It’s now clear that Adolf Hitler might easily have won World War II if cable TV had existed in America at the beginning of the New Deal. I am dead serious about this. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, the United States economy was in a state of near-collapse, the nation’s banks about to close.
The new president came into office having pledged to balance the budget and reduce federal spending, but quickly realized that would mean disaster. He inflated the currency, took the nation off the gold standard, and launched all sorts of new programs.
Congress, desperate to stave off a total economic collapse, gave FDR whatever he asked for at first. Recovery took a long, long time, but his cheery confidence energized America. People learned, through programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, that government could be a force for good. Learned a lesson, that is, too many have since forgotten. Later, people whose families had been saved were willing to listen when Roosevelt, concerned by growing fascist threats, argued for building up our long-neglected armed forces.
Eventually, as a result, we managed to win World War II. Voters gave FDR a third term and then a fourth. Sadly, Roosevelt died of a massive stroke only a few months into that final term.
History has long since judged him one of our very greatest presidents. But just imagine what might have happened if CNN and Fox News and the rest of modern-day cableland had existed in 1933. They would have been all over his every move, showing little clips of his campaign speeches and endlessly dissecting any seeming contradiction. Herbert Hoover would have been on night after night, sourly denouncing his rival, sneering when FDR said that his ideology was “try something, and if it doesn’t work try something else.”
And perhaps eventually, when some important senator died, the otherwise discredited GOP would have figured out they could have gotten vast free media by making the race to succeed him all about national dissatisfaction. That might not have been hard to do. National unemployment was still 21.7 percent at the end of FDR’s first year. Demanding instant gratification, the headline-a-minute media might have caused FDR to be replaced by a reactionary.
Right-wing types back then, by the way, not only opposed health care and feeding starving children; they were against military spending. The way they saw it, George Washington told us to stay out of foreign entanglements. Since both oceans protected us, isolationism ought to be good enough for us, forever. Had that happened, we might not only have been plunged back into a depression that could have destroyed democracy itself, we would not have been prepared for war when it came.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Americans during the New Deal were desperate. But they didn’t expect their problems to all be cleared up in the space of a weeklong miniseries. Nor did they expect to agree with everything and every program the President proposed. They merely wanted to see progress. Now fast-forward to the present day: Last week was, by any measure, a perfectly awful one for anybody calling themselves a progressive. Republican Scott Brown was elected to fill Teddy Kennedy’s old seat in the U.S. Senate, a shocking development that was once beyond belief.
However, by the time the election happened, the result seemed inevitable. After all, the media had told us repeatedly in the final days that “something dramatic could be happening.” Massachusetts voters knew that if they did the safe and expected thing, i.e., vote for Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, they would get little attention on national TV. On the other hand, if they “boldly” rejected their long Democratic ways, why, CNN’s John King might come to their house and put them on TV. The choice was clear; the lemmings swam.
So Massachusetts, the one state that already has a health-care plan roughly like the one President Obama wanted to give the nation, elected a man who has vowed to kill health care for the rest of the country. When the results were in, TV showed crowds of happy idiots and others who didn’t have a clue what they’d voted for, or why. Yes, it was a big story. But what did it really mean? Why was this reason to celebrate? The Republicans want no progress at all. They were against saving Chrysler and General Motors; they are against any further stimulus programs aimed at helping people, though they went along when their man, George W. Bush, elected to bail out the banks and Wall Street in late 2008.
More than at any time in their history, the Republicans are merely the party of “No.” They stand for nothing and against nearly everything. They steadily inch closer to their neo-racist allies in the so-called “Tea Party Movement,” who lash out at liberal elites and illegal immigrants. The Tea Party crowd also hates Wall Street and the banks, which gives some Republicans a bit of pause before completely jumping in bed with them, but, hey …
Last week the commentators were all over Barack Obama for his seeming lack of passion and loss of apparent focus, and for the fact that the health plan is confusing to most voters. There’s some truth in all of that, and yes, it would be nice to have a more passionate leader. But it would be even nicer if we — and especially the media — treated us like grown-ups and reported like they were adults who weren’t channeling an attention deficit disorder. Forget style.
Look at what is at stake. There are something like 54 million Americans who still lack any health care at all, and a small minority of Republicans in the U.S. Senate are determined to deny it to them. Is that really what we want? Is your own health care that secure? The Republicans can now do this because Brown’s election gives them the ability to be able to choke off a vote even though Democrats still control the Senate, 59-41. President Obama promised national health care when he ran two years ago, and he won by a near-landslide, an amazing margin of nearly 10 million votes.
For the last year, Obama has been preoccupied with trying to prevent a Great Depression-scale collapse of the whole economy. So far, he has succeeded. General Motors is not in great shape and Fiat owns Chrysler, but it is clear that, had John McCain won the election, neither of those companies would exist at all.
By the way, in a very real sense, George W. Bush’s presidency is still with us. He gave us a malevolent gift that could keep on giving for perhaps the next 30 years — Chief Justice John Roberts, a right-wing ideologue who helped engineer last week’s blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says nobody can limit the amount of money corporations can spend to influence elections.
Last week was a wonderful one, if you happen to be a huge corporation or someone who makes a lot of money from the way things work now. The saddest thing is to see working-class idiots who think they scored some kind of victory in Massachusetts. `For more on that see the QueQue, page 7.` Yes, they sent Washington a message, all right: Feel free to keep screwing us over. Deny secure health care to all but the richest, and say you are doing that to protect personal freedom. That’s the message Massachusetts sent them, and you know what?
They got it, big-time.
Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Current sister paper the Detroit Metro Times.