Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview

3

THE DISAPPEARING DICTATOR
DECLINING REGARD FOR
DICTATORS AMID GROWING FEARS
OF DICTATORSHIP, 1936-1941

When sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd returned to Muncie, Indiana, in the mid-1930s, a decade after their work that had led to the already classic study Middletown (1929), they found Middletown in Transition, as the Lynds titled the 1937 sequel to their original book. One of the transitions that appeared to be taking place had to do with attitudes toward dictatorship. In a chapter entitled, "Middletown Faces Both Ways," the Lynds report that on the eve of the 1936 elections there existed deep antifascist, anti- communist, and generally antidictatorial sentiments among all residents of Muncie, including the business class. A business leader supporting Alfred Landon confidently proclaimed, "We go into the closing days of the campaign determined to achieve our goal of true American government . . . as opposed to radicalism, waste, and dictatorial powers." 1

Yet, though all the residents of Middletown seemed to oppose dictatorship, there was great fear that it might take root there. In 1936 numerous editorials in local papers decried the dangers of fascism and suggested "BUT IT COULD HAPPEN HERE." Rather than rejecting this fear as ill-founded, the Lynds ominously suggested that the business class—the only group in Middletown to build true class solidarity, according to the Lynds—at least secretly desired a dictatorship. The Lynds made their case based on the business community's strenuous objections to the New Deal, its impatience with the status quo, and its strong anticommunism, which was greater than its antifascism. Most significantly, two newspaper editorials called for dictatorship. The Lynds mention, but do not attach weight to, the fact that these editorials appeared in 1931 and 1932. 2

In the mid-1930s American attitudes toward dictatorship underwent a transition. As the Lynds' evidence suggests, dictatorship was nearly universally unpopular in the United States by 1936. Despite this fact, fears that dictatorship would soon arise in America were, if anything, growing. The

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