Biographies have not been a frequent historical genre in my experience as a grad student. Alan Brinkley’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a welcome exception, and the portrait of a character that led through one of the darkest eras of the US and the world. Brinkley writes a balanced synthesis of the man and his age, and in so doing his FDR becomes a model for other biographies of leaders in convulsed economic times. Roosevelt, alongside with Washington and Lincoln, has become part of the pantheon of revered statesmen who constructed the American nation. Roosevelt was key in “the reshaping of American government, the transformation of the Democratic Party, the redefinition of American liberalism, the successful leadership of the United States through the greatest war in world history, and the reconstruction of America’s relationship to the international order” (Brinkley 2009, 80). Some questions arose through my reading, and I will list them below:
– How could Franklin Delano Roosevelt be so close to the public yet so aristocratic in his upbringing and secretive in his character? The answer seems to be encrypted in the emergence of mass production, the correspondent surge of mass media and politics. Roosevelt was his best spokesman: he was a successful politician in terms of conveying the image of a strong, close leader to the American public. How did this change the perceived presence of the federal government in the lives of average Americans? (See Brinkley 2009, 31)
– To which extent “the confident voice, the smiling optimism” reveal how important political leadership is in times of crisis? (Brinkley 2009, 42) Can leaders affect effectively expectations, and thus alter business cycles? What does this tell us about the agency of politicians? How can we write bottom-up histories with due attention to the “top” actors of the age?
– The physical frailty of President Roosevelt made me think about the forgotten history of disabled people throughout national historiographies. Was disability as important in the rise of social history in the 1960s and 1970s? Is disability a useful or misleading historical category? Is it as valid as race, ethnicity, gender…?
– The role of economists as policymakers is clearly evident since Roosevelt’s first term. The economic profession would later provide hundreds of employees to the large corporations of managed capitalism. What were the consequences of the involvement of economists in public debate and policies? What was the impact of the insertion of economic discourse and practice in the private sector? What was the role of economists in advancing visions “of government, labor and capitalism” in the US and the world during the first half of the 20th century (Brinkley 2009, 39)?
– Our usual causing suspect of the Great Depression (and the recession of 1937-1938), the intellectual consensus around the advantages of the gold standard, the and the need to maintain a balanced public budget, reappears in Brinkley’s work (see Brinkley 2009, 33). The resilience of what in hindsight appears as a mistaken theoretical paradigm merits a study on its influence in federal, state and local levels.
– What is the history behind the construction of macroeconomic variables? National accounts were first computed in the 1940s and 1950s, as the emergence of macroeconomics posited a stronger emphasis in aggregate indicators of economic activity. What variables, if any, were used for shaping monetary and fiscal policies? Were the instruments of policy inherently unstable or were they simply not discovered yet?
– The New Deal would be called a rather heterodox set of economic policies. Codification exercises, price and wage-setting policies were pursued at the same time that authorities attacked (if only verbally) market imperfections (of which monopoly is just a case). Institutional effervescence manifested itself in the creation of countless public agencies. (See Brinkley 2009, 34-42, 45-48, 52-54, 71-7 ). However, private interests seem to have co-opted the pace of reform, using the agencies as instruments against fears of overproduction, vehicles for market concentration and vessels for collusion between “competitors”, in what amounts to what Edward L. Glaeser has denominated regulatory capture. Why hasn’t such a nuanced version of the New Deal become the subject of popularization amidst the American public? Why have the successes surpassed the shortcomings of the New Deals? How was reform enacted in the success stories, i. e. “labor relations and banking and finance” (Brinkley 2009, 54).
– Improvisation and experimentation in the enactment of economic policies have the potential of reintroducing contingency to what seems rather a “structural” account, largely overdetermined by economic fundamentals. This aspect merits attention on the part of economic historians as well as historians from other countries, who sometimes observe in the New Deal a rather comprehensive set of policies deliberately aimed at restarting the economy (see Brinkley 2009, 42-43).
– Was the increased presence of government in the daily lives of citizens anticipating the transformation of welfare benefits into perceived entitlements by the American public (see Brinkley 2009, 47 in a reading influenced by the works of James T. Sparrow)? What were the limits to the “broker state” emanating from the Great Depression (Brinkley 2009, 55)? What happened to the project of economic citizenship (Brinkley 2009, 75)?
– How did the Allied victory in World War II intertwine itself with the New Deal years? Did it somehow mask the failed promises of the New Deals? When does the international public sphere affect domestic matters in the US?
– Were there any claims on Roosevelt enacting a socialist experiment when the government assumed a leading role during WWII? Did people think of the public and the private division in different terms due to the conflict? What other instances, aside from the “dollar-a-year men executives” (Brinkley 2009, 74) should be considered for understanding the American public’s attitude towards business and its role in the national project?
– What is the role of friendship among political leaders of nation (see the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship in Brinkley 2009, 68-ff.)?
– Notwithstanding the negative impact of the economic downturn and war, can we write a history of migration during this period?
– Having worked on the papers of Leon Fraser, a banker in this period, I was amazed by the amount of printed sources available to US historians specializing in the 20th century. How can historians carry research for 20th century questions with current time and budgetary constraints?