The modern welfare state created by the progressive reformers took shape over several decades, drastically accelerating during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In this lecture I will try trace the developments of the 1930s and 1940s into the present and show to the extent in which these debates are similar in many ways, and thus demonstrating completely how the American political system has evolved over time.
Franklin Roosevelt is sometimes considered the first "modern" president because of the massive expansion in the power and the capabilities of the state under his administration. Although other Cabinet departments had been added to the government such as the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce in 1903, and the Department of Labor created during the Wilson administration, Roosevelt drastically increased the power of the president by enlarging the personal staff of the president even as he sometimes de-emphasized the role of the formal Cabinet departments.
When Roosevelt ran for president, he was already the Governor of New York (actually Herbert H. Lehman, Roosevelt's Lieutenant, was then elected Governor of New York in 1932, Lehman is who the college is named after––somewhat more infamously now, also one of the Lehman Brothers formerly of Wall St.) Roosevelt advertised what he called his "Brain Trust" a collection of university-trained intellectuals who analyzed data, did research, and created the policies that became known as the "New Deal." This is consistent with the progressive emphasis on scientific knowledge applied to politics. Voters who were distrustful of corporate executives and conservative intellectuals for all their recent failures were much more inclined to experiment with what Roosevelt offered.
The New Deal was a mixed bag of then unprecedented government programs designed to stimulate the economy, reduce unemployment, create security, and grow the economy. It was largely a success, although there was a second recession in 1937, unemployment remained higher in the U.S. than in Germany until World War II, and many of its more ambitious programs like the National Recovery Administration (NRA) which regulated the prices of goods and wages paid to workers were struck down by the Supreme Court in the mid 1930s.
In 1939, on its second attempt, The Reorganization Act is passed which gives Roosevelt the power to create additional federal offices. This Act was passed on the recommendation of the Brownlow Commission, a panel of three social scientists who studied the executive office and determined areas where they believed the president needed help. Once again, the appeal to commissions which are brought together by either the president or Congress and are still common today, is another example of how scientific knowledge is institutionalized in the government.
This also illustrates the system of checks and balances and shows that the president has to get Congressional approval in the form of a law passed, that gives the president the right to create new offices in the executive branch. The course of action was taken up, in part, because of actions by the Supreme Court which had actually dissolved offices and organizations created by the executive branch of government. In this regard, the Court was playing the traditionally conservative role that Hamilton had envisioned for it in protecting the rights of private property.
Once the president was given the authority by Congress, Roosevelt created several new offices within the executive staff, the Executive Office of the President (EOP) that forms the foundation of the modern White House Office (WHO) today. The executive office is headed by the Chief of Staff who runs the day to day affairs of the president and in many cases controls access to the president. Also, an earlier version of today's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was created to oversee the expenses of the executive branch in the budget, as well as earlier versions of the National Security Council (1947) and the Council of Economic Advisors (1946).
Again, in all of these cases these offices were to be staffed with scientifically trained intellectuals who would oversee the increasingly complex functions of the government. All of these offices are considered, along with the office of the Vice-President, "Cabinet-level" and are thus on an equal status with Cabinet departments, and again, in many cases the presidents have come to rely on the advisors in the EOP more than the Cabinet. Since then, even more executive offices have been created like the Office of the Trade Representative (1962); Office of Environmental Quality (1969); and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (1989), as well as others.
The 22nd Amendment was introduced in 1947 and ratified in 1951, thus explicitly limiting the number of terms a president could serve to two, or a maximum of 10 years if they assumed office as a Vice-President. In between this time, the Republican Party once again came to dominance which culminated the following year when Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), the Allied Commander during World War II, was elected President.
The major issue driving the election was foreign affairs, specifically the threat of Soviet Communism. Although during World War II, U.S. propaganda referred to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as "Uncle Joe" when the Russians were allies against the Germans, after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a new conflict emerged between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the fate of Germany and the rest of Europe. By the end of the 1940s, the conflict had extended to the entire world. It is after this period of time that the U.S. begins to transition into the role of global superpower, a reversal of its traditional non-interventionist position throughout most of its history. The shape and design of many international institutions today are clearly influenced by the U.S. political system as is the still vague and undefined notion of "international law." This has created impressive new challenges to balance the requirements of democratic government with the sensitive nature of geopolitical affairs. In many regards the demands of specialized technical knowledge has only increased the distance between the government and the public.
The most traditional role the President has had is dealing with foreign nations especially including the command of the military. In the post-war era, the office of the Presidency was reformulated into the untraditional role however of maintaining global order.
