The New Deal and Its Legacy: Critique and Reappraisal

By Robert Eden | Go to book overview

7 Charles R. Kesler The Public Philosophy of the New Freedom and the New Deal

The "public philosophy" is one of those strange and discordant terms that occasionally prove irresistible to journalists and politicians--rather like "Lebanese government," or "Democratic deficit reduction plan." The public does not philosophize, and philosophers (the genuine article) do not seek out the glare of publicity. Nevertheless, the term public philosophy points to the fact that political science as the crude study of political behavior or of the naked pursuit of power is not enough, indeed is wrong-headed. Politics is not simply concerned with power, influence, or even policies; it concerns opinions about what ought to be done and why, about what is good and why. For that reason, as anyone who has been around politicians knows, politics is a lot of talk. It is never just talk, but it is in an important sense mainly talk, since even the most jarring political events--wars and revolutions--must be explained by the participants to one another, who must be persuaded to undertake them in the first place. So although my approach to the study of the New Deal and the New Freedom may strike some as naive, I hope that you will see why it is at least presumptively reasonable. What I shall do is to look at how the New Freedom and the New Deal were justified by their originators, by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt; and more particularly at how their justifications square with the founding principles of American politics, as contained especially in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912 on the basis of a program that he called the New Freedom, in conscious or unconscious distinction from the "new birth of freedom" called for by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863. The "new birth of freedom" was a spiritual reawakening and baptism that every generation of Americans was called to undergo; it was a rededication to the prin-

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