The Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they want to destroy the progressive accomplishments of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Mitch McConnell is on record – and on YouTube – with the flat-out statement that “we need to elect more Republicans in order to roll back the New Deal”. You can’t get much more blatant than that.
Well, The Turtle got his wish and now there are Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Now will they make good on their threat to roll back the New Deal?
And if they did, what would that really mean?
Well, for those who slept through history class, or those who are younger than about 90, there was this little thing called The Great Depression. It started in 1929 when an overinflated stock market crashed, wiping out millions of dollars in savings and investments, rippling through the economy causing banks to fail and creating an unemployment rate of 25% by 1933. (A little perspective: The highest rate of unemployment since the end of the Great Depression was just a little over 10%.)
There was no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, pretty much no “safety net” at all. Families were evicted from homes they could no longer afford, people lined up for blocks in all kinds of weather just for a loaf of bread or a bowl of soup, and churches and other charitable organizations were swamped with requests they could never afford to fulfill.
The affected people coped in as many ways as they could, even going so far as to cobble together housing from cast off materials – piano crates, old canvas, scrap wood – which they erected on vacant land in the cities. In dubious honor of Herbert Hoover, whom many blamed for the depression, these impromptu communities were called “Hoovervilles”.
Unemployed men – and women, and children – became hobos who crisscrossed the country by freight train seeking work, a dry place to sleep, or a handout of food.
The New Deal changed all of that. It established, among other things, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, Social Security, and the FDIC and hired the unemployed into government jobs. It also promoted labor unions, aided farmers and regulated banks. Many books have been written on all of the good that the New Deal created in American society.
So why do the Republicans want to get rid of it? Because the very people it helped were – and still are – the very people who did not deserve it.
Calvinist theology has played a big part in the thinking of Republicans, indeed of most conservative types, from the very beginning of the settlement of this continent. It’s a thread that has run though American culture almost from the very first – the so-called Pilgrim Fathers themselves were Calvinists.
Briefly, Calvinism proposes that God is a personal god who takes care of his “children”, and those who are blessed with wealth must have been pleasing to God, who has given them earthly rewards for their faith and piety. Sadly, the corollary of this is that the poor have obviously not pleased God and are therefore cursed with the scourge of poverty. This sentiment has been expressed in several variations by many Republican politicians, but it all boils down to erstwhile presidential candidate Herman Cain’s infamous “blame yourself”: If you are poor it’s your own fault. Scratch a Republican and you’ll find that sentiment. No wonder they want to roll back the New Deal – it helps the very people who are least worthy of that help.
One Republican talking point for many years has been that if taxes are lowered, charitable giving will rise, so that all those poor people who are now living on the government dole will be taken care of by charitable organizations. Yeah, sounds good, but how does that really work out? Studies have consistently shown that people in the bottom 20% give to charity, as a percentage of their income, at about twice the rate of people in the top 20%. All those tax breaks we’ve seen over the years, starting with Ronald Reagan, have enabled the rich to pocket their windfall rather than give to charity.
And, as we saw in the Great Depression, charitable organizations are unable to keep up with the demand for their services. Moreover, many people who lived through that depression have said that they didn’t want to take “charity”, in a tone of voice that made it sound like a dirty word.
Why was that? Well, I have my own grandmother’s testimony on that: The charity she went to for help in 1931 did dribble out some to her, but in her words, “They made me crawl for it.”
Most charitable organizations were associated with a church and so they were shackled by the Calvinist mindset. The people who actually needed their assistance were those who were deemed least worthy of receiving it. But if you were willing to swallow your pride, jettison your dignity and get down on your knees in supplication, you might get some help. No wonder people didn’t want to take “charity”. No wonder it became a dirty word.
Do we really want to go back to those Good Old Days? I don’t think so, but our Republican friends do. It’s up to us to not allow that to happen. The only thing that is saving us at the moment is that we have a Democratic president who will veto any all bills that come before him that would roll back the progressive reforms of the New Deal.
Can you imagine what would happen if Mitt Romney had won the presidency? We'd be so fucked.