We began the week by looking at the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. His presidency would do much to shape the future of American politics for many reasons.
Fairly or not, the quarterback gets most of the praise or blame for wins or losses, and the same holds true for the president and the economy. On paper, Hoover had everything going for him as America faced the onset of the Great Depression. He had experience administering relief work after World War I. He had broad bipartisan support for many of his policies. But personality wise, he could not be “relatable” to the public. Increasingly Americans felt alienated from him, and turned their wrath and desperation his way.
Hoover did not remain aloof from suffering. He pushed a variety of aid packages through Congress, though they had little success in stemming the tide. None of this mattered. What the people required of their president had changed. Advances in movie and radio technology made the president more accessible, and as such, he needed to be more relatable.
Early in the week we asked the question: “What makes a president more trustworthy? His ‘credentials’ or his life experience?” I gave the class two choices of candidate:
An ivy league graduate with a Ph.D in political science, candidate 1 also speaks fluent Chinese and Arabic. He is personal friends with the U.N. Secretary General and the World Bank. At every level he graduated with honors and his Ph.D thesis became a best-selling book. But he grew up with a ‘silver-spoon’ in his mouth, has driven BMW’s his whole life, is personally quite wealthy, etc. He never had a blue collar job or submitted a resume. He is unmarried with no children.
Candidate 2 is no dummy, but never distinguished himself at school. He is not wealthy, and grew up lower class and worked his way through college through a variety of odd-jobs. He married his high school sweetheart and has three children.
Who do you trust more?
Most of the class said they would vote for #1, but others disagreed. For the latter group, trust had more to do with identifying with that person rather than with their credentials.
In the last presidential race, for example, we saw how the question of being relatable plagued Mitt Romney, who has impressive ‘on-paper’ credentials. Even when he tries to be a regular guy, it doesn’t come off quite right.
With Hoover one also can’t help but sense a certain stiffness:
Not so with FDR, as even a minute or two of this clip reveals:
We saw also how the Great Depression changed other things. . .
One of the subtle shifts that happened in the 1930’s was our attitude towards government itself. It is probably generally true that previous generations thought of government as removed from the people, even if it was not opposed to them — a kind of necessary but awkward appendage. Now, government was seen as a helpful and natural tool of the people’s interests and needs. To be fair to Roosevelt, this idea was not merely his invention. One can see its roots in the populism of Andrew Jackson. The extension of voting rights to minorities and women meant that our representatives could more legitimately reflect the population as a whole. Both of these approaches to government have their roots in the Christian tradition, with St. Augustine tending to see government negatively, and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, seeing it more positively.
We looked at a few specific government programs of the time and asked the question, “Why is it that some government programs stick around past their original purpose?” While many New Deal programs did stop during World War II or shortly thereafter, some, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, have lasted until today. While I don’t want to neglect the fact that many people probably agree that certain programs, like the SEC and FDIC, have had lasting value, I think it more interesting to consider the previous question. I presented two options to the students:
1. Programs stick around because governments, like people, like power. Individuals like power as much as government does, but government has a much greater capacity to hold onto it because of their monopoly of force and concentration of resources.
2. Does the answer have more to do with our particular system of government, that is, federalism? If we take the TVA as an example, we see that a few people (and a few congressmen) benefit a great deal from the program. When the cost is spread out over a whole, it becomes relatively small, so it is unlikely to bother most of us very much. A few people are very motivated to keep it, and the vast bulk are not motivated enough to contest it. Besides, our own congressmen may do similar things for our region that others do for Tennessee. As a country in general, we accept that deal.
The question of entitlement programs, for example, is political as well as financial. With the population aging, the current power of the AARP, for example, is unlikely to get smaller. We can also see different meanings or applications of the concept of equality at work. On the one hand, government inaction on any particular issue can reinforce the idea of equality. Doing nothing means not favoring anyone, and letting people work deal with their issues with no hindrance from government. This has the advantage of consistency and simplicity. We discussed, on the other hand, the fact that some situations are starkly unequal, with the situation not likely to be any different without decisive and concerted action from government. What benefits, and what costs, do we want to absorb as a society?
Last week we went back to wrap up some issues from the 1920’s, specifically, the tremendous social impact due to the changing role of women. We first looked at how the general mood and pace of the times, as well as the changing roles between the sexes, might influence dancing. We had fun looking at this. . .
But the changes had a broader impact on how women interacting in society in general.
As women gained equality with men in the right to vote, we saw how women’s fashion changed. They were ‘liberated’ and their dress reflected it:
But interestingly, some took the idea of equality with men even further, and they began to dress like men, cut their hair short like men, and so on . . .
It seems to me that there would be something tragic if women felt that to gain equality with men they had to emulate men, and thereby lose something of their identity as women.
I wanted the students to compare the feminine ideal of the 1920’s with the Victorian era, which we looked at a few months ago. My gut is that neither era represents a Biblical ideal. Looking at the mountain of material on Victorian dresses (ca. 1850-1900) makes me think that they obscured true femininity just as the 1920’s did (take a look at the ones from 1850 — 3rd row on left), as to my mind there is something unquestionably ridiculous in how Victorians viewed women as incurably fragile.
Most students asserted that if they had to choose, they would choose the 20’s ideal over the Victorian, arguing that women had more respect in that period. This did not surprise me, as there is something distinctly modern and familiar with the 1920’s. Some students last year astutely pointed out that there are two kinds of respect. In the 1920’s women unquestionably had more political and social freedoms. No one should underestimate the importance of this. But they may have lost some of the respect that came with being a woman specifically. With this exchange, something of the ideal of chivalry, of deference to women, would inevitably be lost.
Ideally, as God made both men and women in His image, for humanity to best reflect that image we should want men to be men and women to be women in the truest possible sense. What that means exactly will certainly be debated, but the students agreed that neither the 1920’s or the Victorians had it right.