When Big Government Was Big

Is the federal bureaucracy one of the United States’s treasures?

By Max HolleranFebruary 12, 2018

When Big Government Was Big

The Gifted Generation by David Goldfield. Bloomsbury USA. 544 pages.

AT THE TOP of the federal government are a set of people who believe that if government is big, it is also tyrannical. The national conversation has swung so far in this direction in some quarters that doctors charged with researching gerontology are “death panels,” staff from the Bureau of Land Management are no better than occupying troops and should be shot at, and the relief provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after major disasters is a dress rehearsal for overthrowing democratic rule.

Now even liberals, who are generally supportive of large-scale social programs, are reluctant to express admiration for the national government outright: they do so in the moderated language of local control, public-private partnerships, and market-based programs like Obamacare. Ronald Reagan’s blustery joke is now the exalted truth to many: the most terrifying nine words in the English language really are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

But this fear of big government is not perennial; it is not inherited from the Jeffersonian yeoman farmers nor the Jacksonian frontiersmen. It comes from the Reagan regeneration of the Republican Party, and its conviction that experiments in the welfare state, from the New Deal to Nixon’s own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were failures that overreached into personal freedoms. Yet, Reagan voters were some of those who benefited the most from 50 years of social programs. Those who were middle-aged when they cast their ballot for the Gipper had grown up in homes bought with the G.I. Bill, learned to drive on federal highways that used infrastructure spending, and were educated at secondary schools and universities expanded in the 1950s and ’60s. If they were women or people of color, their new and improved political and economic status depended on the intervention of federal courts to guarantee equal rights.

The new book The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good by David Goldfield explores what made the postwar generation the Great Generation. It argues that the Baby Boomers profited from a more equitable United States from the 1950s to the 1970s only to see it fall apart, starting with the Reagan Revolution and continuing to the present, leaving us with widespread suspicion of the government that has deeply frayed American society.

Goldfield, a historian of race relations in the American South, is keen to show that the Gifted Generation not only supported universalist social welfare programs because World War II bonded the country together, but that this experience helped enlighten them on racial and gender issues as well. Momentum from the grassroots, whether black men who fought in Europe or women who worked on the assembly line, was crucial for making new demands. Yet the general mood of Americans and their elected officials was equally important and guaranteed that these movements were favorably heard by centrist Republican and Democratic administrations unafraid of state intervention into social problems. Goldfield deploys the metaphor of the commonwealth to describe how Americans in both the first and second waves of the Baby Boom (1945–1965) profited from federal government programs meant to make American life more equitable and spread prosperity broadly.

Unlike the British usage of the word “commonwealth” to describe their imperial domain, Goldfield means it as a prioritizing of the common good and a belief in a shared national destiny for all classes. This was far from a so-called “nanny state.” Goldfield uses Lyndon Johnson’s eventual championing of civil rights as good example: “[G]overnment will legislate to ensure equality of opportunity; it was up to the people to run with it.” He shows that even those who might have been suspicious of a larger governmental role in the economy and society, such as Dwight Eisenhower, were won over by victory in World War II and a form of consensus politics that brought business, government, and labor into sync.

The 1950s and 1960s were decades of widespread trust in science and expertise: the development of the atomic bomb, the space race with the Soviet Union, and the expansion of post-industrial job opportunities brought a sense of giddy confidence as well as desperate urgency. Goldfield shows that Eisenhower, dismayed with his own experiences transporting military equipment by truck during World War I, undertook a federal highway system that would rationalize competing state roads as well as dramatically increase funding for new construction. With new freeways came new homes: the tidy, monotonous Levittowns of identical suburban houses made possible by federal home loans (that largely excluded African Americans). Schools were also churned out to meet the demographic challenge of a younger population: by 1964, four out of every 10 Americans were under 20 years old. Rather than allow these young people to merely drift into the same professions their parents had, an activist federal government embraced science and technology education to improve opportunities for what we might now call high-tech jobs. Public-private grant schemes allowed businesses to experiment with new products in university laboratories, often using funding from the National Science Foundation. At the same time, students were not afraid to broaden their education in the liberal arts: between 1955 and 1975 the number of college students went from 2.5 million to 8.8 million and those who graduated did so with little debt or small federal loans with reasonable interest rates.

