June/July/Aug 2008

When Liberals Roamed the Capitol

A newly suburban nation showed surprising faith in social engineering

Rick Perlstein

On August 8, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon gave the first speech outlining his domestic program. Its centerpiece was legislation proposing a federal income floor of sixteen hundred dollars for every American family—in today’s money, almost ten thousand dollars. In this, Nixon’s perpetually active political antennae were failing him; seven months earlier, Gallup had asked its sample, “Would you favor or oppose such a plan?” and 62 percent were against it. But the idea of a “guaranteed minimum income” then commanded such great assent in all the best policy-intellectual circles that this Republican president, elected with the solid support of conservatives, went for it anyway.

Even Timothy Leary, riffing on the common view that the American economy would soon be so productive that working for money would become obsolete—a contention echoed by many respectable sociologists—suggested that humankind would evolve into two separate species: the “anthill people,” offspring of those who still insisted on productive labor, and the “tribal people,” spawn of those who did not. A few years later, a Democratic senator would introduce legislation proposing a guaranteed minimum income of around thirty-four thousand dollars in today’s money. In that context, Nixon’s sixteen-hundred-dollar federal benefit surely sounded like a middle-of-the-road option.

That context, indeed, is what G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert S. Weisbrot, historians at Colby College, call the Liberal Hour, in their book of the same name. It was, strictly speaking, the pre-Nixon ’60s: the sweet spot between 1963 and 1966 when presidents proposed, and Congress passed, a staggering load of transformative social legislation, much of it even without serious opposition—Medicare and Medicaid, clean air and clean water acts, two landmark civil rights acts, and the first law appropriating federal aid to education. Nixon’s “Family Assistance Program” marked the moment’s end. The bill never passed Congress (and would have hurt Nixon politically if it had), and Lyndon Johnson had, by 1967, practically stopped proposing the major domestic legislation that gave his Great Society its name.

But that first flush of the Great Society’s momentum: Whew! If you believe as I do that government can and must do good things for ordinary people, the story Mackenzie and Weisbrot tell—“Why did it happen at all? Why in the 1960s? Why so quickly?”—is exhilarating. And considering the question with which they follow these three—“And why so briefly?”—not a little bit tragic. Their answers are creative, compelling, and convincing. I unhesitatingly recommend their introduction and the first three chapters to anyone who wants a short, smart introduction to what postwar American politics was all about.

The analysis starts, as it must, with economics—the extraordinary postwar prosperity that delivered the world its first mass middle class and even, for a while, made fronting every American family an annual income equivalent to the price of a very good new car something a senator could respectably do. Mackenzie and Weisbrot note, too, the “wellspring of popular faith in government that flowed from Americans’ personal experience of federal relief during the Depression and federal leadership in guiding the nation to victory in two world wars.”

They also smartly break down the era’s demographic shifts. In the 1944 presidential election, the authors point out, 7 percent of the nation’s votes were cast from the five boroughs of New York. After the war, one of the things that big government delivered—under a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower—was the Interstate Highway System. On these “ribbons of highways”—the authors cite this as a distinctly “splendid American image”—the cities emptied out into suburbs. And these suburbs, Weisbrot and Mackenzie convincingly and counterintuitively argue, were wellsprings of midcentury liberalism. “Home owners are stakeholders in a way that renters rarely can be,” they point out. “Suburban home owners wanted better roads, better schools for their children, better playgrounds and parks, and more security. In short, they wanted more government and more programs. And they got them.” What’s more, they soon generated new sorts of political mandates for their elected officials: “Now that they could afford new consumer products, they wanted them to be safe. They wanted clean air to breathe and clean water to swim in and drink.” It wasn’t enough, for instance, that highways be plentiful and clean; suburban liberals wanted “safer vehicles. Only government, they soon learned, could be counted on to meet these new needs”—even though it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone else in the republic that these actually were needs.

Such was the America of the 1950s. It was the decade that saw the “rise of shopping malls and of franchised restaurants, stores, and hotels” and, even more crucially, of television networks—emphasis on the word network. Via those screens, the authors observe, “Race ceased to be just a ‘southern problem.’ The shame of the cities could no longer be left only to the urban states to address.” Politics, suddenly, was national in a way it never had been before—the death knell for an old political order in which Washington gathered together men who saw themselves merely as leaders of various and sundry local constituencies. With the rise of the liberal order, a new kind of congressman also arose: “younger, more ideological, less experienced in and committed to the traditional deferential ways of legislatures, freer from party influences back home, and more impatient for progress on a substantive agenda of change.”

