The Fifty Biggest Changes In The Last Fifty Years

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With American Heritage approaching its fiftieth birthday in December 2004, we’ve asked five prominent historians and cultural commentators to each pick 10 leading developments in American life in the last half-century. We begin in this issue with Terry Golway—the political columnist for the New York Observer, whose books include Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom and So Others Might Live: A History of New York’s Bravest—selecting the ten biggest changes in politics. In the next four issues we’ll follow with our other authorities’ choices of the half-century’s biggest transformations in innovation and technology; business; home and the family; and entertainment and culture.

Unlike T. Rex, communism, and your beloved local hardware store, clever politicians have little problem adapting to change, even the sort of precedent-shattering, go-where-no-human-has-gone-before change that might terrify most mortals. In fact, the craftiest politicians—the strongest, if you will—find ways to make evolution work for them. Franklin Roosevelt understood and harnessed the power of radio. The old urban machines reached out to immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and reaped the benefits. Andrew Jackson showed that in a raucous democracy, it helped to be a little raucous yourself.

Similarly, despite great changes in politics since 1954, politicians have adapted, and by any measure they appear to be thriving. They raise money through the Internet (thank you, Howard Dean). They embrace technology that allows them to track their popularity and perhaps—believe it or not—shape their beliefs on a daily basis. They understand the importance of including the formerly excluded. A half-century ago, who could have foreseen that a Republican President would one day appoint an African-American from the Bronx as Secretary of State, a job held in 1954 by John Foster Dulles? And they have shed their formality to better suit an informal age. We don’t think twice when we see the President of the United States dressed in jeans, but just try to picture Harry Truman in a pair.

How many of these changes represent something new, and how many are simply variations on a theme? Ah, that is the question!

Nowadays it is common to read that the nation’s political dialogue has become crude, vulgar, and even hateful. The bestseller lists are crowded with titles that accuse the President of being a liar and his critics with being traitors. This level of discussion, several commentators have suggested, is a dramatic change from the halcyon days, when debates were polite and Democrats and Republicans happily shared cocktails together after a long day of lawmaking.

Hmm. What would Abraham Lincoln make of this nostalgia for a kinder, gentler political debate, as he gazed at commentaries likening him to a monkey? Supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had some pretty strong words for one another during the campaign of 1800. And let us not forget that in 1954 the most dominant figure on Capitol Hill was a senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy.

While the tone of today’s political debates certainly has an unfortunate edge, the coarsened discourse does not represent a revolution in American politics. This kind of change is not a tidal wave but merely ebb and flow.

With those caveats, here is one person’s view of the ten most dramatic changes in American politics since 1954. If you disagree, call me any name you wish. We’ve heard it all before.

1 The Expansion of Voting Rights

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 surely fits the definition of revolutionary, once-in-a-lifetime change. In 1954, African-Americans in the South were utterly disenfranchised, sometimes through such devices as poll taxes and literacy tests, often through outright intimidation. Jim Crow was at its zenith, and Southern politicians were determined to keep it there. According to Justice Department figures, as recently as 1965 only 19.3 percent of eligible blacks in Alabama were registered to vote (the white figure was 69.2 percent). In Georgia, 27.4 percent of blacks were registered, as opposed to 62.6 percent of whites. And in Mississippi, an appalling 6.7 percent of blacks were registered, compared with nearly 70 percent of whites. For a black man or woman in the South in 1954, the glory of the ballot box was a cruel mirage.