The Gifted Generation powerfully shows that while we often think of the 1950s and 1960s as golden years of widespread prosperity, much of this economic leveling was achieved through federal policies and not the invisible hand of laissez-faire markets. The postwar middle class enjoyed a superabundance of new consumer goods pumped out of retrofitted wartime factories. Yet, with a broadening of prosperity entrenched poverty became even more of a national shame. Books like Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America brought attention to economic inequality in an era of plenty, giving pause to the conscience of many and embarrassing the United States in its ongoing debate with the Soviet Union over the merits of capitalism. Lyndon Johnson was particularly struck by the intractable nature of white rural poverty, having come from a hardscrabble Texas background, and he made anti-poverty programs a centerpiece of the Great Society. Goldfield takes pains to show that although federal projects to alleviate child poverty, support Medicaid, and fund Social Security were often sponsored by Democrats, they enjoyed broad support among all legislatures and they were viewed as economically beneficial rather than a drain on state coffers. Above all, there was a sense that poverty was no longer an innate part of society — it was conquerable: “If the government could equip the long-term poor with skills and motivation, it could solve poverty,” Goldfield writes of LBJ’s approach.

Goldfield’s survey of the Gifted Generation is comprehensive: he not only focuses on infrastructure and housing, but he also includes chapters on feminism and the environment. A large portion of the book is devoted to undercutting the idea that the postwar welfare state was simply an automatic process of applying wartime scale and mobilization to domestic needs. Rather, Goldfield wants to show that the social provisioning of this period was linked to moral sentiment — people supported Pell Grants for the same reason they were in favor of voting rights — because everyone deserves a fair shake. Yet, the design of the book is puzzling. He begins by talking about the working-class sons and daughters of immigrants who attended Tilden High School in Brooklyn (of which he was one, but he barely pauses to note this), but he never quite integrates these characters into the book. After being promised some kind of social history, the reader is left mainly with the story of presidents and their policy struggles. The kind of deep cultural history that would be needed to discuss what big government meant to individual lives is reached for but not quite grasped. The narrative that follows the actions of the men in the Oval Office is actually quite appropriate: it is functional, stable, and trustworthy, if a bit unexciting, much like the early postwar era.

Another surprise of The Gifted Generation is how US-centric it is. Gone are most of the arguments about the Soviets pressuring the United States into an arms race that produced some subsidiary (and now even more valuable) technologies, like the internet. Goldfield argues that Americans embarked on large-scale anti-poverty programs, civil rights legislation, and modernization projects because they wanted to and because the sense of a common mission had been established by the war rather than outside pressure. However, if one considers projects like the Great Society in tandem with the expansion of the European welfare state, this diagnosis is lacking some crucial factors: they were both watered-down solutions to more radical demands, often from socialists, starting before World War II. European welfare states and US “commonwealth” programs, from the New Deal to the Great Society, embraced selective aspects of socialism in order to ward off hardcore left-wing political parties and sympathies for the Soviet Union. Goldfield never quite considers the political science of it all, but from 1945 to 1970, the United States could operate a big government approach to correcting social ills precisely because the Soviet Union was there as a foil. Few could make apoplectic statements about expansion of natural parks as the first step in authoritarianism when Soviet tanks were rolling into Budapest and Prague (although some, most notably Joseph McCarthy, did try).

Two things seem to have gone wrong to break up the consensus politics of the 1950s and 1960s: social services got coded as minority entitlements rather than measures for the common good and rugged individualism made a comeback (from where else but the American West). The first, Goldfield covers superbly: Barry Goldwater, who refused to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was instrumental in consolidating Republican support in the South by equating all social programs with minority populations. While just a few years earlier the recipient of government support could have been imagined as rural whites straight out of a Dorothea Lange photo, they were now portrayed as urban blacks living feckless and immoral lives off the sweat of others. The transformation of the Southern Civil Rights movement into a Northern struggle for black power also removed racial justice from commonwealth ideals because of the fracturing role of identity politics (and its white backlash). As Goldfield explains:

Five days after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, the Watts section of Los Angeles erupted into a violent racial confrontation following a police stop in the neighborhood. The riot and those that followed over the next three years of long hot summers exposed numerous fissures in American society that would not heal anytime soon. The uprisings underscored the disconnect between the civil rights movement in the South and the lives of African Americans in the rest of the country, The Great Migration had reshuffled the nation’s demography, resettling 8 million African Americans in the cities of the North and West. Confined to deteriorating neighborhoods that already housed an indigent black population, limited in job prospects through a combination of economic transition, inadequate education, and discrimination, and ill-served by by declining public school systems, hostile law enforcement, and city hall indifference, the right to vote and the right to check into a hotel hardly seemed relevant.

