October 22, 1928-- In the next-to-last address of his successful campaign for the Presidency, Herbert Hoover laid down the marker for much of the rhetoric that would be used by conservatives for the next 85 years—very much up to, and including, the Obamacare debate. The dichotomy to which he pointed in his speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden, however—America’s “rugged individualism” and Europe’s “state socialism”—was, and is, a false one.
Hoover was, in effect, baiting Democratic opponent Alfred E. Smith on his home turf. Though Smith would break four years later with Franklin Roosevelt over their clashing ambition for the White House, the two shared a belief in a federal government that mitigated the effects of untrammeled capitalism on society’s marginalized. They knew all too well about this issue, as New York’s Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 had served as an object lesson in the need for at least some regulation.
Smith, as much as FDR, was a joyous campaigner, and had he been chosen for the Presidency we would probably recall more of his words than we do Hoover’s. The Secretary of Commerce had never held elective office, but now here he was, with an overwhelming victory only weeks away, telling Americans what they had gained in eight years of Republican governance—and how it was all at stake now:
“When the war closed, the most vital of all issues both in our own country and throughout the world was whether Governments should continue their wartime ownership and operation of many instrumentalities of production and distribution. We were challenged with a peace-time choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines—doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government. It would have meant the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”
But Hoover could not begin to conceive of the damage his party had done by taking the brakes off the economy. A few months before, he predicted to delegates at the Republican National Convention an outcome that, to countless Americans over the next decade, would sound unintentionally hilarious: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.”
Within a year, “the poorhouse” would vanish, all right—to be replaced by entire Hoovervilles of sprawling, desperate privation, all over America. Hoover’s “American system” of intense voluntary economic cooperation on the part of big business could not have had less in common with Henry Clay’s “American System” of furthering the growth and cohesion of America through government action (a tariff, a national bank, and such “internal improvements” as canals).
When the Great Crash hit in October 1929, Hoover was blind to the serious flaws in the Republican-inspired prosperity he had hailed, including wage increases not matching industry productivity gains and farmers already plunged into a depression several years before the rest of the country followed suit. His dismay over worsening conditions was not dissimilar to Alan Greenspan’s surprise, in 2008, that deregulation would not encourage market corrections that would avoid a recession (“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” the former Federal Reserve chair lamented).
The resulting Great Depression might have occurred on Hoover’s watch, but it did happened more through a lack of imagination than a lack of empathy. The Midwest orphan farmboy who had survived countless medical mishaps in childhood to become a millionaire mining engineer—and a humanitarian savior during Europe’s refugee crisis during WWI—could not conceive that the problems facing America were no longer amenable to the individual will. "The man who had fed Europe had become a symbol of hunger, the brilliant administrator a symbol of disaster," wrote Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948)
I don’t know if Hoover coined the term “rugged individualism,” but he did much to spread notions of self-improvement that had been around since Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This, despite the overwhelming tone of pomposity and self-righteousness that permeated this and other speeches by the Republican Presidential nominee.
Hoover aides Theodore Joslin, French Strother and Gertrude Lane were the “most hapless martyrs” in the history of speechwriting, writes blogger Eugene Finerman. Yet even they had their moments of glory, and one of them had a field day in cleverly combining “rugged” with “individualism.” That adjective evoked not just Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” and Abraham Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter, but also frontiersmen who had opened up interior spaces in the U.S. such as Hoover’s native Iowa. The phrase was potent enough that it even survived the abuse rained on it four years later by F.D.R.
Perhaps even more potent as a scare tactic has been the use of the term “state socialism.” The phrase’s silliness begins, but does not end, with the fact that it is redundant (socialism is, by definition, state ownership or control of private resources). It also has become a default fallback position against any recourse to change, no matter how necessary--and has even been turned around against its own users.
Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign manifesto, for instance, was called To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. The former Speaker of the House’s adoption of the epithet “Socialist,” however, did not preclude use of the term by his Republican primary opponent, Michelle Bachmann, who referred to him as a “frugal socialist” for his support for the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement program.”
Over the years, the damage to the American economy by Republicans when they hold power from the ‘20s and ‘30s has been overcome. But the poison introduced to the American body politic with the phrase “rugged individualism” has been far more difficult to eradicate.