The debt ceiling debate between the House GOP and President Joe Biden could, if not solved, lead to economic chaos and destruction – so it might seem strangely lighthearted to wonder what a Great Depression-era singer and activist would think about this particular political moment.
Certainly, in all the research I did in putting together my book “Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie,” I never came across any comment Woody Guthrie made about the debt ceiling.
But he lived through the Great Depression and its aftermath. He also stood witness to legislators struggling to correct the direction that the nation was headed in during the 1930s and early ‘40s.
He had a lot to say about Congress in general and how it handled the national debt in particular.
He once made a folksy joke that suggests his feelings about this supposedly august body.
“The Housewives of the country are always afraid at nite, afraid they’s a Robber in the House. Nope, Milady most of em is in the Senate,” he wrote in his regular column for The People’s Daily, called “Woody Sez.”
Guthrie constantly railed against politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who he thought represented their own selfish interests rather than those of deserving working men and women.
What if he could survey today’s America? Would his comments on the state of the nation in the past suggest that he would have something to say in 2023?
In fact, some of his observations sound as if they were written about this political moment – rather than his own.
When Guthrie visited Washington, D.C., in 1940, he managed to hear some Senate debates and provided his thoughts on their effectiveness.
“I gawthered the Reactionary Republicans was in love with the Reactionary Republicans; also that the Liberal Democrats was in love with th’ Liberal Demacrats. Each presented a brief case of statistics proving that the other brief cases of statistics, was mistaken, misread, misquoted, mislabeled, and mis-spoken,” he wrote in his column.
And just what were politicians arguing over then? The national debt.
Bipartisan legislative efforts raised the debt ceiling three times under President Donald Trump. Now, House Republicans are balking unless certain conditions are met, while the Democrats are demanding a clean bill with no restrictions.
Guthrie witnessed much the same situation in his era. During his visit to Washington, D.C., he listened to “senators a making speeches – on every conceivable subject under the sun, an’ though the manner in which they brought forth their arguments, their polished wit, and subtle maneuvers, were all very entertaining, I come out of it as empty handed as I went in,” he wrote in “Woody Sez.”
He then compared their debates to “hearin’ the hens a cacklin’ – and a runnin’ out to th barn.” Despite the scene’s being “loud, noisy, and plenty entertaining,” the result was “no eggs.”
There’s a lot of noise coming from Congress today also – but no results.
What could happen if the two sides cannot agree? A telling example occurred in 2011, when the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling came so late that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating – which hiked the interest that needed to be paid on the U.S. debt.
But if an agreement does not happen, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that such a crisis would bring on “economic and financial catastrophe” on a national and global scale.
Guthrie would find this kind of brinkmanship troubling. Not because he was a political operative, with merely an intellectual understanding of the risks. Instead, he was driven by a personal knowledge of the day-to-day hardships, the human toll of such momentous political decisions. His family had fallen from middle-class safety into abject poverty even before the onset of the Great Depression.
Because of falling agricultural prices in the aftermath of World War I and his father’s real estate speculation in some small farms surrounding their hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, the Guthries could not keep up with their mortgages. They were forced into foreclosure.
Guthrie joked that his father “was the only man in the world that lost a farm a day for thirty days.”
Foreclosures would likely be just one of the ruinous effects of default now, along with interest rates hikes, slashing of social programs, unemployment spikes and decimation of pension plans. All are negative results, but they are certain to hit the poor and working class the hardest.
Those are the people whom Woody Guthrie advocated for throughout his career. Those are the people whose hardships he lamented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dust Bowl Refugee.”
But he also expressed optimism about the power of those same people to make a positive change, such as in “Union Maid” and “Better World A-Comin’.” Individual and collective action was necessary, according to Guthrie, and he celebrated both. The union maid would “always get her way when she asked for better pay,” and in “Better World” he sings, “we’ll all be union and we’ll all be free.”
Perhaps his best-known comments about the nation appear in “This Land Is Your Land,” with the popular version praising the American landscape. But in his early version of that song, he ended it with his narrator surveying a line of hungry people lined up “by the relief office” and then asked, “Was this land made for you and me?”
That question could rise again in 2023: If congressional leaders debating over the debt ceiling fail to find common ground for the nation’s greater good, perhaps someone will challenge them and ask if the politicians are in office for the American people, or for themselves – just as Woody Guthrie would have.