Commentary Magazine


For Liberals It’s Always 1936

On June 14th, 1936, two days after Alf Landon accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for president, a New York Times columnist wrote:

The stage show looked like America, but the convention hall did not. The crowd seemed like the sanctuary of a minority — economically wounded capitalists in shades from eggshell to ecru, cheering the man . . . and trying to fathom why they’re not running the country anymore. The speakers ranted about an America in decline, but the audience reflected a party in decline.

Oh, wait a minute. My mistake. That was Maureen Dowd writing yesterday. My, how time stands still when you’re having fun.

In 1936, the Republicans were indeed wondering why they weren’t still running the country. They had been, after all, since 1896, with the exception of 1913-1921, when a split in the party had given the election to Woodrow Wilson. And they certainly hankered for a return to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge, while the Democrats recognized that the Great Depression had changed things forever. While the country was still mired in depression, it was in much better shape than it had been four years earlier. In 1936, unemployment averaged a dismal 16.9 percent. But that was down from over 25 percent. The Dow reached 194.40 in June 1936. It had been at 40.21 in June 1932, barely half a point above its first-ever close in 1896.

In his great Second Inaugural Address (after trouncing Alf Landon in the election) FDR said, quite accurately, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” But as Michael Ledeen points out, the economic world of 1936 is a vanished world. No one today in this country lives in anything like the sort of poverty that millions of sharecroppers in the South and unskilled industrial laborers in the North knew in 1936. By the standards of 1936, most American families are filthy rich and those who aren’t receive massive assistance to raise them above the poverty line.

The national debt in 1936 was 40 percent of GDP. Today it is over 100 percent. The deficit in 1936 was 5.5 percent of GDP, this year it will be over 7 percent.

But for liberals like Maureen Dowd it is always 1936. The problems of 1936 are the problems today. The solutions for 1936 are the solutions for today. And the Republicans are a few people in mink coats and dinner jackets going down to the long-vanished Trans-Lux theater to hiss Roosevelt.

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