People-Powered Movements Helped Our Grandfathers Push Through the New Deal. They Can Save Those Programs Now.
Ninety years ago, the New Deal rescued America. Since then, the transformation it brought has only grown. No longer a passive bystander to the whims of huge corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy, government now protects and empowers hard working Americans. It provides financial security to struggling families and to the old. It ensures, among other things, that the air we breathe and the water we drink are clean, that people earn decent wages and work in safe conditions, that education and health care are available to all, and that travel by land and air is safe.
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Ninety years ago, the New Deal rescued America. Since then, the transformation it brought has only grown. No longer a passive bystander to the whims of huge corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy, government now protects and empowers hardworking Americans. It provides financial security to struggling families and to the old. It ensures, among other things, that the air we breathe and the water we drink are clean, that people earn decent wages and work in safe conditions, that education and health care are available to all, and that travel by land and air is safe.
But the New Deal is under assault as never before, and philanthropy must step up to save it.
By one vote, House Republicans squeaked through a budget demanding an unprecedented $3.6 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. That means reductions of up to 60 percent to programs such as food stamps, environmental protection, health care, child care, education, and possibly Social Security and Medicare. It also means cutting funding that allows the Internal Revenue Service to go after wealthy tax cheats, which alone would add $114 billion to the deficit.
GOP leaders are threatening to default on the nation’s debt and cause a global recession if they don’t get what they want.
Adding to the pressure, numerous Republicans have proposed destroying the guarantee of Social Security, although some are backpedaling in the face of public outrage. Former Vice President Mike Pence, a putative 2024 presidential candidate, wants to “replace” the New Deal with something “better.” To him, that translates into privatization of Social Security — workers playing the stock market instead of receiving the guaranteed retirement security they’ve paid into their entire working lives.
In the face of this tempest, the Supreme Court is threatening chaos. The court has accepted a case involving the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last fall that the nation’s major consumer financial protection agency is unconstitutional. If the court upholds that decision against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it could imperil every federal agency that regulates the nation’s financial health, including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and potentially Social Security and Medicare.
Right-wing hostility to any government program that supports everyday Americans is nothing new. In his new book “Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made,” historian Derek Leebaert shows how the creation of programs such as Social Security by our grandfathers — President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his vice president and secretary of agriculture and commerce, Henry A. Wallace — along with the other key New Dealers profiled in the book, were met with fierce cries of “socialism” from corporate lobbyists. That is just one of many “uncomfortable parallels” Leebaert notes between then and now.
But today’s peril is far broader and more imminent.
So what’s the role for philanthropy? Certainly not to accept calamity and cough up trillions of dollars to take over the indispensable government programs now on the chopping block.
Grant makers must instead heed the wisdom of Frederick Douglass, who said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And they should consider FDR’s invitation to labor leaders at the beginning of the New Deal when they begged him for help. He agreed with all their demands but asked them to do one thing: “Go out and make me do it.”
The result was that labor, the most powerful movement in America at the time, succeeded in pushing for enactment of massive reforms for a work force crushed by the Depression and unemployment. Most of these reforms live on today. They include the right to organize in unions, minimum wage and maximum workweek hours, unemployment insurance, workplace safety, the enactment of child labor laws, multiple programs to put people to work, including building roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, and the protections guaranteed by Social Security.
A modern-day version is the movement behind the Green New Deal. The passionate efforts of millions of young people, organized in groups such as the Sunrise Movement, gave the Biden administration and Congress the fuel they needed to enact major climate legislation. This included green investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act’s massive funding to fight climate change — the largest such investment in U.S. history. Their work also led to a proposal, dropped from the legislation at the last minute, to create millions of green jobs through a Civilian Climate Corps, which was explicitly modeled on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
Movements today are mobilizing around multiple other crises — voting rights and democracy, racial justice and equity, women’s reproductive freedom and the underlying right to privacy itself. They are also fighting to make corporations and the super-wealthy pay their fair share in taxes. With greater philanthropic support, social movements like these can provide the unyielding and impassioned voices politicians need to go out and make them do it.
The constant right-wing quest to cut taxes for the rich and corporations and the outright refusal to consider any type of revenue increase are the greatest drivers of the national debt and an absurd contradiction to the tax rates that fueled America’s explosive prosperity in the years after World War II. Consider that the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was 50 percent through most of the Reagan years and a whopping 91 percent through the entire Eisenhower administration — compared with just 37 percent today.
Philanthropy’s most critical role during these perilous times is to generously fund the people-powered movements leading crusades for change. When people organize to make powerful demands, power must ultimately concede. Funding research, scholarship, and litigation are important, and direct service provision is sometimes an essential backstop. But real lasting change, enacted into law, comes from the people.
As President Abraham Lincoln said: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”
So go ahead: Make them do it.