Frank Rich uses the new film Public Enemies and the saga of Bernie Madoff to try to get at the momentous forces rippling through our society as this financial crisis reveals the rifts and trade-offs and makes explicit the social bargain that is submerged during prosperity:
“Dillinger did not rob poor people,” wrote one correspondent to The Indianapolis Star. “He robbed those who became rich by robbing the poor.”
Gorn writes that the current economic crisis helped him understand better why Americans could root for a homicidal bank robber: “As our own day’s story of stupid policies and lax regulations, of greedy moneymen, free-market hucksters, white-collar thieves, and self-serving politicians unfolds, and as banks foreclose on millions of families’ homes, workers lose their jobs, and life savings disappear, it becomes clear why Dillinger’s wild ride so fascinated America during the 1930s.” An outlaw could channel a people’s “sense of rage at the system that had failed them.”
As Gorn reminds us, Americans who felt betrayed didn’t just take to cheering Dillinger; some turned to the populism of Huey Long, or to right-wing and anti-Semitic demagogues like Father Coughlin, or to the Communist Party. The passions unleashed by economic inequities are explosive because those inequities violate the fundamental capitalist faith. It’s the bedrock American dream that virtues like hard work and playing by the rules are rewarded with prosperity.
In 2009, too many who worked hard and played by the rules are still suffering, while too many who bent or broke the rules with little or no accountability are back reaping a disproportionate share of what scant prosperity there is.