British historian Arnold Toynbee is sometimes attributed with the quote that, “When the last man who remembers the horrors of the last great war dies, the next great war becomes inevitable.”
New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg was that last man.
Lautenberg, who passed away on Monday at the age of 89 after 5 terms in the U.S. Senate, remembered the horrors of World War II. He was the Senate’s oldest member and last surviving veteran of that “last Great War.”
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But, Lautenberg lived through far more than the horrors of the last great war; he lived through the horrors of the Republican Great Depression too.
Born in 1924, Lautenberg grew up during what was then called the Republican Depression. He witnessed horrible poverty and extreme need, and knew about the thousands of people who died from starvation, all a result of a low-tax, de-regulation decade of Republican policies in the 1920’s, when wealth inequality hit levels never before seen in America.
He saw firsthand the crash of the American economy, after a decade of Republican deregulation of the banking industry and stock markets. He saw 12-year-olds working at everything from factory labor to prostitution, all with the implied or full blessing of the Supreme Court and 3 consecutive Republican administrations. He saw workers murdered for trying to unionize, and grew up in a time when the biggest dangers associated with old age were freezing to death in the winter or dying of hunger-related diseases.
Witnessing these horrors, Lautenberg became a champion of the people. He believed in investing in our nation’s infrastructure, and working for the economic and social well-being of all Americans, not just the select few. Lautenberg had an undying commitment to social liberalism.
While Lautenberg’s individual death doesn’t signal some major and sudden change in policy, it’s emblematic of our collective loss of memory of what really happened in the 1920’s.
Just ask Fox So-Called News’ John Stossel.
On the May 30th edition of Fox and Friends, Stossel made the mind-boggling claim that no one starved during the Great Depression.
Stossel, of course, was wrong.
Thousands died from hunger nationwide, thousands more died from unsafe food and unsafe working conditions, and workers had so little power that they were functionally the property of their employers.
At no other time in U.S. history was the working class so under assault as in the decade of failed Republican policies that created the Republican Great Depression.
And now, as the last of the people of Senator Lautenberg’s generation die off, what is dying with them is the memory of the horrors of that time.
These memories are, in turn, being replaced through an active effort by hard-right-wing groups to rewrite history and to teach our children that regulation is not necessary, and that in fact, it’s a very bad thing.
These groups with familiar sounding names who often pop up on NPR and in other media would like to take us back to time when there was no minimum wage, when there were no worker protections, when women and minorities had no rights in the workplace or in the civil society, and when most of the wealth was controlled by a very small number of very powerful men in even more powerful corporations.
And, since the Reagan Revolution, they’ve had a lot of successes.
All across America, organized labor is under attack.
Republicans in Washington are refusing to raise the minimum wage, despite more and more Americans living in poverty.
And right now, the top 1 percent of Americans has 40 percent of all of this nation’s wealth and the bottom 80 percent of Americans control just 11% of this nation’s wealth. The wealthiest 400 individuals in America own more wealth than the bottom half of America – over 150 million people. And all of the gains in income since Reagan have gone to the very top, while the middle class and the working poor have been wiped out.
These huge levels of inequality in America are thanks to years of Reaganomics and Bushonomics policies that are quite similar to the failed Republican policies of the 1920’s that brought on the Great Crash in 1929.
If we stay on our current path, the unprecedented level of wealth inequality that was seen in the 1920’s will be nothing compared to that of today.
Senator Frank Lautenberg tried, repeatedly, to warn us of repeating the mistakes of his parents’ generation. But we don’t seem to be listening particularly well.
If we don’t remember the lessons of the past that Frank Lautenberg lived through, get ready for a very rough economic ride over the next few years.