Quite the contrast: Depression-era America less whiney, more socialistic than today?

Public opinion polling was in its infancy in the 1930s. A trove of Gallup survey data from 1936-37 has been made available by the Roper Center and analyzed by the Pew Center. The time frame is interesting because we’re talking the middle of the Great Depression, and we’re late in the first term and early in the second of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The economy was much worse than today’s (unemployment rates in the high teens, occasionally cracking 20); the hard times had been going on for much longer than today’s Great Recession (the Depression started in 1929); and FDR’s first-term efforts to turn things around through an unprecedented creation and expansion of government programs and agencies had certainly not worked, at least enough.

But, according to Pew, which compared the 1930s poll results with some from today, the public was less angry about it, more optimistic that things would improve soon, wasn’t fed up with FDR (he was re-elected in 1936 in one of the biggest landslides ever) and, as Pew put it, “what Depression-era Americans wanted from their government was, on many counts, more, not less.”

As the Pew graphic just below summarizes, big majorities of Americans in 1936-37 wanted the government to take over the electric power industry and the war munitions industry, the public was roughly split on whether the government should take over the banks, but, for some reason, was strongly opposed to nationalizing the railroads.

Pew Federal Takeover Survey
Source: Pew Research Center
Gallup surveys: Dec. 9-14, 1936; Jan. 27-Feb. 1, 1937; July 7-12, 1937.

Sounds like a buncha crazy Bolsheviks. But (again, from the Pew review of the ancient data):

“[W]hen asked if they had to make the choice would they opt for fascism or communism, [how’s that for a creepy question?] the public expressed a substantial preference for fascism (39%) over communism (25%), while 36% offered no opinion. (When the question was phrased in terms of living under a German- versus a Russian-type government, the public showed a similar preference for the German model.)

“Moreover, despite widespread deprivation far beyond anything experienced in modern-day America, by a margin of 50% to 42%, Americans in the mid-1930s rejected the idea of government limiting the size of private fortunes.”

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/16/2010 - 10:00 pm.

    By the mid-1930s, when plenty of rural households were still using kerosene lamps because electric lines didn’t extend that far into farm country, there were several contemporary scandals involving electric utilities – either overcharging customers, or “cooking the books” in one form or another – which provided the impetus for, among other things, the TVA. That government experiment in producing electric power continues to be of value to the public as a measure of what it actually costs to produce electricity because the public doesn’t have to rely on industry figures.

    There was also a Senate committee investigation after World War I that examined in detail the issue of “profiteering” during the war. This, too, was quite a scandal, and the notion that someone was making a fortune from warfare was – this seems so quaint now – regarded as immoral. That scandal accounts, in large part, for the numbers regarding munitions makers. Halliburton and many other current “defense industry” companies would have been crucified in the press and in the halls of Congress back in those days. Now the CEOs get bonuses and many members of Congress go out of their way to curry favor with similar companies.

    The banking numbers are interesting, since reckless banking practices were a substantial part of the reason for the Great Depression to begin with. I’d have expected the numbers to be much farther apart. Most of the public criticism, however, was directed at Wall Street. We were a much more rural nation then, and not only did Wall Street have the slightly improper, “city slicker” image, there was plenty of evidence of greed and fraud in stock transactions that burst the stock market bubble of the 1920s, just as we have plenty of evidence of similar greed and fraud on Wall Street creating our current situation.

    Note the difference(s) in how both the public and government respond to those similar conditions.

    I don’t quite understand the numbers for the railroads myself. I’d have to go back to the books for a couple weeks to see what might account for what looks like an anomaly.

    While it was a more rural, and less prosperous, nation then, I’d argue that the current fashion for “every man for himself” rhetoric hadn’t yet taken hold. There were plenty of people still alive in the 1930s who had direct experience with the era of the Robber Barons in the 1880s and 1890s, and they wouldn’t have been taken in by propaganda from the right quite as readily as many now seem to be. Relative wealth and distance in time make a difference in perception.

    On the other hand, it’s also true that by the late 1930s, there was an American Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan was still operating openly in many parts of the country, though its reputation had suffered as a result of corruption scandals, and as war drew closer, national hero Charles Lindbergh publicly supported isolationist efforts to keep us out of a war with Germany – until Pearl Harbor, and the German declaration of war against the U.S. That dovetails with the survey results indicating a public preference for Germany over Russia. Without doing any research, I’d nonetheless guess that we had many more citizens whose ancestry was German than we did citizens whose ancestry was Russian, and we already had an inkling that Josef Stalin was not what anyone would call “a nice man.”

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/17/2010 - 08:59 am.

    The banks had very lax regulation in most states. Many were almost more like pa pawnshops. Another reason for some optimism(?) in those days was the transitioning out of agriculture, the development models show industrialisation as a time of great growth. Also I think television by its nature of commercialized images, atomization of individuals produces whiners.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/17/2010 - 10:05 am.

    What we must recognize is that, since the days of that survey, there has been a concerted effort on the part of some of our wealthiest citizens to change the thinking of the average citizen in ways that make that citizen far more likely to watch out for the needs of the wealthy than their own needs.

    The Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute (and others) were created precisely for that purpose. Weasel news, very popular in rural AND suburban areas, provides the outlet for their misinformational propaganda.

    The screamers and whiners on the weasel, Becky, Hanna, Orly, et al provide the role models for the ignorant, emotionally overwrought style of communication which now seems to be the only thing “conservative” folks are capable of.

    The very same folks who, in the 30’s were thinking of revolt against Wall Street Bankers and overpaid corporate CEOs have now been misinformed by the denizens of the weasel (and the MSM and NPR, which far too often allow the weasel to call the tune in national reporting) into thinking that those same people whom their great grandparents recognized as the source of their problems are really their saviors whereas the thing that saved our ancestors, bigger government and social support programs are what is causing their problems.

    If we keep moving in this same direction, nationally, we will eventually allow the selfish, self-serving, lazy rich to destroy our nation from within by bankrupting it and allowing China, which holds massive amounts of our federal debt (run up so that the fabulously wealthy wouldn’t have to pay taxes), to gain sufficient power to begin to demand changes in our national economic policy in order to protect their investment in us.

    The US will probably continue to exist, of course, but economically, we (blinded by our own “exceptionalist” ideas regarding how the rules of international economics and banking that we have applied to so many third world nations do not apply to us) will become a colony of China (including, by the way, most of our wealthy citizens).

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/18/2010 - 10:00 am.

    Nice comment Greg K.

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