The End of the New Deal?

May 8, 2017 § 2 Comments

I teach a lot of US History.  And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked.  It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists.  To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.

They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens.  How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets?  How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?

And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal.  And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans.  They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.

FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government.  Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens.  Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies.  But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.

That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69.  In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses.  The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.

Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents.  A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown.  The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.

But it is under attack now.  One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls.  Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal.  This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.

But they are right.  Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans.  And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it.  And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America.  It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.

Resuscitating Lyndon Baines Johnson

August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things.  But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book.  So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it.  It was pretty phenomenal.  I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both.  Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.

The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room.  He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare.  Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK.  Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives.  So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him.  But then he contracted lung cancer.  His time was almost up.  So, he got Epping involved.

After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson.  I’ll spare you the details.  But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.

But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland.  Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy.  The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.

Anyway.  Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.

I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president.  See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president.  This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam.  Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war.  And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.

But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster.  Domestically, he was a rather good president.  He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society.  LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States.  This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues.  We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas.  We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970.  Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society.  In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination.  It was a lofty goal.

LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.  In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.

Of course, the Great Society failed.  In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it.  It did cause massive change, but not enough.  In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society.  Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda.  And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.

Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé.  No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white.  I could go on.

King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened.  JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers.  And worse, the Great Society did not happen.  There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc.  JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.

Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair.  LBJ had ideas, at least.  And he was a visionary.

 

 

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