It was November 1936. The Great American Depression was in its seventh year. Bread lines still wrapped around the blocks of many American cities; more than 20 percent of the country’s work force remained unemployed. Progress was slow and arduous despite the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” which spawned a number of alphabetical New Deal remedies. It was a daunting experience for the best and brightest minds that the nation could muster, which prompted Will Rogers, the reigning humorist of that benighted era, to remark, “It’s almost worth this depression to find out how little our big men know.”
It was also time to elect both the 74th Congress and the 32nd president of the United States of America. The opposition could rightly point out the lack of substantial improvement but they were unable to offer anything better. American voters had two choices: they could abandon FDR and his New Deal by reinstating the party they ousted in 1932 or they could stay the course with a popular leader who inspired faith and hope. Fortunately, they chose not only wisely but astoundingly so. The pampered patrician of Hyde Park, called a “traitor to his class” by his wealthy contemporaries, received the mightiest electoral victory in modern history: 61 percent of the popular vote and 98.5 percent of the Electoral College (523-8). The Democratic Party took the Senate by 76-16 and the House by 334-88. The Republican Party was aghast; there was even talk about its eventual demise. In the next two elections American voters, well aware of the causes of their economic misery, gave FDR and his party an unprecedented additional two terms in office.
From 1932 to 1980 we elected only two Republican presidents but always with a Democratic Congress to hold them in check. During this period we enjoyed 25 years of the greatest prosperity in our entire history. For some reason that didn’t satisfy the majority of Americans. In 1980 they elected a popular Republican president who convinced the majority of our citizens that we were on the wrong path. Big government is the problem, not the solution to a healthy economy, he told us. For the next 28 years he and his three immediate successors removed as many of the innovations and reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society as possible. They returned control of our economy back to big business after a hiatus of 48 years, which prompted the biggest transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich since the 1920s began. Twice in the past 100 years, American voters have given big business unbridled control of our economy: first in the 1920s under presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and again from 1980 to 2008 with Presidents Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes. And twice in the past 100 years we have been handed similar rewards: the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2008.
Why the majority of Americans continue to trust the people who finagle and underpay their income taxes and cheat and defraud Medicare and Medicaid is a mystery to me. We are powerless to manage the conduct of these predators but every two years but if we are dissatisfied with the makeup of our government, we are free to alter it. Despite modest progress made under the Obama administration we still have a long way to go. In November 2012 we will face the same choices as did the voters in November 1936: We can place the reins of government back into the hands of those who put us into the quandary we are now in or we can stay the course. If we make the wrong choice we have only ourselves to blame.
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The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.