Why is the country flying apart now, when it didn’t in the ’30s?

How did the nation settle for an Establishment president in the same year that the Bonus Army was marching?

How did the nation settle for an Establishment president in the same year that the Bonus Army was marching?

I thought this passage from Yeats was appropriate four years ago. I had no idea how bad things would get:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

You think the centre can hold? Tell that to Jeb Bush (and Hillary Clinton, right after New Hampshire). You don’t think the worst are full of passionate intensity? Go to a Trump rally.

Why is this happening now? Why didn’t it happen in the 1930s, when socialism and fascism were competing across the globe… everywhere but here?

If ever there was a time that faith in the center, the mainstream, might have been shaken, you’d think it would have happened then rather than now.

How was it that, in an election going on at the same time the Bonus Army was marching, the nation chose an Establishment president? And you really didn’t get much more Establishment than Roosevelt.

Was FDR just that gifted and charismatic a leader? I mean, I think he was a lot of it. His ability to inspire and encourage the nation was amazing.

Why are civil, thoughtful, calm people swept aside in favor of blustering bullies? As I’ve said before, Trump and to a great extent Cruz behave in ways that most civilized people teach their children not to act. It remains beyond my understanding that any adult could look at these guys and think, This is my leader; this is the one I want.

True, the center is singularly lacking in charismatic figures. There is no FDR, no Lincoln, to pull the country together.

And if that lack is the answer, then our current situation is a great argument for the Great Man theory of history…

44 thoughts on “Why is the country flying apart now, when it didn’t in the ’30s?

  1. Michael Bramson

    I can’t speak to the veracity of it because I’m not a historian or journalism expert, but some people would say that it’s because of the modern media landscape. The media narrative is no longer controlled by a few major TV stations and newspapers with an eye towards impartiality. A lot of people get their news from unabashedly partisan outlets (although maybe that’s a symptom rather than a cause?) and many of those outlets are more concerned with sensationalist profit-minded coverage than with responsibly reporting on public affairs. It’s very difficult to form nuanced, balanced opinions if you get all of your news and analysis from an echo chamber.

  2. Harry Harris

    I think it’s a crisis in followership rather than leadership. We choose (especially since the 80’s, to be divided rather than pursue the needed level of unity. There’s money to be made dividing us. We bite when offered what is claimed to be a benefit for us and people of our group.
    The press and the electronic media are too afraid to support truth and fact-checking other than in a passing fashion.
    The church as a whole has dropped the ball.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t think the church has “dropped the ball.” With regard to the church, I think what you said first applies: “a crisis in followership rather than leadership.”

      Our society has come to worship individual will and whim, and is utterly dismissive of the “thou shalt nots” that will inevitably play a part in a moral code. We’re all about the “I, me, mine.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        For instance, let’s talk about the lack of priests today.

        There was a time when a young heterosexual male just might accept a lifetime of celibacy in order to serve others. Not MANY young heterosexual males, but say one in a thousand.

        That kind of sacrifice is much, much harder to find today. I’m sounding judgmental, but keep in mind I don’t think there was EVER a time when I could have gone for a deal like that, so I’m not condemning. I’m just saying such sacrifice used to be more common than now…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Ditto with nuns, of course. It’s a reason why convents today look more like nursing homes.

          Nuns have the additional factor of feminism and their meme that everything is about earthly power. It’s one thing to embrace a life of celibacy, but to do so and still have to play second-fiddle to priests? Few will opt for that today.

          Which is a manifestation of the same thing — the assertion of the ego over sacrifice…

          1. Doug Ross

            Because people have wised up to the fact that a commitment to God doesn’t require controlling human urges to the extreme?

        2. Mark Stewart

          The very sad counter-thought would be maybe there are far fewer priests today because the pedophiles have been (hopefully) diverted.

          The widespread social acceptance of gays and lesbians since the 1970s probably also has had a depressive influence as well on the ranks of priests and nuns. It’s easier to chose celibacy when one’s predilections are widely held as a social taboo. For nuns you can add on the reality that there just weren’t many avenues for women pre 1940 outside the household, off the farm, or outside the mill. Being a nun used to open up the kinds of social leadership positions otherwise closed to women.

