As an historian, I am amused to hear GOP journalists predicting that the “people” will soon be kicking out big government. We’re not going to repeat the mistake of the generation that voted in Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Voters will not stray a second time in November. Instead they’ll rally to the Republicans, who will return power to the private sector.
There are three glaring problems with this scenario. One, those who have constructed it have no intention of rolling back the state, or even those additions to it that were introduced since the 1930s. Neither Glenn Beck nor Jonah Goldberg would favor rescinding the key legislation of the 1960s, which vastly extended Washington’s anti-discrimination surveillance and which placed entire regions of the country under scrutiny because of past voting discrimination. Moreover, the entire conservative establishment went ballistic when the GOP candidate in Nevada voiced her objection to the Department of Education (created by Carter and then expanded by Reagan). Anyone reading the movement conservative press would think the Department of Education was part of the original Constitution. It was set up to pay off Democratic teachers’ unions but became a source of patronage for both parties.
Two, it is simply infantile to talk about abolishing the New Deal. Both national parties endorse the existence of a government many times greater and more intrusive than the one Roosevelt built. As a critic of the welfare state, I’d be delighted to go back to the government FDR bequeathed to us. The U.S. in the 1930s was not engaging in social engineering on the level that it does now. Further, my tax burden would have been much lower in 1935 than it is right now. No matter who wins in November, we’ll be living under a government vastly larger than the one that existed under Roosevelt or even Lyndon Johnson. In the 1960s, a middle-income family of four paid about 16 percent of their earnings in taxes. That family tax burden is now at about 36 percent and is continuing to grow.
Three, there is no indication that “the people” want to dump big government. Our two senatorial candidates in Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey and Joe Sestak, are running even in the polls. Sestak seems to be a very liberal Democrat, while the Republican Pat Toomey is running as close to the center as he can possibly get. Toomey avoids divisive social issues like immigration while focusing on the fiscal extravagance of the Obama administration. He is especially tough on the medical plan that the Dems passed and which has failed to win broad support. But Sestak, who supports that plan and further income redistribution, is running neck-and-neck. This disproves the idea that the people, at least in the Keystone State, are rejecting big government—let alone the entire welfare state.
What GOP boosters studiously ignore is why the welfare state is so popular. It educates the young and through its growing political control, socializes or re-socializes adults. It not only sends us Social Security payments but also uses its power, including control of the public purse, to get us to act the way it wants. Government oversees education and behavior by how it distributes or withholds money and by how it enforces anti-discrimination codes. Public intervention in what used to be the private sector has grown furiously since the 1960s. What the New Deal brought forth pales in comparison to how public administration has exploded in the last 50 years.
Equally important, the volume of disposable income available to American families is now several times greater than what it was 50 years ago. Americans have become used to living with lots of gadgets and frills, and they expect government to furnish them with the services they don’t want to make allowances for, e.g., paying their medical expenses and the costs of their children’s education. Significantly, as fat and intrusive as government has become since the 1950s, it has taken less from taxpayers than the growth of their buying power has added in the same time period. Those regions with the highest incomes, such as Connecticut, are also the most receptive to government growth and control.
Finally, our present unemployment rate does not indicate rampant national poverty. The 20 percent unemployment rate that confronted FDR in 1932, and which fell by only 3 percent five years later, was truly grave. In the 1930s and as late as the 1950s, there were almost exclusively single family incomes, an arrangement that the New Dealers tried to preserve because of their relative social conservatism and their desire to keep the unemployment rate from rising. Despite this difference, people today are as eager as they were in the 1930s to have the government look after them. What I’m noticing is not a call to rescind the New Deal but unhappiness with how little the government is doing.