Ted Hamm, chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College is a historian of New York City. His latest book, Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up In the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics (OR Books, 2020) is not just for Sanders fans but for anyone interested in New York City politics. The book traces and untangles the dense political and cultural backdrop of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s when New York was on its way to becoming the most progressive city in the United States. With a cast of characters that include first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Fiorello Laguardia, Robert Moses, Woody Guthrie, Jackie Robinson, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Hamm describes the landscape where Bernie and his brother would come of age. Perhaps now more than ever, as the city struggles with a severe recession in the wake of the novel coronavirus, it is important that the roots of Sanders’s socialism be understood as the product of a particular place and time.
Charlotte Slivka [CS]: Bernie’s Brooklyn is so much more than what the title would suggest. This book shows a deep love for the city and how politics and life are so tightly intertwined in our dense and crazy city. Are you from New York?
Ted Hamm [TH]: No, I grew up mostly in Evanston, next to Chicago. I then finished high school in 1984 at Lower Merion, near Philly. After attending Rutgers for undergrad, I did my Ph.D. work at UC Davis.
While I was at Rutgers in the eighties, I was quite attentive to what was happening during a quite volatile period in New York City history. The Village Voice was in its heyday at that point. While I was at Davis, I lived in San Francisco and would read the Voice every week and stayed closely attentive to what was happening in the Giuliani era. I moved to the city in ’98 and started the Brooklyn Rail with my first wife and a bunch of my friends from Rutgers. I remained editor of the Rail through 2013. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the last two decades, during which time I’ve taught New York City history. Since 2012 I’ve been chair of the journalism department at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill.
My previous book was Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn (2017), an edited collection of the speeches Douglass gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere. Bernie’s Brooklyn is my first full work about New York City history. It connects Bernie’s current agenda to the New Deal City built by FDR and LaGuardia. In his book Working-Class New York (2000), Joshua Freeman shows how postwar NYC was a social-democratic city. That’s the place in which Bernie was raised.
CS: How closely intertwined is politics, life, and culture in New York City? How do you think that closeness shapes the collective unconscious of the people who live here? Is it unique to the rest of the country?
TH: The cultural life of New York City is obviously more dominant than elsewhere. The presence of so many influential cultural creators in one place gives it that much more power. And it’s the media capital. And obviously, politics here get attention elsewhere, in ways that are not reciprocated. New York City tends not to pay much attention to what happens elsewhere. And that’s a problem, as we’ve seen recently. I’m thinking of the New Yorker story about Cuomo and de Blasio. As opposed to Seattle, where they let public health experts handle the crisis, here we have media-hungry politicians at the forefront — and the results speak for themselves. But the city also led the way in the national recovery, as it did during the New Deal. That’s what the book is tracing.
CS: Yes. And, to great effect. In the introduction, you write:
After the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses, a panic among the democratic elite and their allied corporate media commentators reached a fever pitch, and that Hillary Clinton continued her vengeful crusade against Bernie, warning that it was not responsible for any candidate to promise the moon.
But in your book, you show that Bernie’s policies did not, in fact, come from the moon. His ideas came from FDR, Fiorello LaGuardia, and the New Deal. I’m wondering if this book had come out sooner — last year, for example, or at the height of the campaign — would it have helped to make sense of Bernie’s platform for Americans unfamiliar with the New Deal?
TH: That would have been ideal. Bernie and his campaign could have made the New Deal legacy more central to what they were proposing. There was space to wrap the issues together by saying, “This is what the city and nation have done in the past.” One of the issues, though, is that there was not a crisis until late in the campaign — and the pandemic also effectively helped end the campaign. Prior to March, mainstream commentators were saying, “Why do we need the Green New Deal?” Or, “How are we going to afford Medicare for all?” And that was a favorite line that Biden and others kept repeating.
And now it’s obvious that we can just print money to address problems. That creates potential future problems, but in terms of the immediate answer, we’ve seen deficit spending work in the past, because that’s what happened during the New Deal.
I don’t fully discuss the way in which FDR unveiled the New Deal, and instead, give some general patterns. But one of the things to keep in mind is that when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he wasn’t proposing deficit spending. He wasn’t yet an adherent to Keynesian economics. But then during his first term, he started running budget deficits and saw how things could work, with what became the WPA as the best example. Deficit spending put people back to work. Public works projects showed that the government can take on a deficit in order to produce future revenue. FDR was thus experimenting throughout the course of his first term — and that’s when LaGuardia and Robert Moses stepped in.
CS: Right. Can you tell our readers what a Keynesian capitalist is?
