Right-wing folklore, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. Let's give the mike to Lance Mannion:
Lance Mannion: Conservative folklore: Can't remember now whether it was in high school or sometime in my first couple years of college when I first heard the argument that the New Deal didn't end the Depression. It was a long time ago, whenever it was, but that first time I heard it was far from the last. It was dismaying then that so many years after FDR there were people who could seriously argue the point and it's even more dismaying now that they're still arguing the point.
But then there are people who still argue that slavery wasn't so bad.
And anyway the South wasn't fighting to protect slavery, it was fighting for States' Rights. Which rights? Well, um, the right to permit slavery...
The the New Deal didn't work argument went---goes---Since at some unspecificed point a few years into FDR's first or second term the United States hadn't returned to the level of prosperity it supposedly enjoyed in 1928, nothing Roosevelt did had any real effect.
This comes out of an idea that has been a fundamental of conservative thought forever: Since there is no heaven on earth and no human endeavor is perfect and therefore Utopia is impossible, we might as well not bother trying to solve any problems, particularly if trying means having to spend my tax dollars.
At any rate, whenever I'd make the case that the point from which to begin measuring Roosevelt's success or failure should be 1931 or so, and if you do that you see that things are an awful lot better, on the whole, by 1938.
Yes, would come the insistent rebuttal, but he didn't end the Depression.
The problem I had and anyone with a real knowledge of history has with this argument is that it's true. Roosevelt didn't end the Depression. We don't believe that he did. He saved us from the worst of it, turned the economy around, and set us on a road that led to the great prosperity and stability of the 1950s. It took years for the country to recover. But what you're faced with here is the grade school text book version of history---the Happy Days Are Here Again three paragraph summation of the 1930s and 40s. Roosevelt ended the Depression and won World War II.
So here you've got to be careful. It's very easy to fall victim to the It's all or nothing ploy favored by second rate thinkers and crafty debate club debaters.
I found that the way to get around this was to seem to concede point.
If the New Deal didn't end the Depression, what did?
Always, always, the person I was arguing with came back with: World War II.
World War II?
World War II.
Not the New Deal?
So all the massive government spending programs and job programs didn't work?
But World War II did?
By revitalizing American industries and putting everybody back to work!
Uh huh. And what was it, specifically, that revitalized those industries?
Orders for guns and planes and tanks and battleships, of course. There was a war on, duh!
I see. And who was the main customer for all the guns and planes and tanks and battleships?
Um, the Government.
And where did all those people go to work?
Um, the military.
Which means who paid their salaries?
So massive Goverment spending and job programs didn't work but then a massive government spending and jobs program did?
Well, yeah. But it was different!
It just was!
Give me one way.
Well, we needed all that stuff during the war.
The guns and tanks and planes and battleships?
And we didn't need the roads and the schools and new post offices and dams and electrification programs?
Here I would helpfully provide my opponent with the point that the good thing about planes, tanks, and battleships is that they get shot down, blown up, and sunk and have to be constantly replaced. You build a school and 30, 40, and even 50 years can by before you have to build another one.
Then we'd shake hands and part ways and I'd stroll off whistling, chuckling to myself as I imagined my opponent going off to argue with someone else that blown up tanks and their dead crews were better for the economy than new schools.
A sophomoric exercise, but I was quite literally sophomoric.
But I wondered then and I wondered for a long time afterwards, where did they get the idea that the New Deal hadn't worked? There were no such things as blogs back then, we were spared the ubiquity of Right Wing radio, and the only people I knew who read the National Review and, in the early days, The American Spectator were other Liberals who thought it was good to know what tune the devil was playing. I wasn't constantly bumping into small guerrilla bands of conservative intellectuals. These were just kids from the Key Club, the frats and sororities, small town kids in my dorm and classes I got to talking with in the cafeteria or the student union or the lounge or arguing with in classes they were usually taking to fulfill a requirement not because history was their major. I couldn't figure out, since the simple grade school text book version was FDR ended the Depression and won World War II and the college text book version was, with many qualifications and asides, footnotes and outside reading, pretty much the same thing, where did they get the opposite idea?
I concluded that there was a conservative folk culture at work. Kids would rush home from school and tell their parents, Guess what we learned in school today? Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest President since Abraham Lincoln!
And their parents would sit them on their knee and patiently explain to them the truth as grandpa had taught it to them.
Child, listen up. Your teacher's full of shit! That goddamn class traitor Roosenfeld goddamn near ruined this country!
Later, those kids would tell each other the old stories at keggers and in the country club locker rooms and this way the true history would be passed down from generation to generation and never be lost.
Except that oral traditions can be lost. They can be polluted, diverted, superseded. Even now, with that oral tradition daily repeated and reinforced by blogs and on the radio, there's a chance of corruption. Facts might sneak in. What's needed is a written history. Magazines and newspapers aren't enough. We need actual history books that say what we want them to say.
The day may be coming. But first all the details of the Right Wing version of American History have to be worked out. FDR and the New Deal is an easy one. But what next? The problem is that the whole history of America from the Mayflower Compact on is a record of Liberal victory over the stubborn forces of conservativism, privilege, and reaction, so where do you start? There's almost too much to choose from.
Erik Loomis of Alterdestiny identifies a period of history currently being revised in their favor by Right Wing intellectuals.
The Gilded Age.
They're out to rehabilitate the Robber Barons.