With the transition from civil rights to black power came a reorientation toward economic issues. Yet, as soon as even the most basic attempts to correct African-American poverty began, often through modest Affirmative Action programs, there was a fierce outcry from working-class whites who were feeling the pressure of declining economic opportunities in the 1970s. The racialization of all social support programs was a common smear tactic that relied not on the demographics of actual recipients, but on cleverly exploited racial tension by Republican politicians eager to dog-whistle away the remaining Southern Democrats. The notion that all government programs are handouts took years of concerted talking points and Ayn Rand reading groups to come into the mainstream, but the germination of this idea started with attacks on public housing, food stamps, and Head Start during the Reagan era. The visibility and consolidation of black poverty into cities made it more noticeable and the persistence of institutional racism meant that many of these communities would take longer to succeed, drawing the ire of critics of the welfare state.

Less well covered in the book is the binary between communalism and libertarianism in American society. While many embraced the notion of a commonwealth, they may have still been influenced by the go-it-alone mentality of the American cowboy. Only in the Reagan administration would this American fantasy get translated into dismantling social programs. Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, successfully reframed not only support for social services but the very meaning of society: for them, it was nothing but a burden based on a myth of interdependence. Goldfield never explores individualism as such but he does make it clear that the commonwealth ideal involved a widespread acceptance of risk pooling, which fell apart in the 1980s, leaving every man and woman for themselves. However, individualism is not quite what the United States got after the Gifted Generation began to break down; rather, it created a kind of political tribalism between races, classes, and geographic areas. Many of these groups do not even recognize their own social or class position, as Goldfield notes of the common American habit of working-class voters consistently backing business-class Republicans intent on slashing taxes, wages, and job security: “If working-class whites received little in way of substantive economic gains, they achieved at least a sense of redemption. The Nixon voters of the 1960s, the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, and the Trumpers of 2016 voted their ‘emotional self-interest,’ a release from the frustration of an upended social and racial order.”

By making the Gifted Generation primarily about presidents and their legislation, Goldfield misses some of the zeitgeist of the Boomer generation. While they may have been drawn together by prosperity and optimism, their eventual abandonment of big government was based on very real missteps abroad, most notably, the Vietnam War and the support of brutal anticommunist regimes in Latin America. What’s more, the very size of the generation created an unprecedented youth counterculture, which came to enjoy the security net of the Great Society while “not trusting anyone over 30” and voicing increasing skepticism about most social institutions. Goldfield acknowledges that “what made [Rachel] Carson’s work even more threatening was that she attacked the prevailing wisdom of the postwar era that technology was good, and that experts, in this case scientists, were infallible,” but he doesn’t take the next step in mapping how the later Boomers sought to drop out altogether and began seeing those in mainstream society as working for “the Man.”

The legacy of the rupture between big government as national savior and its consequent vilification cannot be overemphasized. Distrust for Cold Warrior defense “experts” and government “bean counters” stoked deep-seated paranoia and anti-intellectual tendencies in the United States, leading to an overall skepticism about expertise. Much of the hippie mentality of mistrust for mainstream practices can also be seen in people who give their children herbs instead of vaccinations. Americans are superbly adept at ignoring collectivity by downplaying big problems: poverty is a lack of gumption, infrastructure can be replaced with a four-wheel-drive truck, and climate change just means a bit more sunscreen.

The Gifted Generation succeeded because of their parents’ recognition of their own fragility: the Depression and World War II showed that no one could succeed without intense planning and cooperation as well as scaling collective endeavors to the full size of the country. However, the very successes of the World War II generation trained Boomers to take their good fortune for granted or, worse yet, decide that they achieved it with no help from anyone else. Now, Boomers have voted in politicians who will cut their Social Security and pensions in the name of killing big government.

In the 1960s, extreme individualism may have seemed like a liberating adventure: a road trip away from the claustrophobia of institutional overreach (best captured by the psychiatric hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Now, the go-it-alone attitude is a danger seen everywhere in American life: from the lack of socialized medicine, to such distrust of local police forces that people carry a sidearm when running errands. Big government may not be the only answer, but it is not the enemy and it is not the problem.


Max Holleran is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Melbourne.

LARB Contributor

Max Holleran is lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne. His work focuses on urban development for tourism in the European Union, and he has written about architectural aesthetics, postsocialist urban planning, and European nationalism for anthropology, sociology, and history journals. His work on cities and politics has also appeared in Boston Review, Public Books, New Republic, and Slate.


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