Last month, as we considered the results of the New Deal experiment, we asked whether social change can be brought about through legislation. Other authors have devoted many pages to exploring this question, but our discussion here will be brief. The answer is not straightforward: yes, a government can write laws aimed at social change, but its ability to bring about that change is limited. The government is constrained by existing laws, especially its founding charter but also the ever-changing interpretation of its legal codes. It is also constrained by the effectiveness of its bureaucracy: if government agents are unwilling or unable to enforce a law, the law is essentially dead. The living, breathing people who make up the bureaucratic corps are not neutral agents but have personal interests (e.g., self-preservation) and also institutional bias (e.g., the solution to every problem is more bureaucracy) that affect how they discharge their duties.
Government action is also limited by the readiness and willingness of its subjects to accept whatever change is legislated. It’s often said that modern democracies rule “by the consent of the governed,” and it follows that any given law can be effectively mooted by large-scale disobedience. Thus when we ask whether a government can legislate social change, we are essentially asking a question about what kind of authority that government has: laws do not directly change our beliefs, our desires, nor even necessarily our actions, since in practice there is a good bit of breathing room between the government and us. This space has to be maintained if the government wants to rule by consent and not just by coercion, since we would not tolerate police and security forces watching everything we do. On the one hand, the government can do a lot without our consent, because our politicians know that we’re not well-organized enough to hold them accountable; on the other hand, we the people can pretty much do and think as we please as long as we’re not caught. Thus, among the ways to bring about social change, legislation is a blunt tool at best.
My interest in the New Deal period stems from a desire to approach today’s issues in an informed way. The progressive policies put in place during FDR’s administration were significant despite their imperfections; legislation from the 1930s started a general equalizing trend, such that inequality in the US eventually reached its nadir in the 1970s. After so much progress, though, how did we regress so quickly in the past few decades? And why was the rising prosperity in this country predicated on a destructive foreign policy, where we funded wars and supported dictators around the world? For those of us who hope for another New Deal, for another wave of policy addressing real human needs, it’s worth asking why the last New Deal just didn’t stick, especially when it had such immense popular support at the outset.
Roosevelt and the many progressive staff members of his administration hoped to use the authority of the US government to usher in change. When we consider the political strength of our nation, the vast resources which shuffle trillions of dollars around the globe making war or subsidizing corporations, it’s easy to imagine that such a government can accomplish almost anything. We are passionate about elections in the belief that, if our candidate is in office, they will use a share of our nation’s power to bring about the change we hope for; when that change doesn’t come, we grow disillusioned. We, like the New Dealers before us, hope to capture political power and use it for our ends. In reality, though, politicians and bureaucrats do not operate in a vacuum, and they are not free to act as they please. Political power is not easily captured in elections because it is constrained by the larger political culture, which dwarfs individual candidates.
Here it’s worth reconsidering where political power comes from. Antonio Gramsci suggested that the ruling classes do not rule just by consent, but also by hegemony. He saw society divided in two parts which were thoroughly interwoven: he called the people ‘civil society,’ and he called the ruling classes ‘political society’—which goes beyond politicians and bureaucrats and starts to include media moguls, celebrity pundits, universities, schools, and so on. Political society must maintain the consent of civil society to remain in power, but it also works constantly to maintain that consent. How can it maintain consent? Through hegemony, through its dominating influence on civil society: by promoting a culture that allows one group to dominate another, by providing an education that stops short of critical thinking, by building a public space where it’s uncomfortable to speak out against injustice, by creating a cynical world where hope seems naive.
In this context, even a progressive president such as FDR can only do so much: unlike the president, American culture is not up for a vote every four years. Our culture also affects our daily lives much more intimately than legislation does. Consider the cultural barriers that stood in the way of New Deal relief programs: The well-to-do of rural society often believed that poverty (and race) was a defect of character, not a physical condition, such that their poorer neighbors were unworthy of assistance. Owning land was considered ‘patriotic’ while migrating for work inspired suspicion, such that almost all agricultural support went to commercial farmers and government housing for migrant farmworkers was called ‘Communist.' When the Resettlement Administration planned new communities for displaced farmers, the surrounding communities often fought back out of fear that their own homes would lose value or that their new neighbors would be African-American. In the end, many Americans quickly lost their willingness to aid those in need as their own lot improved and impending war stole their attention.
While legislation can certainly support change, lasting change will have to happen at a deeper level. Our nation has been around long enough that one can discern patterns in its history, patterns set in motion at the beginning of the republic. Compared with the spirit of the American Revolution, the Constitution represented a coup d’etat by the merchant class, who wanted a strong federal government to protect commercial interests. The radical democracy of the Declaration of Independence was soon forgotten as the logic of the Constitution shaped our nation in its own image, favoring property over people. If we think our civil society needs to improve, we need to reassess American culture and political life in a fundamental way. Legislative victories are like bandages which fall off with time: while these victories are valuable and worth the effort, they are not permanent. If we want deep political change, we can start by asking how our culture promotes self-interest and the pursuit of wealth. We can then refuse the cult of wealth, building instead a culture of inclusion, altruism, and generosity. Then we will drag the government along behind us.
 For further reading on this question I would recommend James Scott, Two Cheers For Anarchism, and David Graeber, The Democracy Project. James Scott is a political scientist/anthropologist who has devoted much study to the behavior of governments and the ability of people to govern themselves; David Graeber is an anthropologist who has been active with the Occupy movement, as well as with other radically democratic movements.
 See D. H. Grubbs, Cry From The Cotton; and “The Resettlement Idea,” R. G. Tugwell, Agricultural History 33:4 (Oct. 1959).
 See Paul Conkin, Tomorrow A New World: The New Deal Community Program, 182, for praise of fee simple ownership by presidential committee; Grubbs, 123ff., for politicians and journalists praising home ownership as the cure for all ills.
 See Conkin, 173ff, 201ff.
 At the time of the Constitution’s ratification, Western Massachusetts witnessed Shay’s Rebellion, when farmers tried to shut the courts where merchants were foreclosing on their farms. The brutal repression by the new federal army set the tone for debt collection under the new government. For an in-depth summary of the period, see Charles Post (1995) “The Agrarian Origins of US Capitalism: The Transformation of the Northern Countryside Before the Civil War,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 22:3, 389-445.