Big government helped make America great but it was so successful its effect has become invisible. Anti-Washington hatred helps only the super-rich and puts progress at risk for millions living with wage stagnation and rising inequality
by Ben Fountain
Do you remember, your President Nixon?
Do you remember, the bills you have to pay?
Or even yesterday?
David Bowie, Young Americans
The collective memory of America is short. During the 2010 midterm elections, it seemed like every other house in my north Dallas neighborhood sported a “Had Enough? Vote Republican!” yard sign. As if it had been two hundred years, instead of two, since the US economy was on the brink of collapse, with panicked credit markets, huge banks and insurance companies about to topple into the void, a flatlining auto industry, the Dow Jones plunging toward 6500, and job losses topping 700,000 a month, not to mention the wars that had turned the budget surpluses of the late Bill Clinton years into massive deficits, all courtesy of a two-term Republican president whose party controlled Congress for six of the last eight years. Yes, please! Take us back to the good old days of 2008!
The country, to put it mildly, was different back then. Life was harder, and in places like the Texas hinterland – which today forms the big beating heart of the state’s Republican base – it was a close approximation of 14th-century European peasant hell. The vast majority of rural Texans lived without electric power, which meant no refrigeration, no water pumps, no indoor plumbing, no furnaces, no electric stoves, no incandescent lights, no motors to power machines for milking or shearing.
Even for those of us only one or two generations removed from the farm, it’s almost impossible to conceive just how different life was, although the phrase “nasty, brutish, and short” comes to mind. Among the best guides to that time is “The Sad Irons” chapter of The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which delivers a harrowing portrait of life as a medieval slog plunked down in the middle of 20th-century America. To take just one aspect of the slog: water. “Packing water” from the source – a stream or a well – to the house was a daily beatdown that often fell to the farm wife. As Caro writes:
A federal study of nearly half a million farm families … would show that, on the average, a person living on a farm used 40 gallons of water every day. Since the average farm family was five persons, the family used 200 gallons, or four-fifths of a ton, of water each day – 73,000 gallons, or almost 300 tons, in a year. The study showed that, on the average, the well was located 253 feet from the house – and that to pump by hand and carry to the house 73,000 gallons of water a year would require someone to put in during that year 63 eight-hour days, and walk 1,750 miles.
Laundry was done outside, an all-day, muscle-intensive process that began with a huge vat of boiling water suspended over a roaring fire – imagine that on a July day in Texas – next to which someone – almost always the farm wife – would stand “punching” clothes with a paddle or broomstick, the human equivalent of an automatic washing machine. Cooking was done with wood stoves, which were kept burning most of the day – summer and winter – for meals and baking, which in turn required constant tending – firewood in, ashes out. Because of the lack of refrigeration, most meals had to be prepared from scratch. In order not to starve in winter, a family had to can fruit and vegetables in summer, a hellishly hot process that went on for days and required the utmost precision. The wood stoves were also used to heat irons for pressing clothes, actual six- or seven-pound slabs of iron that had to be scrubbed, sanded, and scraped every few minutes to remove the soot. Farm wives dreaded the tedium of ironing day; hence, “the sad irons”. Caro goes on:
A Hill Country farm wife had to do her chores even if she was ill – no matter how ill. Because Hill Country women were too poor to afford proper medical care they often suffered perineal tears in childbirth. During the 1930s, the federal government sent physicians to examine a sampling of Hill Country women. The doctors found that, out of 275 women, 158 had perineal tears. Many of them, the team of gynecologists reported, were third-degree tears, “tears so bad that it is difficult to see how they stand on their feet.” But they were standing on their feet, and doing all the chores that Hill Country wives had always done – hauling the water, hauling the wood, canning, washing, ironing, helping with the shearing, the plowing and the picking.
Because there was no electricity.
The rigged system holds no future for the 99% a political revolution does.