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The End of the New Deal Order

It won’t win the future.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Or at least not overtly. What has changed is the American people’s conception of the ends of government—and the powers we bestow on government to pursue those ends. Historians have characterized these shifts in attitudes toward and expectations of government in various ways. In his 2007 book America’s Three Regimes, for example, historian Morton Keller argued that our country actually has lived under three distinct types of polity: from the colonial era to the 1820s; from Old Hickory to the New Deal; and from FDR to today. The transition from one stage to the next has nowhere been as sudden as the fall of the French Third Republic. But deep transformations occurred nonetheless. And there is no reason to believe the process of change has come to an end.

In the first era, the Pilgrims and Cavaliers brought from England to the New World attitudes toward authority and power that were courteous and obedient. Religion was fundamental. Civic order depended on a robust morality. It was from this culture that a uniquely American form of republican politics came into being. The Founders believed man was born free and equal, with certain inalienable rights given to him by God. Men formed governments based on contract and consent to preserve the rights that they possessed as individuals in the state of nature. Having violated the contract, King George gave the colonists no choice but to resort to their natural right of revolution.

The function of republican politics in an independent America was to thwart ambition, caprice, and passion and allow the “cool and deliberate sense of the community” to prevail. But this was easier said than done. Once George Washington exited the scene, the Founders wasted no time dividing into the factions that developed into America’s two political parties. Then, as the franchise was extended to the small planters and settlers in the west, as an innovative market economy took shape, as the young nation expanded, the American view of government shifted.

During this second period, parties—eventually the Democratic and Republican parties—flourished as national political institutions. Poor whites, blacks, and women eventually secured their rights under the law. The U.S. military was small, except during the Civil War, and was deployed mainly in North America.

From the time of Jackson to the time of FDR, Americans tended to look at the distant central government with wary eyes. Federal authorities had little sway over the economy. Civil administration was minuscule. “The American state,” Keller writes, “was one not of bureaucrats and armies but of parties and courts.” 

The U.S. population swelled. The Union stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond. Plentiful natural resources, strict enforcement of property rights, and sound money contributed to the rise of American industry. Political clout was transferred from the country farmer to the city machine. The trusts commanded huge sums of capital and influence.

But it was not to last. The nineteenth-century conception of American government survived the challenges posed by the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the agrarian and Populist revolts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, traditionalists constrained the Progressive impulse and limited regulation to corporations, interstate commerce, and basic workplace and consumer safety.

Then the Great Depression, and the centralization that came with World War II and the Cold War, ushered in a new order—the one under which we live today.Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was the decisive break. FDR believed that changing conditions required the government to assume new means to achieve a rapidly multiplying set of ends. And this required nothing less than a redefinition of the American social contract. The earlier understanding was that government power should be limited to securing those rights we possessed, by nature, prior to the establishment of the state. What Roosevelt did was rearrange the terms: Where once individuals formed governments to protect their natural rights, now individuals bargained with governments over rights and benefits that evolve over time.

The modern welfare state was born. In our era, Keller writes, political debate isn’t over how to constrain government. It’s over how to use government “to enforce and enhance the rights of individuals and groups.” And by the time FDR delivered his Second Bill of Rights address in January 1944, the number of rights had mushroomed. Life, liberty, property, and conscience were just for starters. Equally pressing were “the right of every family to a decent home” and “the right to a good education” and the right to economic “security.”

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