                1. Mark Stewart

                  You may have inferred that, but that doesn’t make it something I was implying.

                  My 2 paragraphs were two entirely different ideas.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Mark, I thought you were speaking of gay men when you said “It’s easier to chose celibacy when one’s predilections are widely held as a social taboo.”

              And I think that might have been a motivation for SOME gay men to become priests in the past. Sort of a matter of “I don’t want to marry a woman anyway, and I can’t marry a man, so I might as well be a priest.”

              I was trying to sidestep that by adding the “heterosexual,” to say that there was a time when even men who were attracted to women and marriage, and had that course open to them, might have sacrificed that for the priesthood.

              Of course, whether gay or straight, priests are expected to remain celibate…

              1. Mark Stewart

                Yes, but I think that was back when third-born sons (and down the line) had little hope of inheritance.

        3. Howard

          It’s easier to become a minister, you get the title, the luxury car, the clothing allowance, the social status, and you can date and marry. Just look at Darrell Jackson, if you pull up to him in his ever new Mercedes Benz.

          1. Barry

            Well, that’s true for mega church pastors or folks like Darrell Jackson who not only run their church but stack the church with their own family members, and essentially own the church they pastor. I don’t consider that much of a church. It’s more of a country club with a social agenda.

            The large majority of pastors don’t have luxury cars, or have a clothing allowance, or pretend they own the church where they serve.

            1. Reindeargirl

              Hmmm….interesting, folks tearing down Rev.Jackson when the millionaire preacher model was perfected by white people….need I start the list of names….

      2. Harry Harris

        When posted the “dropped the ball” comment, I wasn’t referencing the Catholic church or referring to priest of preacher sexual misdeeds, though they are bad. I was referring to the abdication of the christian mandate to unify, reach out, and draw disparate beliefs together, focused on the civic and religious community balkanizing. Individual salvation and well being (important) came to dominate to the point where both the OT prophetic message (cool the sickening praise fests, act justly and mercifully) and Jesus’s unequivocal commands to let love rule the brethren in dealing with brothers, neighbors, and enemies. Still God is sought for what he will do for us (paganism), rather than what he can make us into (discipleship). We protestants seek out or form congregations that validate our own preferences, life styles, and interests rather than God’s will. Many of our people, joined by many Catholics and other groups, brag that we love the sinner and hate the sin, but it is overwhelmingly “those other people’s” sins. We probably need another Amos to come into our assembly and get us nodding, amening, clapping, waving our hands as he attacks those evil ones who surround us and then hit us with God’s real message that our guilt exceeds theirs because we act unjustly (in God’s eyes, not ours – a deeper topic).
        That’s my intent with the initial comment. We need to drop our business and get to God’s.

  3. Doug Ross

    If the political system is “falling apart” it is because the government system is driving it. There are two distinct groups on the far right and far left comprised of people who have had enough of the way the government runs. The group on the far right hates tax policy, entitlement policy, and social policy. The group on the far left hates the military policy, the corporate welfare, and the trade policies.

    What we have reached now is the tipping point where each group is now large enough to mess with the establishment (thankfully). Our government is too big and does too much and it doesn’t do it well. Trump and Sanders are a response to that reality. People are fed up with politics as usual. Democrats were duped by Obama’s Hope and Change mantra and many are now doubling down on wanting the change part that Obama promised. Republicans are tired of false promises from candidates who say they will do something and then just set up roadblocks. Both parties are at fault and neither party has offered a candidate capable of fixing the system. Does any Democrat REALLY think Hillary is going to be able to deliver anything of importance? She’ll be as impotent as Obama. Did any Republican think Jeb Bush would have been any different than his brother? The guy who botched us into war and didn’t see a major recession coming?

    We are approaching the “blow it all up and start over” point. I’m okay with that.

