One Parallel for the Coronavirus Crisis? The Great DepressionHistorians in the News
tags: Great Depression, New Deal
Today’s soaring unemployment, small business failures, and uncertainty about the future are like nothing most of us have seen in our lifetimes. If there’s any useful historical parallel, it might be the Great Depression.
Like the coronavirus-driven economic crash, the Depression devastated a nation where things were already awful for a lot of people. In the 1920s, business owners pretty much did whatever they wanted. The rich got obscenely richer. Progressive, pro-worker policies had little place in national politics. The crisis changed everything. By the end of the 1930s, the country’s unions were stronger than they’d ever been and Congress had passed huge, unprecedented economic policies. The notion that the federal government didn’t have a central place in securing middle-class wellbeing was relegated to the political fringes. But how, exactly did that transformation happen? How did the economic suffering of the 1930s birth a new political and economic era?
Nineteen thirty-two presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt was among those who treated the early 30s as an essentially normal time.
“A lot of Roosevelt’s campaign in ’32 is ‘I’m not Herbert Hoover,’” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s not policy-driven, not about organizing the masses.” In fact, Loomis told me, if FDR had been a left-wing figure, he couldn’t possibly have won the nomination of the 1932 Democratic Party, which, like the Republican Party, was deeply beholden to big corporations.
Actually, the most powerful force working for fundamental change in the early 1930s was probably the Communist Party. It was a group that represented a tiny portion of the U.S. public, but it was highly organized and savvy. In 1929, it went to work organizing the jobless, eventually forming local Unemployed Councils around the country. Writing in the American Political Science Review in 1989, historian Michael Goldfield describes massive communist-led demonstrations, including a national day of action that brought more than a million people out on the streets, in March of 1930. Goldfield writes that local councils fought evictions and demanded relief in militant local actions.