The Roaring Twenties was a grand time. The war to end all wars was over, flappers were flapping, the economy was booming, major motor companies couldn’t make cars fast enough, and speakeasies were selling contraband alcohol by the barrel. Then it happened. The stock market crashed in October of 1929. In a virtual freefall, the economy collapsed. President Hoover believed a rugged individualism, where everyone was to be more responsible for themselves, would eventually right the economic calamity. He was wrong; it got worse.
On the promise of a New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932. Within hours of his inauguration in March of 1933, he set to work. His was anything but an individualized plan for recovery. This was an everybody-problem, and it was going to take an everybody-solution to recover and rebuild.
The list of initiatives, plans, and projects put in motion was staggering. Some worked, some didn’t. Congress supported some, and Congress balked at others. Political parties differed widely over what might work and what was a total waste of time. Critics criticized, humorists poked fun, and politicians on either side of the political spectrum argued endlessly. The public was also divided.
The Great Depression was an unprecedented set of circumstances, the likes of which had never before been seen in the United States. Sure, there had been panics and economic downturns in the past, but this was a real doozy. The experts were puzzled, the pundits were stymied, and too many elected officials muddied the waters by politicizing anything they thought they could turn to their political advantage. As a result, the public grew frustrated. Projections and forecasts were often flawed to a striking degree. They gave little direction, and more often than not, they offer little hope of better times in the near future.
In the midst of this economic and social calamity, President Roosevelt began offering his Fireside Chats. Make no mistake, his chats had their political twists and their party purposes. However, through the relatively new media of radio, Roosevelt became a common voice and a shared source of information.
Historians, sociologist, and political scientists have debated and argued the virtue, value, and legacy of the Fireside Chats. Roosevelt’s most extreme critics contend that the President politicized everything. His most ardent supporters countered that he gave a weary nation hope, while continually updating a confused and often frightened people. But whether friend or foe even a casual look at the chats that began in 1933 and ran through 1944 in the midst of World War II, points to one recurring theme. This was an everybody- problem and it needed everybody’s attention, if it was to be overcome.
The ebb and flow of both the Great Depression and World War II can easily be traced through the economic and wartime messages Roosevelt shared, the guidance he offered, and support he sought. He understood, anticipated, and reacted to change, one of life’s most predictable and irrepressible constants, and he kept everybody informed.
In his Fireside Chat on April 28, 1935, he spoke directly to the changes the country had made in the first three years of his first administration. Specifically, he made it clear that the Great Depression was a problem of the masses, and solutions to it must be addressed by the masses.
“The objective of the Nation has greatly changed in three years. Before that time individual self-interest and group selfishness were paramount in public thinking. More and more people, because of clearer thinking and a better understanding, are considering the whole rather than a mere part relating to one section, or to one crop, or to one industry, or to an individual private occupation. The overwhelming majority of people in this country know how to sift the wheat from the chaff in what they hear and what they read. They know that the process of the constructive rebuilding of America cannot be done in a day or a year, but that it is being done in spite of the few who seek to confuse them and to profit by their confusion.”
Regardless of the times, and irrespective of the circumstances, self-government depends on an informed populace. Efforts to inform must be built around the best available information, the most current data, and the most reliable research. For this to happen, changes to the information provided, recommendations offered, and directives put forward must change as the circumstances change. When everyone is informed with the best available information, the potential to achieve actionable solutions is enhanced significantly.
Those who unwittingly spread misinformation often confuse and slow progress toward meaningful solutions in difficult times. Those who purposefully weaponize disinformation for personal gains, weaken and suppress mass initiatives to confront and overcome the worst of times. Shame on them!