Donald Kaul: We’re watching a rerun of the Great Depression
The philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Which is what we’re doing.
I thought I’d found an isolated instance of that phenomenon the other day when I ran across quotes on the necessity for balancing the federal budget uttered by right-wing politicians during the Great Depression. They worshipped at the altar of the balanced budget back then — just as they do now — using almost identical language.
Further reading has convinced me that the instance wasn’t isolated. Virtually everything about the economic catastrophe of the 1930s has a precise parallel in today’s major political dilemmas.
Conservative leaders, then as now, were absolutely clueless as to what regular people were going through. There’s a reason they call what we’ve just experienced the “Great Recession” and the 1930s economy the “Great Depression.” The Depression was much more devastating, with 13-15 million people unemployed, leaving as many as 34 million men, women, and children with no income at all.
Their safety net was often a garbage heap in which they foraged for food, or worse, begged for it. Yet President Herbert Hoover actually said: “Nobody is actually starving. The hobos, for example, are better fed than they have ever been.”
And when it was suggested that the Du Pont family’s corporation sponsor a Sunday afternoon program during the Depression, a member of the clan rejected the idea on grounds that “at three o’clock on Sunday afternoons, everybody is playing polo.”
Does that sound like Mitt Romney talking to his country club friends or what?
There’s more of that, much more, in a wonderful book, The Glory and the Dream, written almost 40 years ago by the journalist-historian William Manchester. It’s “a narrative history” of the United States between 1932 and 1972. The section on the Depression is especially riveting in that you repeatedly run across things that could be last week’s news. Consider these examples:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was subjected to a conspiracy of vicious lies, rumors, and innuendo. It was said that he had a venereal disease that he’d gotten from his wife, Eleanor. Who’d apparently gotten it from a “Negro.” He was called a Communist and a Jew, descended from “Dutch sheenies.”
Roosevelt was opposed by his own version of Rupert Murdoch, the Fox news emperor: William Randolph Hearst. That media mogul ran a chain of right wing newspapers, a newspaper syndicate, and the leading newsreel company that spewed venomous criticism of FDR. He was joined by Father Coughlin, the fascist Catholic priest whose radio show commanded an audience as large as 45 million.
Rush Limbaugh anyone?
Much like today, the Depression-era right wing viewed Social Security as just another name for socialism. Factory owners put up signs for their workers in favor of Alf Landon, FDR’s Republican opponent in the 1936 presidential election saying: “You’re sentenced to a weekly tax reduction for all your working life. You’ll have to serve the sentence unless you help reverse it November 3.” The GOP national chairman took to the airwaves to announce that every man and woman who worked for wages would be issued a number and required to wear a steel dog tag around his or her neck.
Doesn’t that remind you of Paul Ryan’s budget priorities?
Those 1930s right-wingers believed their own propaganda, just as today’s do. On the eve of the 1936 election, The Literary Digest and most conservative commentators predicted an easy victory for Landon. Roosevelt crushed him, winning by 11 million votes.
Similarly, Romney and many conservatives thought he was going to win big in November. He lost by five million votes.
So you see folks, we’ve been in this neighborhood before. The scenery isn’t any better now than it was in the 1930s. As another great philosopher, Yogi Berra, might have said:
“It’s déjà vu all over again.”