After the war, Germany was divided up between the allied powers before being finally separated into East and West Germany in 1949. The period between 1945 and 1949 is a strange period of time because it is a lull in between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union which continued on and off until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. During these four years the U.S. and Soviets were unlikely allies who slowly became bitter enemies. The Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, also ending a brief four year dominance of when the U.S. was the sole nuclear power in the world, after becoming the first, and so far only, country to use atomic weapons in war in 1945 against Japan.
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong successfully defeated the opposition led by Chiang Kai-shek, whose defeated Kuomintang party was forced to flee to the isle of Formosa, now known as Taiwan, an island claimed by the communists on the mainland as well. This conflict is still unresolved today. Republicans in the United States attacked Democrats for their perceived weakness towards the Soviet Union and blamed them for "losing China to communism" something they swore would not happen again.
In 1950, the Korean War began after communist North Korean (supported by China and the Soviets) forces overran the South. The U.S. intervened. This was the first war the U.S. fought since World War II. The war turned into a stalemate, after China and the United States both entered the war against each other. The inability to resolve this conflict also contributed to the Democrats defeat. In 1953, under Eisenhower, a ceasefire was signed, today North and South Korea are still separate. 3-4 million North and South Koreans are estimated to have been killed and approximately 1 million Chinese soldiers.
This was a preview of what became known as "proxy war" where conflicts between the U.S. and Soviet Union would not be fought directly between the two but through "allied" countries. In the 1950s, organizations like the CIA under the directorship of Allan Dulles, whose brother was the Secretary of State under Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, took on an active role in promoting U.S. interests abroad even to the extent of supporting revolutions against unfriendly governments and political assassinations. In future conflicts, both countries would try to minimize their direct presence in war. Sometimes this was not successful as in the Vietnam War and Afghanistan (which used to ironically be the Soviet Union's version of "Vietnam" in the 1980s, now we have our own war in Afghanistan to compare to Vietnam). However in countries like Angola in the 1970s, and Nicaragua in the 1980s, the superpowers were ability to manipulate events from the background in a form of "covert war" even as these countries descended into bloody civil war.
During World War II, Japan had conquered the colonial empires of the British and the French in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. This had the unintended consequence of creating nationalist movements in these countries that fought, first, the Japanese and then later the remnants of the European colonial empires. The most important French colony was the province of Indochina. France continued to claim a right to rule this territory after the war which it tried to enforce until 1954 when the communist forces in Indochina under Ho Chi Minh defeated the French, leading to the province being split into different countries: Cambodia, Laos, and most notably North and South Vietnam. The French appealed to the U.S. for assistance and basically filled the void of the departing French. Ho Chi Minh also appealed earlier to the U.S. writing several letters to then President Truman (1945-1953), invoking The Declaration of Independence as a model for what the Vietnamese were trying to accomplish in their own country. Truman never responded. The U.S. tried to support the capitalist South Vietnamese government, until 1963, when the CIA ordered their own puppet leader of South Vietnam to be overthrown and killed. This signaled the direct take over of the war effort by the U.S. (only 20 days later U.S. President John F. Kennedy was also assassinated in Dallas, Texas).
By the time of the Kennedy administration (1961-1963), Americans had been forced to take an interest in foreign affairs that, historically, had gone against the habits of most generations of Americans before this. The U.S. is similar in this regard to other large nations like China which historically have also tended to be more insulated and inward focused and less concerned with foreign affairs. The U.S. was very late to get into the game of accumulating overseas colonies, and there was tremendous resistance in getting the country involved in World War I and even World War II. Both wars had been going on for over two years before the U.S. intervened. Ironically, it was not until the U.S. was actually attacked by Japan when the Japanese navy bombed Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt could gain the support to declare war on Japan. Now, the doctrine of "preemptive war" used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 means we can attack a country before they have attacked us.
Kennedy represented to many, the kind of "New Americans" that were taking shape in a new United States, one that had now undoubtedly become a superpower that had tremendous influence across the world. By 1890, the U.S. had already become the dominant economic power in the world with more wealth than Great Britain, Russia, and Germany combined, but it took almost another fifty years until the U.S. became the dominant military power in the world as well (or arguably the second most powerful after the Soviet Union at that time). JFK was also, like FDR, a very media friendly politician. However, while Roosevelt was still limited to the technology of radio, Kennedy made great use of the television medium. It is around the same time that conservatives start creating the ideology of the "liberal media," to attack the credibility and reliability of the media mostly coming from the Richard Nixon campaign who is running against Kennedy in the 1960 election and is the Vice-President under Eisenhower. Ironically, while many of the arguments against liberal bias are credible, many of the claims made about Nixon turned out to be true, which is often not acknowledged by conservative critics of the media.