The presidency had already been changing, too, radically so; the authors note that the signal political innovation that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Hundred Days—the announcement, from the White House, of a set of specific legislative proposals, the success or failure of which defines the president’s term— came to be standard operating procedure, first for FDR’s successor, Harry S. Truman, and then, even more important, for the first post–New Deal Republican president, Eisenhower. We now take this understanding of the presidency for granted. It used to work the other way around: If congressmen from the president’s party visited the White House, it was not to take guidance but to give it.

Here, too, Mackenzie and Weisbrot show that demographics drove the change: Back before the Liberal Hour, local congressman ruled the roost, because the only way to organize effectively was locally: “Farmers were always focused on a small collection of related issues: the availability of credit, transportation to market, and prices for their crops. Local and state party leaders could command their support and loyalty for generations by acting as their advocates on those issues. In the cities . . . neighborhoods were small communities with ethnic and religious similarities. Ward leaders could organize and ‘deliver’ their wards.” They then delivered politicians to Washington—politicians who saw their jobs not merely as bringing home the bacon but also as keeping Washington’s hands off local ways of doing business.

The old ways also aggrandized the power of southern reactionaries. Georgia, for instance, settled its statewide primaries, even for congressional seats, by dividing the state into three kinds of counties, “urban,” “town,” and “rural.” Candidates were apportioned two votes for each rural county they won, four for each town county, and six for each urban county—a fiendish scheme that gave the three smallest counties in the state equal political power to the largest one. These rural counties returned the same reactionaries to Congress decade after decade—seniority they used to take over all of Congress’s agenda-setting committees and to master the byzantine rules by which these committees could stop even the most popular liberal legislation cold. Why was Congress so conservative prior to the ’60s? A key reason was that conservatives turned the institution into a perfectly calibrated machine to obstruct the will of majorities.

Incidentally, with conservatives now back in the minority in Congress, they have done their darndest to pull off this same accomplishment; this is one of the reasons that, despite the increasingly leftward turn of the electorate, we have yet to enjoy a renewed Liberal Hour in Washington. In the present Congress, Republican senators filibustered more bills in one year than any previous modern Congress had in two. “The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail,” former Mississippi senator (and then minority whip) Trent Lott disarmingly admitted to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 2007. “And so far, it’s working for us.”

Who knows what will break the antidemocratic (and anti-Democratic) logjam now? As Weisbrot and Mackenzie note, the Liberal Hour required a crucial deus ex machina: Earl Warren’s Supreme Court. If the phrase footnote 4 doesn’t ring a bell for you, you don’t understand midcentury American liberalism. That famous footnote came in a 1938 decision, United States v. Carolene Products Co., in which the court ruled, as a general principle, that state laws should be considered presumptively constitutional—except, the footnote declared, in cases where those laws hindered fundamental individual and democratic rights. There were plenty of these—like that Georgia law granting a county of 6,980 souls an equal share in statewide elections to that of a county of 556,326. Weisbrot and Mackenzie point out that the Warren Court read footnote 4 as binding precedent—most dramatically in Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the most important events in American history you’ve never heard of. Those decisions ruled that, since “legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” all states must apportion their voting systems according to the one-man, one-vote principle. Once that principle was fixed in law, the heyday of liberal governance could begin.

At least briefly, since other events soon conspired to de-align the confident, suburban-bred liberal order of the postwar era. The fiscal will to expand government, as the cliché goes, died in the jungles of Vietnam and in the fires of the urban riots. The authors’ maxim about homeowners being stakeholders cut both ways, it turns out. At the same time property owners clamored for quality-of-life reforms, they also succumbed to deep-seated fears—spreading quickly to the point of irrational horror—at the thought of more liberalism (and, precisely, more civil rights laws) cutting into their property rights. In addition, it’s hard to imagine any future court extending the principle of one man, one vote to the federal Constitution—breaking up, say, the US Senate, which theoretically empowers senators who represent a mere 9 percent of the population to filibuster legislation supported by every single senator representing the other 91 percent.

The deck is stacked against progressive change in America. For a few years, liberals suddenly appeared to hold all the cards, and it looked as though they might enjoy the advantage for a generation. In today’s climate of reflexive distrust of government, we would do well to heed Weisbrot and Mackenzie’s lively and engaging reconstruction of the old political playing field where, for one brief shining moment, other possibilities seemed imminent.

Rick Perlstein is the author, most recently, of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2008).