In a recent posting by Steven Horwitz on the Coordination Problem weblog, the author shows how pop culture can shape history — or, rather, our recollection of it:
As I’ve been writing about the myths surrounding the Hoover presidency the last week or so, it got me thinking about the question of where those myths came from and why they persist. Certainly a big part of the persistence has to do with the biases in the media, the punditry, and academia. The economic facts of how much worse the Great Depression got under Hoover are not in dispute, but if one is predisposed to think, even in a naive way, that government intervention is the answer to economic problems, then it’s almost a necessity to accept the myth of Hoover as “laissez faire.” If you don’t, it would require some major cognitive dissonance to square the idea of Hoover as a proto-New Dealer (which he was) and the disaster of his presidency with your priors about the necessity of government intervention.
But putting biases aside, I think there’s probably another source for it, especially in more recent years when more and more serious historians have rightly recognized Hoover’s interventionism. I wonder, in all seriousness, how much the musical Annie is responsible for the various myths surrounding both Hoover and FDR.
Add it all up and you have a very well-known piece of popular culture that promulgates the narrative of Hoover as uncaring villain who let the people starve and FDR as heart-of-gold president who stepped in and saved them. That narrative is consistent with the Hoover myth, not to mention the related myths that the two presidencies were dramatically different with respect to policy and that the New Deal was responsible for ending the Great Depression.
Horwitz, however, points out the ironies of all this:
First, people at the time were much more aware of Hoover’s interventionism and the commonalities between Hoover’s policies and FDR’s. . . . The second irony is that the original “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip drawn by Harold Gray was fanatically ANTI-New Deal. The musical turned the comic strip’s politics 180 degrees in its treacly treatment of the New Deal.
Popular culture matters when it comes to how memes originate and circulate. More people have seen Annie than have read the academic histories that get the story mostly right. I think Annie probably has significant explanatory power when it comes to the myths around Hoover and FDR.