In the April 30, 2007 issue of The Nation (pp. 16 – 20), Lawrence Cooper argues for what he calls “The Coming Party Realignment.” He bases this on a historical parallel with the early 1930s. In 1930, with voters newly disaffected from the effects of the Great Depression and seeing President Hoover seeming to do nothing to help, Democrats picked up a substantial number of seats in Congress. In 1932, the slight realignment of Congress was followed by a sort of political tidal wave, with Democrats gaining overwhelming control of Congress and picking up the presidency with FDR’s first term. Cooper sees 2006’s slight realignment of Congress to the Democrats as parallel to 1930, to be followed in 2008 by a parallel to 1932. He sees the causes of the 1930 and 2006 shifts as parallel as well – public anxiety over economic crisis. “For generations to come, American historians will doubtless be comparing the period 1930 – 1936 to 2006 – 2012 as years of crisis for capitalism.”
I find Cooper’s article interesting – and I’d like to think he’s right that a political tidal wave will largely sweep the Republicans away in 2008, though I’m not confident that will happen, and while he does point out some interesting parallels, I’m skeptical of his totalizing comparison of the two eras.
In both the 1930 and 2006 mid-term elections, the shift of seats in Congress from Republicans to Democrats represented a sort of informal referendum on Presidents Hoover and Bush, indicating voter dissatisfaction with them. But the causes of voter displeasure are not so parallel as Cooper presents (and the consequences in 2008 likewise need not parallel 1932). The election of 1930 represented displeasure and anxiety over the Depression as Cooper argues. While economic anxiety (and perhaps some disgust over the handling of things like Hurricane Katrina) may have been part of the backdrop for voters’ motivations in voting as they did (and more on economic anxiety in a moment), the primary issue in the 2006 election was clearly the Iraq War. Barring an extreme downturn in the economy, Iraq will probably be the main issue again in 2008, with economic anxiety, health care, and the Bush Administration’s various scandals as important, but distinctly secondary campaign issues. If things in Iraq continue as they are now, 2008 may see major victories for Democrats, but not really for the reasons Cooper argues.
1930 and 2006 are both periods of economic anxiety for many middle class Americans, and Americans in general. They have that in common, but 1930 and 2006 aren’t otherwise particularly comparable. Today, we see crisis and much anxiety for some workers, but capitalism is not in crisis, whereas in 1930 both workers and capitalism were in crisis.
Further the degree of crisis and anxiety, even for workers, is quite different in degree and kind. Middle class workers are rightly anxious today, about not going deeply into debt, about paying for a top college education for their children, about their job being outsourced and having to take a lower paying job, about their home losing value in a housing bubble, in some cases about having to shift from owning a home to renting. In 1930, many middle class workers were worried about having any sort of job and about whether there would be food in the short or long term. Things are serious for the American middle class today (and even more serious for those below the middle class), and that will likely have political repercussions, but it’s no Great Depression.