How many times have we seen this drama play out in the last several decades? Every presidential administration wants to fix America’s “crumbling infrastructure” until they discover the business interests profiting from disrepair.
The extent to which the iconic movements of the ’60s United States fed on existing liberalism and fed into neoliberalism is, however, all the more reason not to isolate the New Left as a singular cataclysm that destabilized the New Deal order. Far from a gently humming machine that could have kept operating indefinitely were it not for the intervention of a new generation of radicals, the United States’ simulacrum of social democracy was a fragile assemblage of competing intellectual tendencies and political coalition partners that was always threatening to fall apart.
The New Deal is the ultimate horizon of Frank’s political imagination. In the 1930s, Frank argues, the Great Depression finally forced the American ruling class to rethink its unabashed elitism, leading inevitably to the rediscovery of the virtues of the populist tradition. The New Deal was at its heart, then, a cultural and rhetorical phenomenon with downstream economic consequences. He devotes orders of magnitude more attention and detail to poets like Carl Sandburg (whose epic The People, Yes gives the book its title), filmmakers like Orson Welles, and the oratory of FDR at his most fire-breathing than to the substantive economic policy of the President and his postwar successors. Frank even quotes, approvingly, labor secretary Frances Perkins’ remark that the New Deal was “basically an attitude.”