Can America Return to Normalcy? Should We Even Try?

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Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of "New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth" (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), and editor of the "New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance" curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.

In the 1920 presidential campaign, following the conclusion of World War I, Republican candidate Warren G. Harding ran for President of the United States under the slogan “Return to Normalcy”—which loosely translated meant a return to an idealized version of the American past.  As a historian, I see many parallels between the 1920s and the current era in the United States, especially when looking at the debates in the 2012 presidential campaign.  As a social studies teacher, I believe a comparison of the two periods will help students and the public in general better understand the problems facing the nation as well as recent political movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

The 1920s in the United States was a period of political and economic transformation and cultural turmoil. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant [WASP] rural America felt their country was slipping away from them.  Capitalist industrialization transformed the nation and turned it into a global economic and military power.  Political power was held by bankers and industrialists operating through the Republican Party, and the government served their interests.

The great population shift, when, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans began to live in urban as opposed to rural areas, occurred in the 1920s, fed by immigration.  New immigrants were largely Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe and they were becoming citizens and voters.  The role of women, who could now vote in federal elections, was changing.  Blacks were moving north from the Jim Crow South.  Workers were turning militant, organizing labor unions, striking, and even sometimes voting for socialist candidates. In the 1920 presidential election, Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate who ran his campaign from a jail cell, received over 900,000 votes for president.

Hoping to return to an idealized pre-industrial past, rural Americans supported right-wing populism.  They voted for candidates pledged to restrict immigrants and labor unions, arrest radicals, and they were largely behind Prohibition.  They opposed the teaching of evolution in the schools and resurrected the Ku Klux Klan as a weapon to suppress immigrants, Catholics, Jews, labor unions, and blacks.

Caught in the same maelstrom, Catholic and Jewish workers built labor unions and socialist and communist organizations.  Newly-arrived blacks in the north turned to the Pan-African Garveyite movement and sometimes became left-wing radicals.  This was also a period of non-political fundamentalist religious revivalism that attracted people displaced by the changes wrought by industrialized capitalism.

In my own research on radical opposition movements in the United Mine Workers of America in the 1920s, I uncovered locals and districts committed to socialist programs such as nationalization of the mines and railroads.  I also found communities in Central Pennsylvania and West Virginia where the Klan was used to mobilize displaced rural whites to oppose unions, immigrants, and blacks and to break strikes. (1)

Similar economic, political, and cultural turmoil today has produced the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements.  While President Obama compares the Occupy forces to the Tea Party movement, conservatives and Tea Party activists claim they are radically different.  I think the similarity between the two groups comes from their responses to the same circumstances rather than to similar ideas, programs, or organizing activities.  Among other differences, the Tea Party is deeply involved in Republican Party primaries while so far Occupy Wall Street activists have rejected participation in electoral politics.  As a right-wing movement, the Tea Party blames government regulation, corruption, unions, and taxation for the problems people and businesses are facing.  Left-leaning Occupy Wall Street proponents blame corporate greed for unemployment and government deficits, not government social services, unionized workers, nor the capitalist system.

The New York Times claims “the two movements do share key traits.  They emerged out of nowhere but quickly became potent political forces, driven by anxiety about the economy, a belief that big institutions favor the reckless over the hard-working, grievances that are inchoate and even contradictory, and an insistence that they are ‘leaderless.’”

They also share financing and support from powerful forces that hope to use them to shape the political debate.  The Koch brothers, major right-wing financiers, and the Murdoch Fox News network provide money and media attention to the Tea Party.  On Fox News, tiny rallies with a few dozen participants become huge political events.

Meanwhile, which represents what would be considered the left wing of the Democratic Party and strongly supports the Obama reelection drive, is channeling resources into Occupy Wall Street and trying to influence it, hoping to use the unrest among young people to mobilize them to once again campaign for Obama.  In New York City, the Working Families Party, which is closely aligned with the teachers’ union and the Central Labor Council, has also provided key support for Occupy Wall Street.

Even mainstream Democrats, anxious to hold onto the youth vote and to absorb some of its energy, have expressed support for the goals of Occupy Wall Street, if not for its appearance and tactics. The Brooklyn Paper reported that on October 25, a group of “old-school Brooklyn politicians,” including the borough president and the Democratic Party county leader, attended a solidarity rally at Borough Hall.  Some of the politicos even marched across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Wall Street, but they veered away before the marchers arrived at the occupation center at Zuccotti Park.

As populist movements ebb and flow during the presidential campaign season and as established political groups attempt to manipulate them to gain support, it is important to remember some historical lessons based on an understanding of the 1920s.

Both the Republicans and Democrats hoping to capitalize on social discontent need to keep populist protesters aligned with the parties looking clean and responsible, which are not necessarily easy tasks.  In the 1920s right-wing populism produced the Klan, which was essentially a domestic terrorist organization.  Left-wing protesters often flout cultural conventions which alienates mainstream voters.  Frustration on the left has also produced groups like the Weather Underground in the 1960s.

It is impossible to return to the past.  Just as the economic uncertainty of the 1920s was a product of the triumph of industrial capitalism and the power of big business, the economic uncertainty of the 2010s is the result of the triumph of global capitalism, or globalization, which has allowed corporations to shift production overseas to the cheapest, least regulated labor markets without regard to its impact on the domestic work force.  Globalization has so reworked the way we produce goods and live that the world will never be the same.  Our only hope if Americans want to maintain their standard of living is to find ways to control private economic forces.

Populist movements always ebb and flow and tend to be ephemeral.  Mayor Bloomberg believes Occupy Wall Street will fade away as the weather turns colder.  Historical patterns suggest he is right.  In earlier epics ruling nobility could always count on protesting peasants to return to their fields for planting season or harvest.  The Tea Party movement may be equally fragile.  If the Republican mainstream nominates a candidate Tea Party adherents disapprove of, they might just sit out the election and dissolve.

Unless populist movements produce institutions that survive them, develop coherent programs, and continue the struggle, they end up in the waste bin of history.  A key force in the creation of the progressive New Deal coalition that dominated American politics from 1932 to 1968 and produced Social Security, Medicare, federal regulation of big business excess, school desegregation, and civil rights legislation, was the growth of the labor movement with the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s.

The break up of union influence and decline in membership since 1968 has been a major reason for the eclipse of the New Deal coalition and the idea that active government should regulate business, ensure social justice, and provide for the needs of people.  I believe that rebuilding the labor movement, if it is possible, will require a much more international focus than in the past.  The only way we can prevent American jobs from being shipped to Delhi, Beijing, and Jakarta is to make sure that workers in India, China, and Indonesia receive fair wages and have safe working conditions and to insist that no goods anywhere are produced at the expense of the environment.

Demographic changes often signal new political alignments.  A growing and maturing Hispanic and Asian electorate in the United States, while incredibly diverse, has the potential to transform politics and power in much the same way as white ethnics from Europe transformed the Democratic Party electoral base in the 1920s and 1930s.

Personally, as an old sixties New Leftist, I support Occupy Wall Street and not the Tea Party.  But if Occupy Wall Street is going to have any significant influence it must develop a coherent program, build its own independent political organization, and avoid either drifting away or being absorbed by the mainstream Democrats.


(1) Alan Singer, “Class-Conscious Coal Miners: Nanty-glo Versus the Open Shop in the Post World War I Era,” Labor History, 29(1), Winter 1988

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