissures that help to explain its ultimate fall in the 1970s and beyond. Beneath the surface of the “fragile juggernaut” of America’s social democratic moment were a series of exceptions to U.S. history that are difficult to imagine being repeated: the massive but temporary transformation of the role of the state; the Faustian exclusion of African American occupations that kept the white South in the Democratic Party; the one-time leap forward in power of organized labor; the single period in American history in which immigration (and thus the politics of division) were closed off; and the temporary eclipse of the politics of culture and religion. Wrapping around all of these issues were the complex ideologies of a Jeffersonian individualism, which were muted but never resolved even as the New Dealers waded cautiously into collective waters.

Today’s politics are a regression to the norm. The fractious polity has chosen deeply rooted quarrels over individual rights, ethnic and racial hostility, immigrant versus native, and crusades over moralism and piety in lieu of a politics of collective economic security.

The Obama administration ultimately offered precious little in terms of the politics of material security. Part of that was President Obama’s unwillingness to make a bold, decisive break from previous decades and make the case to the American people that the state could help build economic security and opportunity for all. The first two years of the Obama administration was a lost opportunity for the American reform tradition—not just on policy grounds but in making the argument that government had a role in helping regular people. Seemingly insecure in his position, the new president appointed economic insiders, many of whom had played a role in creating the crisis, while shying away from larger stimulus packages or initiatives that would halt the decades-long growth in inequality and wage stagnation. Banking, finance, and important industries like auto were saved. Meanwhile, working people continued to inhabit the exact same economy they had in the decades leading up to the crisis.

While Obama might have made more of his moment, I do not believe he could come close to delivering the “next” New Deal. The remarkable differences between the politics of the crisis of 2008 and that of 1929 were too vast. When FDR was inaugurated in March of 1933, the Depression was already three and one-half years old. The mood of the country was a peculiar combination of resignation and depression, anger and calls to action. Focusing his 1932 campaign against incumbent Herbert Hoover’s inept handling of the crisis—ultimately refusing to even meet with Hoover to discuss plans during the four months before he took office—FDR gathered around him a coalition that demanded change. One-quarter of the population was out of work, and there was no unemployment insurance, no social security, no deposit insurance, and what state and private charities existed had either collapsed or were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. For three winters, the nation suffered untold misery, and major industrial cities had populations on the edge of starvation. Homelessness was rampant.

While horrific, the Great Recession of 2008 fell short of the full devastation of the Great Depression. Both the sense of panic and the unemployment rate were only a fraction of what they were in the 1930s. Although Obama entered office not long after the crash, he inherited a bailout engineered by the previous administration, a trillion-dollar deficit, and a set of unpopular wars that proved to be the economic and political opposite of the stimulus of World War II. Because of Obama’s almost militant commitment to economic centrism and his unwillingness to confront the political power of Wall Street, he immediately elected to continue the policies (and even many of the players) from the previous administration. That clouded the contrast with the Republican he succeeded—a dramatic contrast that FDR had used to superb effect. As compared to the era when government hardly existed in the daily lives of regular people, a safety net, under attack since 1981, still did exist in 2008: Social Security, unemployment insurance, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Medicare, and Medicaid all helped cushion the blows of the financial crisis. Yet there was also tremendous political activity, built up since the 1970s, to roll back existing government activity that did not simply serve business’s interests. The Solid South that FDR needed for his legislative successes had turned largely Republican—and militantly so. The “modern” Republicanism of the postwar era, which had made its peace with the New Deal, had already become a distant memory.

All of this is not to say that Obama’s presidency, especially his first two years, was a failure. It was not; it just was not a new New Deal. The failure rests more squarely in analysts’ insistence in using the Depression Era analogy where it was not helpful. He did help dig the country out of the worst economic disaster in eighty years, pulled the United States back from a disastrous foreign policy, and renewed federal effectiveness in health and safety, immigration, and the environment.

