Open University

What It Takes

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by Eric RauchwayOur Open U colleague David Greenberg has a nice piece in Slate on how the 1927 flood spurred the federal government to take greater responsibility for its citizens. I think this is true, but not true enough, and the difference between the two isn't just historians' quibbling: It goes to the big question of what it takes to get the American people to support what, for the sake of convenience, let's call "bigger government." Does it take a disaster? And how big a disaster does it take? And what does that say about us?

If the 1927 flood taught Americans that the federal government ought to take charge of disaster relief, it did not teach them that the Coolidge/Hoover Republicans should not be in charge of the federal government. More important, it did not teach Hoover much of anything--he got out of the flood with his reputation enhanced, even though the massive amount of credit he raised for reconstruction never got lent out, and even though he made unkept promises to African American flood victims about re-establishing them in their homes. Hoover walked away from the flood believing much what he already believed--that a bit of engineering and some good public relations were sufficient to keep people happy. "The world lives by phrases," Hoover had said; some people, like H. L. Mencken, were onto him (his "achievements all diminish rather than increase on analysis," Mencken wrote in uncharacteristically sober tones) but not enough to keep Hoover from the presidency.

In consequence, when the crash and depression came, Hoover tried more of what he had done in the flood--he tried to rally the business community and he talked a good line to the press. It didn't work with the depression any better than it had with the flood; the difference was, now the victims were not some politically discountable African Americans, but the entire country.

So it took three years of a crisis of international scope that directly affected the entire United States for Americans to repudiate the Republicans of the 1920s, and even then, they never quite let go of the idea that the state should do less rather than more, as the limits on the New Deal show.

So suppose, now, you favor a big idea, like, I don't know, healthcare reform, and you think we can't get it piecemeal. You can't, in good conscience or as a political strategy, hope for a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression to bring voters to your side. What do you do?

I think the answer is twofold: (a) you have to go venue-shopping, and (b) you have to rely on whatever arguments seem to work, even if they're not reality-based and technocratic. For example, in my own work I discuss how, prior to the New Deal, Americans supported public-health policies at the local level when they thought it was a good reaction to the perceived threat of immigration. But such policies would require a more populist party, and one more savvy about its state and municipal machines, to promote them.

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