Social Policy
July 12, 2022

The Textbook on how to Save American Democracy and what it means for Joe Biden

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American democracy is at a crossroads. As wealth inequalities increase, healthcare lags behind other developed nations, educational divides rise, and more and more Americans are inclined to turn towards extremism. The victory of Joe Biden was a brief reprieve from the wannabe authoritarianism of the Trump administration, but as Biden continues to trend downward in polls, America appears to be on an intractable path towards demagoguery. However, not all hope is lost. The United States has been at this crossroads before. And the answer that brought the US and many other countries back from the brink of authoritarianism is simple: mass aid to citizens. History demonstrates that citizens who believe their government actually cares about them are less likely to overthrow said government. 

The year is 1933, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is entering office at one of the most turbulent times in American, and world, history. The United States is in the midst of the Great Depression. Mass swaths of the American population are unemployed and desolate. As the United States struggles domestically, extremist movements are rising around the globe. As a result of the economic failings connected to the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, Germany has begun to tumble downwards into fascism, and Adolf Hitler is gaining power. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin is adopting radical policies regarding collectivization that eventually led to the Holomodor (a man-made famine in Ukraine that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukranians.) The Germans, motivated by desperation (and a touch of Anti-Semtisim), turned towards a charismatically evil political outsider, and the rest is history. 

President Roosevelt  was aware that his country was also on the brink of embracing the political extremism that gripped Europe. American racism had already created a large presence of domestic extremism (the KKK, Know-Nothing Party, etc). If the American economy continued to fail, it would become increasingly likely that groups like the KKK would continue to gain power, which would pose a legitimate threat to democracy.  

Roosevelt had a monumental task in front of him, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The famed British economist John Maynard Keynes surmised it best when he stated in an open letter to Roosevelt : “You have made yourself the Trustee for those in every country who seek to mend the evils of our condition by reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system. If you fail, rational change will be gravely prejudiced throughout the world, leaving orthodoxy and revolution to fight it out.” Fortunately, Roosevelt  lived up to his title as the trustee of modern liberalism. Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the United States into a thriving welfare state, where the government made a concerted effort to aid the average (white) citizen. 

However, it’s important to note that New Deal reforms did not include every American. The omission of domestic and agricultural workers in New Deal reforms largely disenfranchised African Americans from reaping the benefits of New Deal programs. 

During President Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, he took immediate action to save the American economy (Emergency Banking Act, Glass-Steagall Banking Act), provide jobs (Civilian Conservation Corps), and improve quality of life (Tennessee Valley Authority Act). Later in his administration, programs like Social Security and the Works Program Administration continued to improve the income, and lives, of Americans via jobs and relief. And Roosevelt’s steady leadership worked. While the US didn’t fully get out of the Great Depression until World War II, Roosevelt’s evident and concerted efforts to improve the lives of large swaths of Americans helped rebuild necessary trust in government. Aided by fireside chats, Roosevelt and his administration sent the message that the government cared about (some) of its citizens. And thus, these citizens had almost no interest in overthrowing him because they genuinely felt that he, and his government, cared. President Roosevelt’s efforts brought the US back from the brink of the abandonment of democracy.

The New Deal saved democracy domestically. The Marshall Plan saved democracy internationally. After World War II, Europe was financially and environmentally ravaged by total war, with a precarious ideological battle brewing. The two countries that came out of the war as the preeminent world powers were the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States was highly fearful of the Soviet Union attempting to spread authoritarian, Soviet-style communism across the European continent (fascinatingly enough, it is this exact fear of the spread of communism that led the US to support anti-democratic, authoritarian leaders all around the globe during the 1980s). The way that the U.S. attempted to save democracy in Europe was simple: provide aid. The Marshall Plan provided more than $15 billion in aid to help rebuild the continent. And again, aid worked. The Marshall Plan revitalized European agricultural and industrial production and increased financial stability. The seventeen countries included in the plan increased their GDP by 15-25%, and more importantly, preserved their democracies. 

The New Deal and the Marshall Plan provide a textbook example for how to maintain democracy. But what does this mean for the current American political climate?

 The first obvious step appears to be  the Build Back Better Act, which must be revived and passed. The aid that the Build Back Better Act would provide would be a necessary step in the fight against the rising tides of extremism. However, after the defeat of the bill, the Biden administration must pursue other avenues to improve Americans’ view of the government. And as Biden’s approval rating continues to drop, the direness of the situation continues to rise. There are really no easy answers to assuage the current situation. President Biden can’t just press a button and lower inflation, nor can he jedi-mind-trick Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), both conservative Democrats, into supporting the Build Back Better Act. Biden appears to be stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place, but some steps to get the monkey off his back come to mind. In President Biden’s first State of the Union address, he mentioned the rising cost of insulin. If Biden and the Democrats focused on curbing the prices of necessary drugs, that would unquestionably help the image of the administration. The price of drugs is a universal problem that affects voters everywhere, and all Americans would appreciate not having to pay exorbitant costs for drugs which are necessary for not only their survival, but the survival of their loved ones.

Lowering the cost of drugs like insulin would do a bit to rebuild faith in the government. However, the average American cares most about how the government appeals to their financial sensibilities. If the Biden administration can emulate the Roosevelt and Truman administrations by displaying genuine concern for the plight of average Americans and devoting spending to improve their troubles, public opinion will likely rise. But what if the Biden administration continues to publicly fumble and fail to fulfill campaign promises? It could get very ugly for the Democrats in 2022 and 2024, and a return of Trumpism would become all the more likely.

Citations

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Applebaum, Anne. “Holodomor.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., May 8, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/event/Holodomor 

Boesler, Matthew. “Weimar: The Truth about History's Most Infamous Hyperinflation Horror Story.” Business Insider, September 20, 2013. https://www.businessinsider.com/weimar-germany-hyperinflation-explained-2013-9

Boissoneault, Lorraine. “How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, January 26, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/immigrants-conspiracies-and-secret-society-launched-american-nativism-180961915/ 

“Emergency Banking Act.” Ballotpedia, n.d. https://ballotpedia.org/Emergency_Banking_Act  

Gunja, Munira Z. “Health and Health Care for Women of Reproductive Age.” Commonwealth Fund, April 5, 2022. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2022/apr/health-and-health-care-women-reproductive-age 

History.com Editors. “Civilian Conservation Corps.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, May 11, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/civilian-conservation-corps 

Kanell, Michael E. “Americans Got Richer during the Pandemic but Economic Inequality Widened.” Press Herald, April 22, 2022. https://www.pressherald.com/2022/04/22/americans-got-richer-during-the-pandemic-but-economic-inequality-widened/ 

Maues, Julia. “Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall).” Federal Reserve History, November 22, 2013. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/glass-steagall-act 

Pearl, Eli. “Operation Condor and the Horrors of U.S. Foreign Policy.” Yipinstitute.com. Youth in Policy Institute, n.d. https://www.yipinstitute.com/articles/operation-condor-and-the-horrors-of-u-s-foreign-policy 

“Tennessee Valley Authority Act (1933).” National Archives and Records Administration, February 8, 2022. https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/tennessee-valley-authority-act  

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