The fundamental difference between the two eras was the place of the forgotten man and woman. FDR took office explaining that the “money changers had fled the temple” and that “the measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” The unspoken mantra of the Obama administration, in contrast, was “Save Wall Street first,” a symptom of, not a solution to, what political scientists Hacker and Pierson rightly call “the winner take all society.” In the politics of the recovery after 2008, FDR’s forgotten man remained trapped in the dustbin of history. In the politics of rage, however, he was the folk hero to conservative pundits and talk news shows that constructed a pot-boiling industry exploiting the mythology of the hijacking of the nation by various others—be they cultural elites, secular humanists, immigrants, or blacks. As conservative Fox News commentator Glenn Beck co-opted the discourse of the 1930s, “What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy? What happened to the for- gotten man? The forgotten man is you.”

Caught up in the whirlwind of our present, we overestimate how radically new the rate of change is in the global-digital age. The sense of standing at the abyss of a new world feels unprecedented. Yet when Henry Adams made his prayer to the electric dynamo in 1900, he said that the pace of technological change was so great that if left “his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.” In the creation of electric power, he saw the emergence of a religious faith in the rational, sterile, and technological future, which he regarded as “the break of continuity,” an “abysmal fracture” in everything he understood and trusted. Many would say the same about our own time. This is not to say that history has started over or is the same, but that our challenges are not unprecedented. The arguments made here do not mean that politics is the same as it was generations ago, only that the same issues that are deeply ingrained in American history and culture remain challenges for the past and the future.

Too often, political changes are seen as simple vacillating “cycles” of partisan history. While this might have some explanatory power when it comes to changes in what party is in charge, it fails to explain the underlying currents, coalitions, fractures, and agendas that run for longer periods. What replaces this generation of conservative, individualistic, “free-market” ideology, however, will not be some simple cycle back to a New Deal revival but will most likely be a much more chastened or radically different form of change that takes its cues from well outside of the New Deal paradigm.

To reframe the New Deal order as a great exception, I must emphasize, is not to take a jaundiced view of American history, but rather urges a more thorough and realistic understanding of our recent past in the hope that it can provide a more stable intellectual foundation for discussions of present and future politics. I recognize the contested nature of American politics and social life that have informed a wide variety of dissenting movements that reshape our politics and discourse, but I also understand that the most powerful aspects of American political culture have often proved resistant to these protests. My aim is also not to diminish the vision or values of those dissenters, but rather to resituate and rethink the New Deal Era in the broader terrain of U.S. history. Our founding mythos of individualism has structured our collective life, created much of value, and become so intimately intertwined with the very essence of the nation itself that its limitations become most difficult to perceive and discuss. If this argument is correct, then conservative victories are more understand- able and progressive victories all the more precious.

Despite the New Deal’s many flaws and fissures, the programs of the 1930s represent the best of what the United States can be as a nation—caring, sharing, secure, and occasionally visionary. Few issues seem more important today than the need to bring the concerns of working people out of the shadows and into the political and economic light.

But bad history makes for weak political strategy. While it is useful and hopeful to imagine that the United States can take the issue of collective economic rights as seriously as it did in the 1930s and 1940s, our present politics ought not be misled by freewheeling historical analogies based on an extraordinarily unique period in American history.

Excepted from The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics by Jefferson Cowie. Copyright © 2015 by Princeton University Press.

How the Tribal Warfare of Our Ancestors Explains the Islamic State. By Luke Glowacki.

An ISIS fighter celebrates the conquest of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer.

How the tribal warfare of our ancestors explains the Islamic State. By Luke Glowacki. Washington Post, March 24, 2016.

Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers: Evaluating the Chimpanzee Model. By Richard W. Wrangham and Luke Glowacki. Human Nature, Vol. 23, No. 1 (March 2012).

The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare. By Luke Glowacki and Richard W. Wrangham. Human Nature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 2013).

Warfare and reproductive success in a tribal population. By Luke Glowacki and Richard Wrangham. PNAS, Vol. 112, No. 2 (January 13, 2015).


Luke Glowacki is a postdoctoral fellow in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.

From Brussels to Paris to San Bernardino to Syria, the world appears to be erupting in violence. In this war, the targets can be anyone and anywhere. While attackers take inspiration from Islamic State leadership, in many cases they seem to act on their own initiative. In Syria, the Islamic State carefully stages theatrical acts of barbarity to create terror and awe around the world. Is this a new kind of war?