    1. Howard

      I am too, the world could use a several million less people. I used to laugh at the comic strip of “The end is near”, I honestly think mankind is in the 4th quarter and will just be a blip on the history of this planet. We got our chance and screwed it up.

    2. Mark Stewart

      I’m not. But clearly we do have a growing streak of nihilism running amok.

      Again, I will say this: The prescription for our political divisiveness is not to empower one fringe group or another, it is instead to put an end to the consequential gerrymandering of our Representatives.

      I would be far more concerned if I saw any signs of this social plague in everyday life. But I don’t. People are behaving just as they always have. It’s only in the political sphere that one (everyone) senses the raging. Our implementation of our political structure needs refining. It isn’t that we have a broken system, it’s that we are using it poorly.

      1. Doug Ross

        “It isn’t that we have a broken system, it’s that we are using it poorly.”

        But it was the system that allowed its own creation. Laws begat laws. Bureacracy led to more bureaucracy. Taxes that didn’t exist before have been added to the system at all levels.

  4. Mike F.

    Two quick observations:

    Remember that the smoke-filled backroom really existed in the 1930s and could pick candidates with relative impunity. Primary system as we know it is really quite new, evolving since 1960s.
    Also, parties have gotten so much more ideologically pure. FDR frequently had to get Liberal Republicans (yes, kids, that was a thing) to help him pass New Deal legislation. Now parties and political media both are quite ideologically one-sided.

  5. Howard

    Because people in the 1930’s were generally hardworking people and they knew they had to work to eat. Now if you don’t feel like working you don’t have to, Uncle Sam will support you. It used to be if you were poor you were likely skinny and sickly looking, today you are likely fat and sickly looking. Going hungry is the least of theri problems. If you want your handouts, you vote for the Democratic party, if you’re tired of paying for other people’s handouts you vote for the Republican party.

    1. Harry Harris

      Ah, yes, and the Government stepped in and created jobs, mostly through infrastructure, but including some fine arts stuff. Free feeding was done on a pretty large scale. The rural population often took care of basic needs without money because that’s what they were equipped to do. unfortunately a large number of small farms were gobbled-up, sending the farmers back to sharecropping. A notable majority of the public continued to support Roosevelt (for 14 years) through rough times, even when he screwed up in ’36 and listened to the austerity advocates.

      1. David Carlton

        Actually, New Deal farm programs worked perversely to reward landlords for throwing tenants off the land so they wouldn’t share in the subsidies, and the loose labor made it easier to start mechanizing. Remember why the Joads had to go to California?

        1. Howard

          I grew up in the rural midwest, the family farm didn’t really start to decline there until the 1970’s.

  6. Bryan Caskey

    Why is this happening now? Why didn’t it happen in the 1930s, when socialism and fascism were competing across the globe… everywhere but here?


    Back then, men wore hats and looked pretty sharp, even when they were standing in line for soup. Our standards have slipped since then. I mean, look at that picture. Even the protesters are wearing hats.

    Just kidding.

    Seriously though, I think our ultra-connected, fast-paced society makes the highs seem higher than they actually are and the lows seem lower than they actually are. People can push their opinions out to others in ways that were previously unimaginable. Back in the 30’s you had some (very early) radio programming, newspapers, and talking to your neighbor over the back fence.

    That was about it.

    But hats, too. 🙂

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      According to Johnny Dangerously, there used to be a law: “Immigrants who wanted citizenship had to stay out of their apartments at least four hours a day and walk around in the streets with hats on.”

  7. bud

    Brad just because you’re not getting a candidate that you like doesn’t make you the nation’s arbiter of what is proper, civil behavior. You lost the high ground on this issue the day you endorsed George W. Bush. (At least in 2004. I’ll give you a Mulligan for 2000). If ever there was an extremist, completely unfit for the job it was W. I don’t much like Trump but really can’t find any problem with Bernie. You didn’t mention him specifically here but you have in other posts. He says common sense, sensible things that we should all be applauding, not vilifying.

