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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Refuting Depression Revisionism

As you probably know if you spend any time paying attention to conservative agitprop, Depression Revisionism is all the rage on the Right, where it’s now settled wisdom that the New Deal failed and that Herbert Hoover, like Franklin Roosevelt, was a big-spending market interventionist who helped create the Great Depression in the first place by excessive meddling with the economy. This revisionist point-of-view is obviously aimed at reinforcing GOP arguments that Obama’s economic activism is doomed to fail–you know, just like FDR’s.
More importantly, this rather counter-intuitive if loudly and confidently announced historical axiom seems to have infected MSM coverage of the current economic debate. An anecdote: I was recently awaiting a flight in an airport that featured monitors blaring out CNN, and could not help but be aware of an “Anderson Cooper 360” segment on the economic stimulus package. Nestled in the midst of turgid analysis of the jobs impact of this bridge and that road was an interview with some midwestern economics professor, who was given the opportunity to say, without contradiction, that it was the “consensus” of economists that the New Deal had failed to make a dent in the Great Depression. This is the sort of assertion that has a strong subliminal effect on those of us–a pretty big majority of Americans–who don’t spend a lot of time keeping up with the Dismal Science.
The would-be Copernicus of this Calvin-Coolidge-Was-Right revolution in understanding of the 1930s is undoubtedly Amity Shlaes, a conservative columnist whose best-selling book on the New Deal and the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man, is one of those tomes that is constantly cited as definitive by people who haven’t read it at all.
While the temptation to say we should all actually read Shlaes is offset by my lack of interest in further enriching her, I’m glad to report that Jonathan Chait has laid out the basic issues for us in an important review in The New Republic.
I know that like many bloggers I often link to an article or post and beg you to “read the whole thing,” but with respect to Chait’s review of Shlaes, I really do mean it. That’s because Shlaes’ take on the Great Depression has become very central not only to the GOP case against President Obama’s agenda, but to the “positive” antediluvian economc policies most Republicans are urging upon us as an alternative.
To boil it all down, Chait shows that Shlaes’ account of the Depression is highly anecdotal and doesn’t always support the “lessons” we are supposed to learn from her; that she uses economic statistics in a dubious and very selective way to make her points; and that her interpretation of both FDR’s and Hoover’s reponses to the Depression is one that virtually no reputable historian would support. He also establishes that most economists, regardless of ideology–and contra the assertion of that economist speaking on “Anderson Cooper 360”–would disagree with Shlaes’ basic understanding of the Depression and its causes and remedies.
We should all understand by now that interpretations of large historical events often have a profound influence on contemporary public discourse. “Revisionist” takes on developments ranging from the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the execution of Jesus Christ, to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Battle of Tours, the French Revolution, and the Treaty of Versailles, all fed powerful political and intellectual movements many decades and even centuries later. While the Great Depression of the 1930s probably doesn’t match most of those events in its significance, it was undoubtedly an experience that molded political opinions in America for a very long time, mostly in a way that benefitted the Democratic Party. It’s thus not surprising that Republicans want to overturn the popular understanding of those difficult years. And thus it’s important for progressives to challenge them when they are so dangerously wrong. Thanks to Jonathan Chait for firing back with facts, logic, and a compelling narrative of what really happened in America so long ago.

2 comments on “Refuting Depression Revisionism

  1. edkilgore on

    I’m hardly an authority on the subject, but I gather the most reputable political history of the era remains William Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal,” and the most reputable grassroots history of the period is Robert McElvaine’s “The Great Depression: America 1929-1941.” Both are available at amazon and other book sites. And both are relatively positive about the New Deal, but hardly uncritical.

  2. hermus on

    I’ve been searching for a solid, objective account of the Great Depression to help me understand how it happened, and what worked and didn’t work policy-wise. Unfortunately many of the histories are biased in one direction or another (Shlaes’ work being one of the most prominent). Can you recommend a more intellectually honest account?


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