When I try to explain what I think is required for these hard times, I’ve deliberately steered clear of one important phrase: The New Deal. It’s a tough phrase for a lot of reasons, not just because it’s loaded with meanings that people inherited from their grandparents. The word “deal” does not mean “a new bargain”, the way we might use it today, but a new deal of the cards. The old hand had been played out, the way FDR saw it, and it was time for what he could only call a “new deal”. That strong frame for understanding what he was trying to accomplish is a bit lost – something I’ve started to regard as more of a problem than I first thought.
Words can be powerful when they set up the terms a public debate. Use of images involving families, relationships with doctors, and similar very personal connections have always been useful to the conservatives that have come to be the masters of rhetoric lately. More complicated ways of looking at the world often require new language which sticks in the tongues of real progressives, but that’s not their only difficulty. Historical terms, such as the way we handled the Fourth Depression of 1929, are subject to changes in the way we use words such as “deal”.
FDR was an avid poker player, as were many people in his generation. It was a common way for people to simply pass the time before teevee and video games. Any good politician knew how to spend some time with the reporters who were covering him (always a “him” back then) playing low-stakes poker and losing just the right amount. When Truman took his turn at the helm, he proudly proclaimed that “The buck stops here”, a reference to sticking a buck knife into the table to denote the dealer – in this case, noting that he the inheritor of FDR’s legacy, not those who “passed the buck” to avoid the distractions of being the dealer. The people covering him knew exactly what he meant, and the label stuck.
The use of card playing analogies is more than simply generational, however. The deck of cards that we use is not the only one in the world, often referred to in Bavaria and other places as the “French Deck”. It was established as the standard deck here in the USofA during the French Revolution, with the various suits depicting the classes in French society. Spades are royalty, Hearts are clergy, Diamonds are merchants, and Clubs are peasants. Shuffle them all together and the analogy of a “New Deal” is rich with meaning.
In a sense, the Democrats of FDR’s time were popular inheritors of Rousseau when they talked about shuffling the classes so openly. It was common among working people to believe that the world was based on luck, the hand you drew, but also in the skill of how you played it. Conservatives of the time were more likely to believe in a more Calvinist faith and hard work as the keys to success throughout life. The battle lines between the two were social, stark, and rich with inherited meaning.
People today rarely want to hear about the role of luck, at least in popular culture. We have our own sense of faith that seems to propel us, whether it’s faith in the systems of our world or some kind of “Law of Attraction” or, among a certain set, faith in an unbending God. In that sense, the conservatives have already won because the terms we use to describe what it takes to get ahead in our world are solidly set in their terms.
What does a “New Deal” mean to us today? It would, without question, come off as “socialism” just as it did to many people in FDR’s time. However, the entire concept of life as a kind of card game, a little luck and a little skill, has passed on as surely as my dear Grandma Helen – who taught me how to play before “pong” even came along. The frame itself has passed out of our language, our culture, and the way we see the world.
We can’t use the term “New Deal” the way it galvanized a generation to action in the last Depression. We don’t have any similar words that can be used to describe the restructuring that we are going through, either. We have to invent something that makes sense to a world that, clearly, has come to rely on some kind of faith rather than accepting that it’s up to how they play the hand they were dealt. I find this very sad. It’s especially sad when the poker player in chief, Barack Obama, has found it necessary to invite only a few people with a lot of coin to sit at his game table. The best we can hope is that he somehow fleeces them – which doesn’t seem to be happening so far.
I think it’d be better if we were all dealt in on the next hand. That is, when we get the New New Deal.