    1. Harry Harris

      Sanders has some positions and specific policies that give me pause, but at least he has them. Stating rough equivalence to Trump strikes me as reductionist, bumper-sticker thought.

    2. Mark Stewart

      2004 wasn’t a great election for the voters. Both sides were seriously flawed. It’s what we are getting again this time. 2008 was an aberration from the norm – but then that race did include Palin; which is about as scary as scary leader of the free world thoughts get.

      The 2015-early ’16 primary races would be fine were they to have been free of Trump’s bombastic personal attacks and Cruz’s nasty pandering and campaigning. Those are the two who drive this campaign cycle to new lows.

      Bernie on Wall Street reform and single payer doesn’t bother me. His stance on “free” education, etc. does not underscore a serious Presidential candidate. But then Hillary’s general actions do not, either.

      This year it’s not good to be a Republican, a Democrat nor an independent. Everyone has drawn a short straw this year; thanks to Jeb and Hillary.

      Hopefully this mess will encourage strong, sensible candidates to step forward in 2020. I know they are out there… I wish they wouldn’t defer to the personality disordered.

      1. Harry Harris

        Those candidates have to be more than strong and also not intimidated by scurrilous attacks. It is nasty and getting nastier. Until voters repudiate negative and wildly divisive campaigning, we’re stuck with this.

        1. Harry Harris

          Poor campaigner (kind of like Hillary), never got a strong message across, and Bush and Co opened a new war to rally support from lots of folks who later found out they were used. People like the poster above and below believed falsehoods because they wanted to (Dems = handouts); still believing swiftboaters tactic.

      2. bud

        2004 wasn’t a great election for the voters.

        What was wrong with Kerry? He was a decorated war veteran, a long-serving senator and by all accounts an honorable man. His tenure as Sec of State shows he has the mettle for the job. The contrast with W was palpable.

        1. Howard

          Kerry is the male version of Hillary. “decorated war veteran”… I recall an ad from the swift boat veterans that have questions about those decorations. How many purple hearts did he toss onto the White House lawn when he got back?

  8. John

    So just to be a contrarian, 5 percent unemployment, an obesity epidemic and 65 percent home ownership is not a crisis. Hoovervilles, mass migration, hunger and a historic ecological crisis, the crash of world markets…how can you possibly carry on like today is worse than the 30’s? Is this one of those times when I’m too irony impaired to realize you’re making a joke?

  9. Karen Pearson

    Might it be that our politics have been so corrupted that few, if any, honorable men/women are willing to become involved?

  10. The Good Doctor

    Every once in a while, the people demand (and deserve) a Pitchfork Ben Tillman, over a Matthew Butler.

  11. David Carlton

    Back to the question–I think it was contingency that saved us here. As has already been pointed out, FDR didn’t have to face a primary. Moreover, there were some dangerous people out there like Huey Long who might have been the Trump of the era, but got assassinated before he could gain significant ground. There was also plenty of labor and other sorts of turmoil: sitdown strikes, Bloody Harlan, the General Textile Strike of 1934 (I remember being startled by a photograph I ran across in the South Caroliniana Library many years ago of a strike procession down Front Street in Saxon, the mill village in which I grew up). And don’t forget when Gov. Olin Johnston declared the SC Highway Department to be in a state of insurrection and sent the National Guard in to occupy it.
    What saved us was partly FDR’s political savvy, but I’d suggest another candidate: the New Deal actually worked! I know that’s counterintuitive, because it’s long become an embedded cliche that FDR failed to get us out of the Depression. But that was mainly because the Depression was so incredibly deep to begin with. If you look at real GDP growth from 1933 to 1941, it remarkably rose at over 7 percent a year, even including the Roosevelt Depression of 1937-1938. Employment growth lagged behind, but it wasn’t that bad either. Why was it such a success? Probably the reversal of monetary policy, notably dropping the gold standard (It’s been pointed out that the differences in the timing of recovery from the Great Depression in different developed countries perfectly matches the abandonment of gold).

Comments are closed.