Here's a blunt message for millions of Americans who have lost their jobs
and had no success finding a new one: You don't have a problem; you are the
problem. This lie has been promoted for years by far-right pundits and you
can be sure it will get a huge popularity boost from the wave of Republican
victories in the midterm elections.
There is ample evidence of the uber-conservative propaganda blitz in
print, broadcasting and on-line media. Certain catch phrases and code words
pop up over and over. One of the most insidious examples I've noticed
recently is the assertion that Franklin Roosevelt's administration actually prolonged
the Great Depression. This notion can be breezily inserted into a
conversation by referring to "the failed New Deal policies."
Implicit in this line of attack is the notion that any government
effort to help unemployed workers will only encourage laziness and create a
cycle of dependency, a cycle which is not only un-productive for the economy
but thoroughly un-American.
When you read first-person accounts of the Depression, many of the
recollections emphasize the embarrassment and shame workers felt after being
pushed into the unemployment ranks with no job prospects anywhere in sight.
To critics of the New Deal, these feelings were justified, and that attitude
is now re-emerging with new enthusiasm on the far right.
According to the "government is the problem" bloviators, anyone who
loses their job is just that -- a loser. We know that because bosses don't
fire good people, right? And if it turns out your job disappeared because
the factory closed or the company shut down, well, that just proves your
firm was a loser and you were a dummy to keep working there. In any case,
all blame goes to the victim.
People who hate the New Deal don't like the idea of social safety nets.
They see unemployment as an attitude problem with a simple solution. All it
takes to succeed is to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make it
happen. Anyone who can't do that is a disgrace to the American tradition of
rugged individualism and self-reliance.
Using this argument, it follows that being unemployed for a prolonged
period of time can only mean you are not a real American. You're just a
dolt who wants a government bailout for your bad career choices. The best
thing you can do is shut up and go off into the hills and find a cave to
squat in so responsible, hardworking citizens don't have to listen to your
The anti-New Deal crowd is all about "me first." You can identify them
instantly on radio call-in shows because they describe government aid
programs as "giving my hard earned money to deadbeats" and they have no
sense of being part of a community. To them, the word "community" is
basically the same as "communism."
As the recession grinds on, I'm going to be on the alert for politicians
or media commentators who suggest it might be time to re-evaluate the
benefits of "government regulations" on things like minimum wages, overtime
pay, collective bargaining rights, and other legacies of the New Deal that
free-enterprise fanatics have always hated.
Their logic will be the same as it's been since the industrial revolution.
If you can find a guy who's willing to work 12 hours a day for $100 a week
including Saturdays, what right does the government have to interfere with a
private business arrangement?
In his book The Coldest Winter author David Halberstam described the
1930s this way: "The Great Depression had revealed the deepest chasms in
American society, and a profound political, economic, and social alienation
had taken place."
Those chasms haven't gone away. What troubles me even more is the number
of people in this country who are relentlessly trying to make them deeper.