In the 1960s, the conservative movement started to reassert itself after its devastating losses in the 1930s and 1940s. What had happened to the Republican Party in the 1930s was similar to the Democratic Party in the 1860s. It became so identified with something so negative (slavery, or causing the Great Depression in this case) that it took literally decades for it to repair the damage to its image. In the 1950s, a Republican president reigned, but Eisenhower had adopted virtually every major program introduced by the New Deal and after, in other words Eisenhower was a very moderate republican and in many ways tended to be liberal especially on domestic policy, in fact it was under Eisenhower the first school desegregations were ordered like in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1954. In 1964, the Republicans ran Arizona Senator, Barry Goldwater against Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), Kennedy's former Vice-President, and someone who modeled himself after FDR, even calling himself LBJ. Johnson won in one of the biggest landslides in American history.
|1964 U.S. Presidential Election|
At the time, in American political culture, there was a strong commitment among the public for social welfare policies and programs for the poor. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid were created under the Johnson administration as well as the new Cabinet Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Johnson also presided over the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing legal segregation and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Along with these landmark legislative acts, the "Civil Rights" Amendments were passed in the Constitution:
- 23rd Amendment (1961): Allows Washington D.C. to vote for president which previously had no representation in the electoral college.
- 24th Amendment (1964): Prohibits a poll tax, literally a fee paid to vote used especially in the South.
- 25th Amendment (1967): Establishes the presidential line-of-succession, like the 20th and 22nd amendments, this amendment reflects the growth of executive power and its importance.
- 26th Amendment (1971): Passed during the height of the Vietnam War, this amendment lowers the voting age to 18 from 21.
Three of these Constitutional amendments deal with the crucial issue of the right to vote in a democracy which was also the focus of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, electoral laws are mainly decided by the state, and there has recently been a determined effort by many Republican governors of states like Florida to "purge" registered voters from the voting lists and thus take away their right to vote under the pretext of preventing "voter fraud." It might seem strange that a party that claims to be working in the interest of the majority of people would put so much effort into reducing the number of eligible voters, and many liberals have argued this is an attempt to undermine the Voting Rights Act.
After Kennedy's suspicious assassination in late 1963, plans were set in motion to escalate the war in Vietnam beginning in 1964. A fictitious assault on U.S. naval vessels was used as a justification to escalate the war, which by 1968 had over 500,000 U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. The combined stresses of the Johnson's domestic welfare programs and overseas wars began to take its toll on the American economy which began to show signs of inflation.
The United States became overwhelmingly the dominant economic power in the world after World War II. At one point it was responsible for almost half of the world's entire industrial output. This was the material basis of the so-called "Baby Boom" generation in the United States, which reaped the full benefits of the U.S. post-war prosperity in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. It is during this period of time the mythical image of the American way of life is constructed which still resonates today. However often unacknowledged is that the super prosperity of the U.S. during this time was primarily because the other major industrial powers of the world were rebuilding from World War II. Not surprisingly the two most dominant industrial powers after the U.S. before World War II were Germany and Japan. By the late 1960s and especially in the 1970s, exports from these countries was seriously eroding U.S. economic power. Arguably the U.S. has never recovered from this and has pursued a series of artificial means of preserving itself largely through uncontrolled deficit spending, both public and private.
|Trade Statistics 1930-2005|
Bureau of Economic Analysis
On top of all this, the public had hardly gotten over the public assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of John Kennedy, were both assassinated within months of each other a few years later in 1968.
Robert Kennedy had also been the favored candidate in the upcoming Democratic primary for the election in November. Instead, with all the chaos and the demoralization of Kennedy's death, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, and re-elected again in 1972, although the illegal tactics used during his re-election would lead to his downfall and resignation in 1974, the only president so far to resign in office.
A major factor was that after 1964, the Democratic party largely lost the Southern vote to Republicans. The Democrats had been a force in the South since the founding of the party in the 1790s. Johnson reportedly remarked as he was signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, "we have lost the South for a generation." Many have accused Nixon and other Republican presidential candidates as playing to Southern racism without being explicit about it, sometimes called "symbolic racism" or "institutional racism."
|1968 U.S. Presidential Election|
George Wallace was a segregationist third party candidate
In 1968, Nixon had won the Republican primary against a number of challengers including Ronald Reagan who was the Governor of California. Reagan at this time was seen as an extreme conservative compared to Nixon and other "establishment" Republicans. Reagan ran again for the nomination in 1976, and almost won the nomination away from the incumbent President at that time Gerald Ford.