TH: It’s someone who believes in deficit spending. That runs contrary to Milton Friedman and Chicago School economics, which beginning in the 1970s began to reverse that direction. And budget-balancing became the doctrine of New York City in the wake of the fiscal crisis. Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City (2017) documents this transition quite well. During the Obama-Biden administration, the White House was reluctant to go too far with deficit spending in response to the Great Recession of 2008. And then, during their first term, Obama and Biden supported the Bowles-Simpson Commission that wanted to slash spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and so on.
An economic axiom of the neoliberal era is that governments can’t run deficits. That’s also because the deficits also may lead to taxing the rich and taxing corporations. And so, that’s where the two parties are aligned, essentially, in preventing that from happening.
CS: When Bernie ended his campaign, Covid-19 infections were on the rise, the economy was shutting down, and now we’re seeing a recession that some compare to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Do you think that Bernie pulled out too soon?
TH: Like many of his supporters, I wish he was still in the race. I certainly understand the campaign logic of pulling out. But he doesn’t have the same weight now that he’s just one of 100 senators, as he pushes issues like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and so on. It seems like he and his delegates will get some role in shaping policy, via the platform and party rules decided at the Democratic convention. But how binding is the platform? It does put the Democratic Party leadership on the hook if they don’t follow through on it. But as we’ve seen in the last few months, we can’t take anything for granted, and it’s really hard to say what will happen between now and November.
CS: We might not even have an election.
TH: Yes. We may not have a Democratic Convention, and who knows what will happen with the general election. If Bernie could have stayed in, he would have been a more prominent voice pushing a New Deal type approach to the crisis. I think that’s clear. As he stated in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, his vision is rooted in an agenda implemented by FDR during his three-plus terms in office.
As I show in the book, the Roosevelt legacy carried on with Eleanor throughout the 1950s. And the Roosevelt Coalition was intact at least through the mid-1960s. LBJ’s Great Society extended what Roosevelt was advocating with Medicare and Medicaid. Now we’re in a different era when Democratic party leaders are not adherents to FDR’s blueprint.
CS: In the book, you discussed Bernie’s family and their roots in Yiddish socialism. How does this differ from the type of socialism that was often attacked during the 2020 campaign by some Democrats?
TH: Yiddish socialism is a term that was used by a historian named Daniel Katz in the 2016 campaign to describe Bernie’s worldview as well as that of many members of his generation. It’s not an exact term, but I spell out in the book, it’s a set of values, including that the government should provide basic necessities and ensure basic opportunities, equally, for all groups — and it places a very high value on education and access to culture for every person. Those are strong traditions in New York City, for sure.
These values were then applied to different socialist formations. For example, there was the Socialist Party led by Norman Thomas in the twenties and thirties, which had strong roots in the garment unions. Roosevelt and LaGuardia had close ties to those unions’ leadership, and that led them to form the American Labor Party in 1935, which peeled off voters from the Socialist Party in order to back FDR and New Deal candidates. The American Labor Party also had close ties to the Communist Party.
So there were various versions of socialism running throughout these different parties. But they all retained the basic core values of Yiddish socialism that I described. And that then begins to change during the Cold War and becomes what Dan Katz and many others have referred to as Cold War liberalism, which certainly retained some of the values of Yiddish socialism regarding racial equality, education, and so on. But it begins to scale back the expectations of what the government will do in terms of providing basic necessities. Kennedy was a classic Cold War liberal. He wasn’t really promising much.
What I’m really focused on is the period from FDR to JFK. Bernie was born in September 1941, just as La Guardia’s fall reelection campaign took shape. It’s important to keep in mind that LGA was a liberal Republican, and even though FDR and Eleanor were the top Democrat during the period, they were not allied with the Democratic Party machines in Manhattan (aka Tammany Hall) or Brooklyn, the county with the largest number of Democratic votes in the nation. But FDR, LGA, and their non-machine candidates did very well in Brooklyn, especially so in Bernie’s Flatbush/Midwood district.
CS: I’m a native New Yorker: I grew up in Greenwich Village and I go to The New School. So I was really surprised to learn that Mayor LaGuardia grew up in Greenwich Village, and went to NYU. There was a lot of wonderful New York history in your book that I should have known. Was there anything that you learned while writing this book, that surprised you?
TH: Yes, in the excerpt that you selected there is the role of all the different political parties. I didn’t really know too much about the American Labor Party or the origins of its splinter group, the Liberal Party (which still exists). I didn’t know all the various alliances, and I certainly didn’t expect that the Republican Party would forge ties to the Communist Party. That happened in Red Hook in 1946, when Jimmy Longhi — a good buddy of Woody Guthrie, they were in the Merchant Marine together — ran for the Congressional seat that covered Red Hook and Gowanus. Longhi, a Communist, got the support of the state’s big-business Republican governor, Tom Dewey, which is an unexpected alliance, for sure. Dewey later teamed up with the American Labor Party to pass statewide rent control in 1950, which the Democratic machines opposed. This shows how issues can play out differently when there are more than two major parties.
