“Grass will grow in the streets” is a gloom-and-doom phrase sometimes used by politicians to imply that the country will go to economic ruin if they don’t win election, or if their own plan doesn’t prevail.
The phrase is sometimes credited to Herbert Hoover. However, the populist William Jennings Bryan used the expression decades before Hoover. In his famous “cross of gold” speech, delivered at the 1896 Democratic convention, Bryan argued that America’s farms were more crucial to the country’s economy than the coastal cities were. He also warned that if America didn’t switch to a silver standard (making it easier for poor farmers to repay their debts), the country’s farms would be destroyed, leaving the whole country economically crippled. Bryan thundered,
“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.“
In 1932, Herbert Hoover was facing the Great Depression and a tough reelection challenge from Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover echoed Bryan’s words, warning that the country would be destroyed if his policies weren’t followed. (Ironically, Hoover was a staunch defender of the gold standard.) With the election coming up, Hoover took to the radio and declared that if Roosevelt were elected, then
“the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of a thousand farms….”
Since then, politicians have used variations on the phrase to predict doom and gloom if they didn’t get their way. In 1992, an op-ed in the Washington Post compared then-incumbent President George HW Bush to Herbert Hoover. Like Hoover, Bush was facing a tough challenge from a challenger amid a troubled economy. And, the Post argued, Bush was similarly lashing out at his opponent by warning that the country would be ruined if people voted for Clinton. Bush talked about “Main Street” suffering in much the same way as Hoover talked about grass growing in the streets.
“President Hoover didn’t know how to cope with the Depression so he attacked his opponent. “Grass would grow in the streets of 100 cities,” he said, if New York Gov. Roosevelt were elected. The other day President Bush was predicting “misery on Main Street” if Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were elected. The GOP then trotted out ex-President Reagan doing the same for Bush.”
In 2008, Barack Obama used similar language to contrast the needs of ordinary, rural Americans with the demands of coastal elites. Like William Jennings Bryan, Obama warned that what hurts rural America (“Main Street”) will ultimately also hurt the big cities (“Wall Street”):
Too often, over the last quarter century, we have lost this sense of shared prosperity. And this has not happened by accident. It’s because of decisions made in boardrooms, on trading floors and in Washington. We failed to guard against practices that all too often rewarded financial manipulation instead of productivity and sound business practices. We let the special interests put their thumbs on the economic scales. The result has been a distorted market that creates bubbles instead of steady, sustainable growth; a market that favors Wall Street over Main Street, but ends up hurting both.