The primary system had actually been established by the progressives early in the 20th century. Prior to this the party's candidate for elections was selected by party leaders, however the primary then made the candidate selection process a matter of direct voting by members of the party. Reagan's popularity in 1976 was seen as a reflection of the growing strength of the conservative movement in this country, which reached its culmination in the 1980s, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.
The Reagan administration was defined by the phrase "government is the problem" and tried to remove the government from every area of government regulation and intervention which had developed since the beginning of the century. Despite this, the budget deficit of the federal government continued to grow tremendously through the decade, along with an increasing trade deficit which also been growing rapidly since the 1970s, and despite Reagan' promises to tackle the "twin deficits."
The budget deficit grew largely because of a combination of increased military spending and significant tax cuts given to the highest income brackets in the country. Reagan was later forced to reverse many of these tax cuts and ended up raising taxes several times. Much of the increased military spending was used to finance covert wars in Latin America and the Middle East, but also to "outspend" the Russians on defense, a process that some commentators believe helped pushed the Soviet Union into its final downward spiral into dissolution.
During this period of time a book entitled The Wise Men (1986) was published chronicling the events of several of the most influential political operatives in foreign policy (the term wise men of course also has religious significance). It followed the careers of six men: W. Averell Harriman, Robert A. Lovett, William Bohlen, George Kennan, John J. McCloy, and Dean Acheson. The authors spend the majority of the book convincing their readers that these men were non-ideological, bipartisan, in short "above the fray" of conflicts that normally characterize politics.
However, the notion that they were above ideology seems strange when it is so obvious how militantly anti-communist these men were. Harriman, McCloy and Lovett all for example had connections with Nazis stemming from World War II. These men were instrumental in developing the "containment" strategy that was invoked in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and coups or attempts at a coup in several countries including Iran, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of course Cuba. Several other men who moved in the same circles were conspicuously omitted like John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower, and his brother Allen Dulles, director of the CIA until the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, who were so directly involved in overthrowing foreign government and assassinations that including them as "wise men" would probably be too controversial. Another notable omission is James Forrestal, the last Secretary of Navy before the Navy and War departments were combined into the new Department of Defense after World War II, and became the first Secretary of Defense. Forrestal another militant anti-communist who was becoming increasingly paranoid and suffering from mental breakdown later committed suicide in 1949.
It is reasonable to question how appropriate it is to call someone wise when they were unable to foresee that the consequences of establishing brutal and corrupt "puppet dictators" who oppressed their own people would one day come back to haunt the U.S. The term used for this by intelligence operatives is "blowback," and the most famous example could be the Iranian revolution in 1978-79 which began after enduring 25 years of the tyrannical Shah of Iran after a U.S. sponsored coup in 1953. Although many of these men were too old to play a direct role in the 1970s and beyond, these same ideas were put into effect to train and/or fund men like Osama Bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein to fight Iran in the 1980s. Most Americans are not even aware of the huge death tolls as a result of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, almost 4 million Vietnamese killed and maybe more than 2 million neighboring Cambodians and Laotians. Between half a million to a million Indonesians were killed in another U.S. supported coup running parallel with the Vietnam war in 1967. If you add in the death toll number from the Korean War which is not in Southeast Asia, then you have approximately 12 million Asians killed between 1950-1980, or roughly twice as many as the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust by the Nazis from 1942-1945 and about the same number overall of all the people who died in the Holocaust.
To label people as ruthless and dogmatic as this wise is not so shocking when you consider the difficulty of thinking outside the perspective of "irrational Lockeanism." Similar ideas of the "end of ideology" or even the "end of history" after the Cold War have been used by conservatives time and again to hammer in the point that private property owned and controlled by large corporations and liberal-democracy driven by interest groups are the normal and natural ways of life for everyone. In the 1980s especially there was a strong tendency to mythologize the American way of life in what can be seen as an attempt to break away from the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War and a stagnant economy since the late 1960s, aided greatly by the ever-developing mass media industries.
