The Post-War American Government

There were some very strange moments during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan made “small government” the center of their campaign and promised to rein in what they saw as the runaway expansion of federal power under President Obama.

Yet there was former Republican Senator Rick Santorum on stage invoking the memory of his father and how he raised a family while working a government job in the Veterans Administration . Not to be outdone, New Jersey governor Chris Christie got teary-eyed while telling the assembled Republicans about his own father who worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. When he took the stage, Paul Ryan promised to save Medicare for the next 100 years.

An observer could be forgiven for mistaking all this for, well, the Democratic National Convention. Each of these Republican heavyweights celebrated initiatives created by Democrats and they all involved the expansion of the federal government.

The post-war expansion of government was driven by several factors, not the least of which was the war itself and the Cold War which followed it. Funding for scientific research and education, for the study of “strategic languages,” and even for cultural events all had Cold War rationales. Yet as much asWorld War II and the Cold War changed the landscape, the post-war expansion of government represented important continuities as well.

For example, the G.I. Bill so beloved by Governor Christie provided the financial wherewithal for returning veterans to attend college, thus extending the democratization of higher education set in motion when the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed in 1862.

Likewise, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, he continued the pattern of federal subsidy to large-scale transportation projects that started with the Union and Central Pacific railroads and also included construction of the Panama Canal, another project initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Through the Highway Act, the federal government picked up the tab for highway construction to the tune of 90 cents out of every dollar.

Most people angry at government, however, don’t complain about the G. I. Bill or the National Science Foundation (created in 1950) or the interstate highways. Their anger is directed primarily at the civil rights revolution and at the War on Poverty, launched in 1964. For these people Lyndon Baines Johnson is another four-letter word.

For his part, Johnson saw his initiatives as firmly in the American tradition.

When he pushed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), he framed these historic pieces of legislation as completing the process of emancipation and citizenship begun during the Civil War.

And when he declared his War on Poverty he saw himself as completing the work begun by his political hero, Franklin Roosevelt. FDR gave the nation a New Deal; Johnson would turn it into a Great Society.

Medicare , of course, was part of Johnson’s Great Society, extending as it did the Social Security pension with health care coverage. It’s worth remembering that this was opposed bitterly by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater among other conservatives.

In fact, Goldwater made his opposition to Medicare central to his 1964 bid for the presidency. “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets” he asked in rhetorical disbelief, “why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?”

In the end, Medicare did not provide free beer to seniors, but Goldwater lost the election of 1964 by an even greater margin than Landon lost his presidential bid in 1936.

The anti-government backlash against the Great Society, which began in the 1960s, has culminated in the Tea Party and related opposition to President Barack Obama and it has crystallized around the Affordable Care Act.

Whatever one thinks about Obamacare as a policy, much of the opposition to it displays all the historical misunderstanding discussed here. Obamacare opponents, with varying degrees of histrionics, have decried it as an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into the private sector.

In fact, since the turn of the 20th century, health care has been among the most federally subsidized areas of American life and at a host of levels.

The federal government provided money for hospital construction, especially in the under-served South, and it has provided the training for countless doctors, nurses, and public health professionals. Between 1947 and 1971, to take one example, the Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act provided almost $4 billion in federal funds (matched by state money) and added 500,000 hospital beds in almost 11,000 hospital projects.

Likewise, the pharmaceutical industry has relied for years on the basic research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health among other agencies. Between 2003 and 2013, fifteen Americans have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Exactly none of them did their path-breaking research in the private sector. They all received public support of one kind or another.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Centers for Disease Control are located in Atlanta and not Washington, the answer is that they started out in 1946 as a federally sponsored malaria control effort, when malaria was still endemic to parts of the South. It’s hard to imagine that the “Sun Belt” would have taken off in the post-war years if all those new arrivals had to spend their time swatting malarial mosquitos.

In fact, the Affordable Care Act itself is not only an outgrowth of the Great Society or even the New Deal. It can trace its origins back to the health care system created after the First World War for veterans returning from that war .

One might not like Obamacare, but its lineage, like so many other government programs, is all-American.

Why All the Fuss?

Given the history of the federal role in fostering the economy, education, health care, transportation, communication and more, why do so many Americans seem to resent our government with such vehemence?

One answer is that Americans like their government hidden from them. Steeped in myths of rugged individualism, we don’t like to believe that we’ve had any help achieving what we’ve achieved.

So while Americans have never been eager to support public housing for those who need it, few of them thank the federal government for subsidizing the mortgage on their own house. Likewise, these people see funding for public transportation as a waste of money even as they drive down interstate highways extravagantly paid for with federal money.

When Lincoln Center officials renamed the New York State Theater after David Koch, they not only honored a donor but they hid from the public the public source of the theater in the first place. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s exactly what Koch intended.

Another reason Americans are hostile to their own government is our conflicted views aboutrace and class. If we’ve achieved our success all on our own, then those who do need more obvious forms of government help must be failures of some kind. More to the point, they suck up my tax dollars.

Government programs that aid the have-nots appear to many Americans to reward laziness and irresponsibility, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In contrast, programs which benefit middle-class people are seen as something they have worked hard to deserve, like deducting the interest payments on your mortgage on your federal taxes. Bluntly put: Americans don’t like government when it works for the poor (even if Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson thought it should).

Nor, it must be said just as bluntly, do they like government when it is designed to benefit African Americans. Barry Goldwater campaigned just as energetically against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 as he did against Medicare. In so doing he created the coalition that joined segregationist bigots with anti-government zealots, the one that helped elect Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. Now that a black man is the face of the federal government, the worst nightmare for this group of Americans has become real.

Those cheering GOP conventioneers in Tampa point to a final reason why Americans don’t like big government. It has become, over and over again, the victim of its own success. After all, before the Republican Party supported the G. I. Bill and Medicare, it opposed them. Just like conservatives opposed the SEC and the FDIC in an earlier generation, and they opposed the FDA a generation before that.

Despite the rhetoric we are used to hearing that government programs are wasteful failures, the record of many of them is quite successful. We did create the greatest system of higher education in the world, and we did build 40,000 miles of interstate highway, and we did raise seniors out of poverty. The list could go on.

Yet because so many of these programs are hidden from sight, and because they have worked as effectively as they have, we have taken them for granted. A kind of familiarity that has bred a bitter contempt.

One final scene

On August 28, 2010 media demagogue Glenn Beck sponsored a rally in Washington, a quasi-religious revival to “restore America.”

The ironies were thick on the ground that day, though I suspect few of the assembled thousands noticed them. Beck issued his call for restoration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – the shrine to the man who expanded federal power dramatically – and he did so on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington . Beck was shamelessly trying to invoke the moral authority of that event, oblivious, apparently, to the fact that King and others came to Washington to demand federal action to advance the civil rights agenda.

Most of all, however, Beck and the thousands who came to restore America all demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the role the federal government has played from the very beginning of the nation: to promote the general welfare as each generation has defined that task.

We can and should have debates over what is and is not appropriate for the federal government to do in American life. But those debates can only be fruitful if we wake up from the historical amnesia we seem to be suffering currently.

In the meantime, keep your government hands off my Medicare.