It seems that every new political moment brings in its train a new menagerie of Republican pseudo-facts and finely drawn nonsense meant to confuse and obscure any actual discussion of the public policy issues of the day. So it’s time to start cataloguing them. A week or so back I heard Jonah Goldberg yakking on about how Herbert Hoover was actually a Progressive. (Which may constitute some modest advance from his earlier confusion of do-gooder grade school teachers with Nazi prison guards and SA paramilitaries.) And then today this little nugget has transmogrified through the GOP sound machine into Herbert Hoover as a closet Keynesian who apparently started the whole New Deal before Franklin Roosevelt was even elected.
Like most sophistries, there’s an element of truth in this one — but much of it is based on semantic evolution. Hoover was part of the 1912 Progressive party and he was in key respects a Republican Progressive in the early 20th century meaning of the term — which is to say he was a technocrat who believed in scientific management and things like that. It is also true that as the Depression deepened Hoover did take some very limited steps in the direction of government intervention in the economy, though ones that were dwarfed by Roosevelt’s subsequent spending programs and regulatory innovations.
Fundamentally, Hoover was captive to the economic orthodoxy of the day which was hostile to government intervention and relied on volunteerism and placed a great deal of emphasis on balanced budgets. The straw-man version of Hoover’s presidency, in which he sat back and did nothing for four years, waiting on the market to correct itself is a caricature. But broadly speaking, he was unwilling to take decisive action on virtually every front, though some of the efforts he began on a very small scale were expanded dramatically to great effect under Roosevelt.
History is always complex. But to the degree public policy discussions don’t leave room for extended detours into historiography, the broad brush outlines have to suffice. And once again, the Republicans are peddling the standard up-is-downism meant to confuse the discussion and fight for the eventual triumph of absurdity and nonsense.