It's as though Americans don't just fear a clearing of the economic slate but may actually be courting one.
Polls leading up to the 2008 election showed that a majority of Americans disliked the past eight years: the increasing gap between rich and poor, the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, and immersion in two wars. Could it be that Americans leapt from the idea of cyclical, if profound, recession to epoch-changing depression not just because the economic facts were bad and even scary, but because we wanted a change, and we knew that only a strong reversal of business as usual could provide one? The economic downturn is seen as catastrophic, but also felt as an opportunity.
Despite, and perhaps because of, the economic troubles, the arts and entertainment thrived during the Great Depression in ways that, in large part, created today's cultural universe.
Timed almost to perfection with the decade's end — and current enough to be referenced recently by the impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich — Jimmy Stewart's character in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) affirms a wholesale faith in American values. Appointed as senator by men who expect him to be a pushover, Smith finds his reputation smeared when he speaks his own mind. His idealism inspires a wisecracking girl Friday (another Depression staple, in this case played by Jean Arthur) and a diverse group of citizens to help him defeat corruption in business and government and to reinvigorate a compliant media — conditions strikingly similar to those that motivated the 2008 vote. Working together, people of all ages and backgrounds feel their patriotic spirit rise and help Smith make an awfully familiar looking delinquent Congress buckle down.
As the movie approaches its climax, the camera cuts repeatedly to African-American characters who play subliminally subversive roles. ... a black train porter quite literally leaves a corrupt politician holding his own bags. The movie returns several times to the Lincoln Memorial, frequented by Americans of different ages, backgrounds, and races who gaze respectfully at the martyred president.
Depression entertainment reflected how economic hardship, while certainly not unknown in the past, cut across social classes, regions, ethnic groups, and races as never before. It fostered a collective, inclusive sense of what it means to be American and the feeling that we — immigrants and blue bloods, Southern whites and African-Americans, city folk and farmers, vaudevillians and businessmen, people from the West and East — were all in this together.