Home > Commentary, History, Politics/Policy > Half-baked thoughts: Are we repeating the mistakes of the Jazz Age?

Half-baked thoughts: Are we repeating the mistakes of the Jazz Age?

Because people (and especially journalists) innately seek points of reference from the past in order to understand the present, the administration of Barack Obama has naturally drawn plenty of comparisons to former presidents and eras. Are we living through a revival of FDR’s New Deal, or the pessimism of the Carter years? Is the president an heir to Bill Clinton’s frequently base-infuriating triangulation, or Ronald Reagan’s knack for using an ideological facade to govern from a position of compromise? Or is he, y’know, Mecha-StalinHitler?

One comparison I haven’t heard often is with the era of Woodrow Wilson and his Republican successors (Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover). I’ve been reading William E. Leuchtenburg’s “The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32” recently, and keep finding myself startled at how relevant the descriptions of the 1910s and ’20s feel to today. The parallels I’m seeing are not so much between Wilson and Obama (though a few of those, some more superficial than others, certainly exist) as they are between the political and social climates of the respective eras.

Today, despite successes like the Affordable Care Act and the gradual dismantling of anti-gay laws, right-wing anti-government shibboleths dominate the popular imagination and the Washington consensus. Similarly, the landmark accomplishments of the Progressive era – women’s suffrage, trust-busting, the income tax – gave way to a complacently laissez-faire environment that ignored the untenable strains of a rapidly growing and monstrously unequal economy. Leuchtenburg writes (pg. 97 in the second edition):

“…it was the Old Guard, restored to power by Harding’s triumph [in the election of 1920], who sought to exploit that sentiment for their own ends…the Republican right wing was determined to call a halt to social welfare measures and to push legislation favorable to big business. Nor were industrialists who gave $8 million to the GOP in 1920 shy about demanding a return on their investment.”

And later (pg. 103):

“This, in essence became the central question in the politics of the 1920s: whether the business interest, given full support by a cooperative government, could maintain prosperity and develop social policies that would redound to the benefit not merely of itself but of the whole nation.”

Despite the fact that history answered that question with an emphatic “not a fucking chance,” the modern right wing bases its only semblance of a coherent policy platform on just such a premise. Then, as now, the message was framed so compellingly – unbridled wealth is aspirational, redistributive social policies are tyranny which crushes the freedom of those it claims to benefit materially – that large swaths of populist opinion sided inexplicably with the plutocrats.

Every social policy, however mild and seemingly inoffensive, and every effort by workers to improve their station, was eviscerated as a Marxist power grab. It’s hard not to read about this and recall contemporary histrionic attacks on financial regulation or health care reform, as well as the efforts by GOP-controlled states to claw back public workers pensions and collective bargaining rights. During the 1924 campaign, Coolidge declared the issue was “whether America will allow itself to be degraded into a communistic or socialistic state or whether it will remain American,” a sentiment so boilerplate for modern conservatives that it might as well be printed on the RNC’s letterhead. (Of course, this species of right-wing rhetoric is hardly restricted to the Jazz Age.)

I do take all this with a grain of salt: The depth and breadth of human activity in any large, heterogeneous society makes it possible to draw plausible comparisons among virtually any two points in history. I’m sure if I looked hard enough, I could find reasons why Obama is the new Franklin Pierce. In fact, one of the most interesting evocations of the modern world comes in this passage about Robert La Follette, one of the 20th century’s most lionized progressives and, apparently, the Bizarro Scott Walker:

“As governor of Wisconsin, he found the state a corporate barony and, working with a group of university professors, transformed it into the social laboratory of the nation.” (pg. 121)

It’s also easy to spotlight the ways in which the moral arc has bent a little closer to justice in the ensuing nine decades. As ugly as the strain of Islamophobia permeating the country has gotten, it hasn’t resulted in a redux of the Palmer raids during the Red Scare. (Peter King’s preposterous House hearings on “radicalization” amounted to little more than an insulting bit of sub-McCarthyite rabble-rousing.) Unions may be at the nadir of their post-New Deal influence, but union and non-union workers alike can still expect immeasurably better working conditions than could their early-20th-century forebears.

Again, drawing parallels among historical moments is very easy, and often not particularly illuminating. It is interesting to think about, though; and George Santayana’s old saw about remembering the past has stuck around for a reason. The critical mistakes of the 1920s – the vast arrogation of economic and political power to a small group of people, the pervasive disdain for government bodies as agents of public will or public good – echo in frightful ways. Hopefully today, unlike then, things don’t have to get worse before they get better.


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