Only through the short view of modern history does this type of war look new. Public displays of brutality have long been used to terrorize and subdue populations around the globe. The theatrics of the Islamic State pale in comparison to those seen in Europe just a few centuries ago. Burning alive, drawing and quartering, drowning, garroting, disemboweling or breaking on the wheel were all common methods of dispatching criminals, enemies and those who ended up on the wrong side of a theological debate.

Even in the United States, executions were historically public affairs. At one of the last public executions in the United States, in 1936, at least 20,000 people turned up to watch. The city of Owensboro, Ky., built a gallows 25 feet tall. Bars were packed while “merrymakers rollicked all night” and many homes had “hanging parties.” The New York Times reported that when the body fell, “souvenir hunters rushed forward ... and tore the black hood ... off his head before he had been pronounced dead.

Where does this capacity for horrific violence come from? My colleagues and I have been studying the origins of war through systematic analysis of chimpanzees, hunter-gatherers and modern conflicts. We have learned that lethal violence against out-groups is found, in one form or another, at all scales of society, including among our closest relatives, the chimpanzees.

In a pattern that disturbingly resembles human warfare, chimpanzees across East Africa regularly kill members of neighboring groups, including infants and females. Sometimes these attacks cause the extermination of entire communities, a phenomenon akin to genocide in human society. When this happens, the successful group takes over the territory of the defeated group, gaining access to valuable resources.

What about the traditional human societies, such as hunter-gatherers, that best represent our prehistoric past? Using ethnographic and historical documents, my Harvard colleague Richard Wrangham and I found that for most of human history, societies generally carried on some form of war with neighboring groups, even when the people spoke the same language and looked like them. Although there are well-documented cases of hunter-gatherers living peacefully with their neighbors, these are the exception rather than the rule. Such groups usually gave up violence after coming into contact with more powerful neighbors.

Like the terrorist attacks of today, these conflicts generally targeted members of a perceived enemy group, commonly including women and children. The bodies of victims were frequently mutilated with a creativity that the Islamic State would find astonishing. Entire populations and ethnic groups were wiped out. This type of violence stretches deep into our prehistory. Evidence of the first prehistoric massacre dates to more than 13,000 years ago, well before the invention of agriculture.

What explains how people can commit such violent acts? One answer lies in our psychology. Humans are hard-wired to adopt their communities’ norms, and these norms can include rules for how to treat others — including whether to tolerate differences or attack outsiders. When norms provide status, material rewards or membership in a privileged group, they become even more potent.

Cultures are able to hijack this psychology for violent ends by providing status, promises of an afterlife and a sense of meaning. People belonging to communities that advocate violence will adopt norms of violence, whether those communities are tribal societies, neighbors and family, or Facebook friends. Cross-cultural research I’ve conducted shows that the most important predictor of warfare in a society is a cultural system that awards warriors with social benefits.

In East Africa, where groups battle each other for livestock, access to grazing lands and water, conflicts are fought with modern weapons such as AK-47s but occur along tribal borders and resemble the dynamics of ancestral warfare in important ways. Access to resources such as livestock and water can be critical for a group’s survival, and so these cultures award status and livestock to successful warriors. Such warriors are able to marry more wives and have more children than other men. Half a world away, in the Venezuelan Amazon, researchers found that warriors also ended up better off than non-warriors. Over the time scales at which humans and cultures evolve, benefits such as these may have had profound significance in the development of human behavior.

Such incentives help explain how people can be lured into supporting the Islamic State. The group promises its recruits prestige, a sense of community and the possibility of glory — the same types of incentives that cultures across the globe have historically used to motivate youth to take up arms.

The difference between tribal societies and the modern world is that now social media makes it possible for isolated individuals to adopt the values of a movement halfway around the world. A Detroit teenager can be more connected to his Twitter followers in the Levant than to his peers at school. If his peers overseas advocate violent jihad, it is not surprising if he eventually considers it, especially if it comes with promises of fame and glory.

There is nothing historically unique about the type of war the Islamic State is waging, but the diffuseness of contemporary social networks presents a new challenge. What is clear is that countering the Islamic State will require creating cultural values that can compete with the community, glory and meaning the Islamic State offers its recruits. Can we engineer an alternative that makes supporting democratic values and tolerance of others as alluring?