It doesn’t matter which party is in charge when an economic crisis happens; they will be punished

As part of a piece looking at whether President Obama should have ever been compared to FDR, Megan McArdle suggests one of the cultural narratives of the Democratic Party doesn’t hold up: the Great Depression wasn’t a “Republican problem” because when looking at other countries, whichever party was in power at the start of the Depression was punished at the polls:

Yet even recognizing that FDR got tremendously lucky in his choice of election years does not cause McElvaine to question the Ur-Myth; instead, he segues into a complaint that Obama needs to be feistier, like FDR was.

Smart progressive Ezra Klein, however, offers what I think is the correct take:

The pat story behind FDR’s victory and the ensuing decades of mostly Democratic dominance is that the president got the policy right and the politics followed. Whatever you believe about FDR’s policies, a more international perspective will disabuse you of the notion that the golden age for the Democratic Party was an ideological triumph rather than an accident of history. As Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, has written, globally, the pattern is clear: Whichever party was in power when the Great Depression hit was booted out of office, and whichever party was in power when the global recovery took hold reaped huge political benefits.

“In the U.S.,” wrote Bartels, “voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved.

Of course, cultural narratives aren’t necessarily rooted in facts but rather in the story that a group or nation or other party wants to tell. Looking at data can help us figure out the veracity of a narrative. This sounds like a good example of using comparative data: by looking at other cases, one can see that what might seem to be a “common sense” observation based on the United States doesn’t necessarily hold up. What we would also want to do is to look at other economic crises, both in the United States and abroad, to see how the severity of the crisis, length of the crisis, relative standing of other countries, and other historical and social factors affect election outcomes after the economic crisis starts.

The takeaway for politicians and political parties? Beware of running for election if the economy took a dive while you or your people were in office.

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