The Summer of Fear

I’ve got a piece in today’s Washington Post outlook section on how economic stagnation is driving illiberal xenophobic politics:

For progressives, this dynamic will take some getting used to. After the 2008 election, many liberals saw the recession as an opportunity for change. Rahm Emanuel’s statement that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” was widely quoted, and comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt’s first term proliferated.

In reality, though, recessions lead to illiberal populist nationalism, not progressive reform. If anti-immigrant sentiment was somewhat muted in the early ’30s, it was because the doors from Europe had mostly been shut 10 years earlier, during another moment of economic dislocation — the recession that followed the end of World War I. And, muted or not, anti-immigrant bias nonetheless inspired the Mexican Repatriation Program, which Herbert Hoover launched in 1929. That program would continue throughout the Depression, deporting hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican ancestry, many of them U.S. citizens.

What’s often forgotten about the New Deal is that 1934–37 was the fastest four-year run of economic growth in American history, outside of World War II. In other words, it was the steep recovery from the Depression, not the Depression itself, that powered FDR’s agenda forward.


The other high-water mark of liberalism, the Great Society — including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and the passage of the Civil Rights Act — was similarly a child of rapid growth and prosperity, not of crisis.

There are various morals of this story, but one aimed at the progressive community that the piece doesn’t focus on is that we all need to think harder about the way economic growth plays into our shared agendas. It’d be facile to run around saying things like “unemployment is a gay rights issue” or whatever, but the point is that we’re best-positioned to get people to care about issues of diversity and discrimination and fairness and equality and justice when people feel like their living standards are rising.