I have frequently noted that Barack Obama has not enjoyed political opportunities comparable to those of Franklin Roosevelt because he was elected in the first, rather than the fourth, year of an economic crisis, and although distress is widespread, our economic and political leadership have not awakened to the depths of the problem we face, as they had by March 1933. In a similar vein, I suddenly remembered a remark from a work of history from several decades ago about the Presidential election of 1928. After showing how a combination of anti-Catholicism and the candidate’s own limitations had led to Al Smith’s catastrophic defeat in 1928, the author remarked that had Smith won, he and the Democracy (as it was then called) would have been saddled with the guilt of the Depression, and Democrats would probably not have returned to power for at least a decade. All this came to the forefront of my mind because of the possibility—which many believe to be real—that a Republican could be elected to the Senate from Massachusetts next Tuesday, reducing the Democratic majority below 60, dooming the health care bill (which Republican Scott Brown promises to oppose) and paralyzing the Senate. But suddenly, another critical analogy came into my head—another election in another major western country, in the same year that Hoover defeated Smith, one that turned out the other way.
Weimar Germany was created in 1919 by a coalition of three parties, the Social Democrats, the Catholic Center Party, and the Democratic Party (formerly the Progressives.) That coalition was immediately discredited by the Versailles Treaty—which it decided to sign—and never won a majority in the polls. But in May 1928, after four years of conservative rule, those three parties won a total of 49.8 % of the vote, and formed a governing coalition together with the German Peoples’ Party (formerly the National Liberals, an upper-middle class party, which won another 8.7%), under a Social Democratic Chancellor, Hermann Müller. The Communists, who were hewing to a revolutionary line, won 10.6 % of the vote, and the Nazis just 2.3%. The German economy, like the American, was doing relatively well in the spring of 1928, and Germany now had a center-left government known as the Great Coalition. Meanwhile, the established Conservative Party, the German National Peoples’ Party, which had disillusioned many of its supporters during three years in power, lost a good deal of its support to various fringe parties.
Germany had lived during the 1920s on infusions of American capital, and the US stock market crash in October 1929 led to immediate withdrawals and a currency crisis. German unemployment—already high at 8.4% in 1928—shot up to 13.1% in 1929 and 15.3% in 1930. Government revenues fell sharply, making it impossible to meet the new demands on the recently enacted unemployment insurance program, and the coalition broke up over this issue early in 1930. The new Chancellor, Center Party leader Heinrich Brüning, began governing by emergency decree, using the emergency powers written into the Weimar Constitution. He also called new elections, held in September 1930. The three Weimar parties, who had received nearly half the vote in 1928, now got just 44.2, while the Nazis jumped to 18.3 % of the vote and the Communists to 13.1%. With a third of the Reichstag, or Parliament, committed to total obstructionism, the government remained paralyzed, and Brüning’s emergency rule continued for two more years of continuous controversy, local elections, a Presidential vote in which the aged Marshall Hindenburg was re-elected over Hitler, and widespread political violence.
By 1932 unemployment had reached 30.1%--the highest of any industrial country. A new election in June of that year gave the Nazis 37.3% of the vote, more than the total of the Weimar coalition, and the Communists 14.3%. Now the largest party in the Reichstag, the Nazis had earned a role in the government, but could not form a coalition with the Center. Yet another round that November saw the Nazis fall to 33.1% and the Communists increase still further to 16.9%, while the Weimar coalition attained 37.2%. But Hitler managed to come into power in a coalition with the traditional conservative party. The Reichstag fire—a terrorist act, we now know, of a mad anarchist—allowed him to proclaim emergency powers and deputize the SA and SS as police auxiliaries, and the Reichstag voted its powers out of existence a few months later.
It is now exactly 80 years since 1930. The election in Massachusetts this Tuesday—which at the very least promises to be much closer than anticipated—offers a preview of what could happen in the fall. The United States isn’t Weimar Germany, not least because of our well-established two-party system. But the Tea Party movement is busily taking over the Republican Party (and in effect already controls its powerful propaganda ministries on Fox News and Clear Channel, something the Nazis never enjoyed.) That movement is based largely upon paranoia and absurd theories about who controls America, what the Obama Administration is doing, and why. (Rush Limbaugh, to whom I listened for a while today, insists that Obama has purposely wrecked the economy to make a statist takeover possible. He could not conceal his excitement over the possible Republican victory in Massachusetts and what it might mean.) And of course, one of their tactics is to pin the Fascist/National Socialist label on President Obama, a moderate liberal.
Now while I am not accusing the Republican Party or the Tea Party movement of Fascism, I do think that we are now threatened with a complete collapse of national authority, brought about in large measure by their mad ideological excess and hatred of liberal elites. Certainly, as a story in today’s New York Times suggests, the Tea Party movement has established itself as the most organized and determined nationwide political movement that we have. Whether the Republicans win in Massachusetts on Tuesday or not, they seem very likely to make gains in the fall. Any gains in the Senate will mean the total paralysis of the government for two years, similar to what happened in Germany in 1930-2 or in France in the mid-1950s (when de Gaulle also used emergency powers, sometimes of dubious legality, to get France back on track.) Let us hope that we do not also have an outbreak of domestic political violence.
After the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War, thousands of trees were felled to try to uncover the unique features of German history that could have led to this catastrophe and the strength of the American political tradition that had allowed us to avoid such a fate. The idea that Germany and the United States were facing a periodic crisis (as they had, with very different results, in the 1860s), and that luck had an enormous amount to do with determining their respective outcomes, did not occur to very many people. 80 years later it seems more and more obvious. Like the Germans in the early 1930s we are deluged with destructive, irresponsible propaganda 24 hours a day. Like them, we have a significant minority of the population that believes our government is a vast conspiracy attempting to destroy our values. Like them, we have undergone several important foreign policy setbacks (although nothing, certainly, on the scale of the loss of the First World War.) Like them in 1928-30, we have a center-left government that has failed to respond adequately to popular resentment. Like them, we are on the brink of total government paralysis. Our hope, as I pointed out last week, remains the younger generation that put Obama in the White House. Let us see if they can save Martha Coakley on Tuesday and reassess after that.