Generally, I am of the opinion that people don’t learn from history, but I may have to adjust my belief on that one. I was reading a piece by David Woolner on Salon (read here) comparing the governmental response to the economic crisis today to that in the 1930’s, and I had sort of an epiphany on the subject. Woolner’s position is that in the 1930’s there was a strong hero in FDR who recognized the economic catastrophe facing the country and moved aggressively to deal with that emergency. Statesmen from both parties in Congress responded positively for the good of the country. What we are missing today, Woolner laments, are political leaders who will act appropriately to remedy our current economic crisis. Woolner places the blame on an inactive Congress, whose failure to pass responsive legislation fuels the continuing decline of the middle class.
A couple of factual points sprung to mind as I was reading: Firstly, Congress didn’t act immediately in the face of the Depression as Woolner suggests. FDR got a lot of political goodwill to work with precisely because the suffering public struggled through a couple of years of economic crisis without much aid and was by then so angry at his do-nothing predecessor, Herbert Hoover, whose actions more resemble that of Congress today, that they went for FDR in a landslide. It was the paltry response (largely driven by ideology) of Hoover’s Republican administration that drove popular support for FDR’s efforts at more aggressive remedies. The public was then demanding action by its leadership. It’s tempting to conclude from this that the Republicans of today are acting just as they did in the past — only there was a Democratic sweep in the 1930’s that left Republican opposition unable to block many of FDR’s efforts, enabling New Deal success. However, I think it’s a mistake to presume that opposition back then failed utterly — which brings me to Woolner’s assertion that bipartisan cooperation led Congress to act in the 1930’s in ways they don’t now. Conservatives didn’t have sufficient numbers in Congress to block New Deal legislation completely, but they didn’t just roll over and play dead (or join the president’s efforts). They found other ways to take on the president’s agenda too. I am reminded, for example, of the fight leading to the “court-packing” fiasco. When the conservative Supreme Court shot down his programs as unconstitutional, FDR threatened to rework the Court and fill it with his appointees. FDR lost some political capital in that fight and the Supreme Court did as well. It was a kind of lose-lose situation that helped temper recovery programs thereafter (and reigned in both sides somewhat). Still, the economy limped along; it did not fully bounce back until war expenditures brought a boom. Thus, Woolner’s suggestion that governmental action saved the middle class is misleading as well.
It occurred to me as I was thinking about all this, though, that the Republicans may be acting the way they are today because they did actually learn something from the political wranglings of the Depression. (I’d like to say both sides have learned, but I think the Democrats are still afraid of unbridled stimulus spending, which is the lesson liberals suggest was to be taken from the 1930’s: we didn’t pump enough deficit spending into the economy to bring real recovery. So, apparently, they share their predecessor’s fear on this point and experience has not led them to increased comfort with balls to the wall Keynesianism.) Republicans remain bitter at the success of FDR’s programs — they resent the massive growth of the federal bureaucracy under that president and demands for smaller government have become a constant refrain from them since (although this was one of their positions before — it gained steam in the wake of FDR’s “statism”). From experience, they learned that they could not undo all of what FDR and the Democrats instituted. Once programs are implemented, it’s very hard to eliminate them — particularly when they provide welcome services to the public (think: unemployment benefits, minimum wage). The expansion of the federal government under FDR has stuck in the Republican’s craw, then, ever since.
I think they learned from that, and their conclusion is that their predecessors didn’t fight FDR (who, in all fairness, was much more popular with the public than Obama — which gives them an opening) hard enough. Perhaps, also, they saw in the limited wins at the Supreme Court against FDR a blueprint for taking on the current president’s agenda. So, I think it’s fair to conclude that the obstructionist Congress we have today is a result of the history (or Republican experience of it) of the Depression. The Republicans are determined not to make the mistakes of the past, which left them with a much more powerful federal government and, incidentally, also secured Democratic control over the White House for an extended number of years. Ideologically and politically, for them, history teaches that success requires absolute obstructionism, and this time, they benefit from different public sentiment as well. Their PR campaign taps into that and is packaged much better — with broader appeal — than the one fielded during the Depression. Thus, it appears that the Republicans are eager not to let history repeat itself. I stand corrected.