1929: The “Crash” (of banks, of the economy, of confidence in government). Then, old deals. More laissez-faire, do-nothing reaction from government, as per the dominant political theology of the times (and still, of our times?).

1932: After prolonged pain and misery, a new election (“elections have consequences”), the assent of a Democrat, “FDR,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the presidency.

FDR and associates, including LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson, of Texas), brought a new day, a new peoples’ theology, a New Deal to the country, to Texas, and to the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. By 1932, the country had seen a 50 percent drop in industrial output, 30 percent unemployment (“New Deal Projects,” Texas Time Travel). That new, progressive team rejected the old, cruel, unworkable ideas, and substituted a concept of government working for the people that work.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Texas Gov. James Allred, and Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson in Galveston, Texas, on May 11, 1937.

That same team was deplored by the old guard as “socialist,” even “communist.” Those terms were erroneous as well as insulting. Socialism is a humanitarian economic philosophy, stressing as much equality, as much fairness as possible. Communism is a much more severe economic rationale and a severe political proposal. It sees government as not only the central economic owner, but dominant in all things (Sarah Pruitt, History Stories, 22Oct 19). Socialism sees private ownership co-existing alongside greater governmental management of resources and services (banking, energy, major transportation) that benefit all.

But insulting, dangerously misleading “definitions” for socialism are still used deliberately today by Republicans and other right-wingers. They especially are designed to disparage the ideas and candidacies of two leading Democratic U.S. Senators and candidates for president: Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Their ideas, such as protection of New Deal ideals – Social Security; higher minimum wages; health care for all; rebuilding infrastructure– are quite moderate. They are also highly favored by a large majority of the US populace.

Whatever the outcome of the Democratic primary, there is no doubt those ideas—and other progressive, related ideas—still resonate with the public. Biden himself, of course, is more of a “neo-liberal,” though neither he nor the media use that term; that is, he has left behind rhetorical support for the New Deal—as have the Clintons and Obama. Even if a more moderate candidate wins the nomination (e.g., Biden), we still have the history that cannot be taken from us. Sanders and Warren have performed a major public service by keeping alive the legacy of FDR and LBJ.

Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, that legacy is “alive and well.” At the time of the Great Depression and the New Deal response, the major keystone was/is Social Security. And, yes, Republicans later raised the retirement age, taxed Social Security in care of retirees, and borrowed from the trust fund (Cecily Sailer, “Lessons from the New Deal,” Texas Observer, 11 Apr 10).

But Social Security (yes, our own little bit of “socialism”; wake up, folks!) remains intact and is successfully managed. Other policies at the time benefited all of Texans. In San Antonio, the famous “River Walk” owes its preservation (providing safety from flooding and increasing tourism) to the WPA (Works Projects Administration). The PWA (Public Works Administration) contributed to major construction such as roads and dams, again, putting people to work. (The “alphabet soup” of agencies and acronyms confused people, even then.)

Overall, New Deal programs enhanced employment and provided relief to millions, in south Texas and elsewhere. Often, the work included the building of dozens of state parks (Corpus, San Antonio Missions, etc.) Over 50,000 Texans were given work through the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to clean up, protect and preserve the environment, and to prevent another “dust bowl.” One must only see—in awe—the memorial to LBJ at the UT Austin campus, to understand the incredible benefits that came from extending electricity through the REA (Rural Electrification Act) of 1936.

The Civilian Conservation Corps that built Davis Mountains State Park are pictured here at Indian Lodge in 1937. (Photo courtesy: U.S. National Archives)

At the same time, federal aid to the Rio Grande Valley came from upstream projects on the famous Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, a river “providing water and life to six million people” (“About the Rio Grande,” Rio Grande International Study Center). The Rio Grande is the 10th longest river in the US. It is also “one of the ten ‘Most Endangered Rivers’” in the world. It could still use more federal help. It is a critical wildlife corridor, home to a wide diversity of vegetation. The area of south Texas is itself a “melting pot” for Central and Mississippi flyways, thus one of the most important bird migration routes for hundreds of species (“Making the Dessert Bloom: Rio Grande Project,” National Park Service, US Department of Interior).

At the time the New Deal was beginning to reap results, Republicans on the Supreme Court and in Congress pushed back, calling FDR and his ideas “socialist” (see H. W. Brands, “Traitor to His Class,” Texas Historical Program, cited in Texas Monthly, 1 Jan 09). We still see those regressive types and their do-nothing policies today. Progress was halted on relief aid and on many meritorious infrastructure projects.

But FDR and much of the New Deal prevailed. Later, during the war years—gracias a Dios—Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, so important for the Valley, was created. But it (and wildlife) are in new danger today, due to the notorious “wall” construction, which most Republicans support. The irony is that federal aid to Texas ($40 Billion annually) is the state’s 2nd largest revenue source, constituting 1/3 of the state budget, helping provide grants for education, health and infrastructure (“Fiscal Notes,” Texas State Comptroller). In short, we need the federal government, we need the maintenance of attitudes and policies inaugurated during the New Deal.

So, why won’t Biden, a strong contender for Democratic nominee for President, come right out and support progressive legislation? Why won’t Sanders (now in the lead, though polls can and do change) and/or Warren push back and say VIVA to the New Deal? They do, occasionally, say something like “our policies are not nearly the same as what the (moderate) socialism some Scandinavian countries practice.” But that is not enough. Many don’t listen. (That could be the answer to my question).

And the responses detailing important—large—differences between socialism and communism, and between New Deal Democracy and full-blown socialism are just too complex to fit into a “sound bite.” (There, again, I’ve answered my own question.) It should happen. But could it happen? Yes, on a one-to-one basis, professor to student, or candidate-to-inquiring citizen, perhaps in a very small “town-hall” venue?

And the media? Don’t hold your breath. Do they understand—truly—socialism? Would they give the time (say, two minute?) to any candidate to discuss the matter? Would it “play” in a debate? Can you imagine Trump in such a debate? No, if he makes it through the impeachment attempt, into the campaign, he’ll most likely try to tar any Democratic candidate with the fake “socialist” label.

More likely, only you, the astute reader, or any other thoughtful citizen, would take the time, consider the historical facts and the contemporary needs necessary to inform yourself, to prepare to vote, and to make the best decision possible. Let’s get on with that important duty. Viva the study of history! And remember the great deal of the New Deal!

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows the River Walk in San Antonio.