CS: Right. That was fascinating: you do a great job of showing how politics and even the ideologies of the parties can fluctuate and change. But the cast of characters that threads its way through the book is also a big draw. This is really a book about so much more than Bernie. It’s really about the soil from which he grew.
TH: That’s how I would phrase it as well. It’s the world that produced Bernie. He’s unique in how he’s succeeded, and done so in the later stages of his political career — but his worldview was common, particularly in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and parts of the Bronx, during the mid-twentieth century.
And as you say, this was a very rich cultural period. I have a chapter on Death of a Salesman that explains how Bernie’s father, a paint salesman, closely related to that play. Brooklyn was a central setting in postwar popular culture. This was the era of the Brooklyn Dodgers and On the Waterfront. And Woody Guthrie called Coney Island home. Bernie continues to embody the spirit of the New Deal era today.
CS: My fear was that people didn’t recognize the New Deal in Bernie’s policies. Or that somehow it was rebranded, that Democratic voters couldn’t see that he was coming from a tradition and that he’s not making up anything new.
TH: For sure.
CS: Why did you write this book? Who is it for?
Ted Hamm: Well, because of my interest in Brooklyn history, or New York City history with an emphasis on Brooklyn. Seeing that there was a lot to cover, a lot that hadn’t really been covered. There’s a spate of books about Roosevelt and LaGuardia, but there’s almost nothing about the other mayors, or the other figures of the era, including the mayors like Bill O’Dwyer, who was a curious figure. His successor, Vincent Impellitteri, was not so interesting, but he was a third-party mayor during the early 1950s. A lot happened during this moment that needs more attention from a scholarly perspective.
Going back to what you said initially, yes I wish I had been able to produce it by the Fall, but it just didn’t work out that way. We’ll see if Bernie and his movement can make some headway in pushing the New Deal onto the party agenda. I don’t know. I’m skeptical, but it’s important to remember that it’s not just Bernie. It’s a movement. The people who like Bernie’s agenda need to consider where it originated. That it’s not pie in the sky, and that it has been enacted in the most important city in the nation. So, let’s do it again.
CS: Yes, let’s do it again. Is there anything that you would add to this book if you could, today?
TH: Sure. I would add more about Jane Sanders’s life in Brooklyn, and more about Bernie’s life in the mid-sixties before he moved to Vermont. But I didn’t really have access to either of them, because they were busy with the campaign while I was writing the book. Maybe if there’s a need or an interest, I’ll write a second edition that includes more of these details.
CS: Actually, you got quite a lot of material from Larry Sanders, Bernie’s brother.
TH: Yes, he was a very, very great help. And very encouraging, too. I’m impressed by the optimism of figures in their late seventies and eighties. It’s certainly more than I have at this point about the future. But I’m speaking in the middle of a pandemic, so maybe I should withhold my comments about that.
CS: As you point out in the book, Larry was the one that initially introduced Bernie to politics.
TH: Yes, when Larry was at Brooklyn College, he brought Bernie to meetings of the Young Democrats. And then when Bernie went to Brooklyn College, he was first exposed to socialism. At least, that’s how he explains it. He was in high school during the height of the Cold War so the term no doubt had crossed his radar. But it became tangible when he met members of the Eugene Debs Club at Brooklyn College on his first day of orientation. And that brought it to life, for him.
CS: Is there anything we didn’t touch on, anything that you would like readers to know?
TH: Well, I just think that, as I was saying just a few moments ago, that the activists who follow Bernie and like his vision, just need to take note of the fact that it [Bernie’s vision] was here, in the city, in the mid-twentieth century. And yes, I tell much of the story through the leading figures of the era, but certainly, very average people like the Sanders family and their peers were immersed in the New Deal and helped build support for its initiatives as well.
The New Deal was not just something that’s created from the top down, by any means. It was labor unions, multiple political parties, cultural creators, and on down the line who helped sustain, develop, and expand it. People who want to see the New Deal come back now should take note of how it was accomplished then.
CS: Right. The wheel was not reinvented.
TH: Yeah, exactly.
Theodore Hamm writes about New York City politics and culture for the Independent and Jacobin. Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up In the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics, published by OR Books, June 2020.
Charlotte Slivka is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School, and the Books editor at Public Seminar.