The trade deficit continued to grow in the face of competition from Germany and Japan after the 1960s, and the inability of major U.S. corporations like General Motors to adapt and innovate their product designs, as well as decreasing quality in the automobiles themselves, compounded by multiple Arab oil embargoes in 1973 and 1979. Despite advances in several high-tech U.S. industries revolving around the emerging computer industry in the 1980s, the U.S.'s overall trade deficit continues to rise even today.
Significant pressure has been used to create tariffs to protect domestic U.S. industry at the expense of open trading relationships with other nations and higher consumer prices on goods. This did not prevent President Reagan from winning the largest landslide in American history, over a very anemic and weak Democratic party.
|1984 U.S. Presidential Election|
Overall the U.S. economy grew during the Reagan administration, even as the share of the national income was increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, a trend that began in the 1980s and has continued to accelerate into the present. Poverty increased during the Reagan administration at the same time in which scandals emerged over Reagan's HUD Secretary misappropriating funds to rich associates rather than directing the money to develop housing projects in urban areas. Many commentators pronounced the return of the "Gilded Age." On the other side, Democratic opponents of Republicans usually point to the Post-War Liberal era as the time of greatest productivity in the U.S. and favor policies that attempt to bring back the New Deal.
This development came to a climax in 2008 when the biggest stock market crash since the Great Depression occurred as a result of too much financial speculation in the U.S. housing markets. This was in large part a result of the "deregulation" of the financial industry beginning in the 1980s, overturning laws established in the 1930. Unlike the Great Depression which began in the middle of a Republican administration and helped to discredit the Republicans for more than 40 years, this one exploded, or was timed to explode, shortly before a presidential election, the 2008 election which saw the election of Barack Obama.
|2008 U.S. Presidential Election|
"Battleground" states are states that do not have either a solid Republican or Democratic majority
In many regards the divisions into North and South regions still exists
President Obama has so far tried to adhere to a "consensus" approach to politics which has so far produced mixed results at best. Much like Jefferson, another controversial figure of his time, appeals to the unity between Federalists and Republicans, Obama has in many of his speeches appealed to common sentiments between Democrats and Republicans. However, unlike Jefferson whose party came to dominate politics in America, the Obama administration has not had a clear majority in Congress and has had great difficulty in getting legislation passed. This is a function of the system of checks and balances as intended in the Constitution, but as critics have pointed out, often this system creates paralysis in government.
After the election of 2012, however it appears that President may have more leverage to put through his policies even though the House of Representatives still has a Republican majority. Note also the similarities between the election results of the previous election, and the changes in certain "battleground states."
Obama, for obvious ideological reasons, seeks to portray himself in the lineage of Jefferson and Lincoln. Obama addresses the issue of race in a way Lincoln never could by drawing upon his own experiences with racism, especially as a child of mixed race who has insight into the attitudes of whites and blacks. His association with black radicals like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, has also pushed the president to defend the legitimate anger and resentment many African-Americans feel towards a system of government which has often failed to meet their needs.
As most Democrats look to the New Deal era of FDR and LBJ as the high-point of the Democratic party in the modern era, he has tried to expand upon these policies. Most notably, healthcare which Roosevelt stipulated was a right, and advanced by Johnson who established Medicare and Medicaid.
The current president has also kept in place the coercive and intelligence apparatus created during the Bush administration to fight the "war on terror." So far nothing as radical as the programs set up in the 1930s has been attempted. Obviously however the circumstances in which they find themselves has changed drastically, Roosevelt for example could still count upon "the solid South" to support Democratic policies and a strong majority in Congress.
Towards the end of the class we emphasize more the Executive branch of government over the other three. That is simply because the President is the most important branch of government today, and one that has grown significantly in power over the last 80 years. Obviously the system of checks and balances is still in effect, but the influence of Congress over national affairs has declined steadily since over the last two centuries, especially in important areas like the ability to declare war on another nation. The President is also the unchallenged leader of the unofficial "civil religion" shared by most Americans.
The Supreme Court continues to be more outside the fray of the political conflicts as per its function. However, both right and left-wing activists have repeatedly criticized major decisions of the court and accuse the court of descending into partisan politics. On the right-wing side, most notably over issues like abortion. On the left-wing side, controversial decisions like awarding the 2000 election to George W. Bush continues to be a topic of debate regarding the legitimacy of this decision by the court. More recent examples include decisions over corporate campaign spending and "corporate personhood." However, the last major decision to come out of the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, despite its perceived conservative bias under Chief Justice John Roberts.
However, the Presidency is the branch of government that really drives these debates forward. As you can see the issue of healthcare goes at least as far back as FDR's "Economic Bill of Rights."