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.

The nexus of national politics has moved from New York to the South and West

The suppression of voting rights in the South was hardly a secret. It was the sort of injustice that mainstream politicians sometimes ignore, or, worse, indulge, for their own political reasons. But in 1965, a Democratic President from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, decided to put an end to the government’s complicity in this outrage. He demanded, and in due course received from Congress, a voting rights bill that would demolish obstacles placed before black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, enforced by the full weight of federal power, brought an end to the days of whites-only voting in the South. Within 25 years, black registration in seven Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, and the Carolinas) was roughly the same as it was for whites. The number of black elected officials went from zero in 1960 to nearly 300 in 1992. And, by the 1990s, holdovers from the Jim Crow era of Southern politics found themselves in the unlikely position of courting black voters.

And there’s more. This revolutionary piece of legislation continues to influence American politics, long after poll taxes and literacy tests were tossed into history’s dustbin. The Justice Department aggressively monitors congressional reapportionment throughout the country, not just in the South, to make sure that gerrymandering does not dilute the voting power of minorities. That mandate flows from the Voting Rights Act, the single most important change in American politics since 1954.

2 Television

In 1954, it was still what the humorist Fred Alien called a piece of talking furniture. Politicians didn’t know what to make of it, if they ever thought about it at all. President Eisenhower said he couldn’t imagine anything more boring than watching himself on television. He wasn’t kidding. Ike’s TV appearances were made for radio.

Then, of course, came John F. Kennedy, tan, young, and handsome, and neither television nor politics has ever been the same. The familiar story of JFK’s first debate with Richard Nixon in 1960 sums up the power of this new medium and the way it changed politics. Those who listened on radio thought Nixon was the winner; those who let their eyes do the thinking backed Kennedy. And we’ve been feasting our eyes ever since.

With the profusion of local cable channels and public-access programming, candidates for even the lowliest local offices must consider the power of TV. Presidential candidates began to adapt to the medium’s demands in the 1960s; today, even candidates for state legislature or city council are coached to speak in sound bites and may be drop a few pounds to look better for the cameras.

It is easy to bemoan television’s influence for all the obvious reasons (will we ever elect another bald President, even if he happens to be a five-star general?). But those harsh studio lights also allow us to see our leaders up close and sometimes unscripted. Fifty years ago, politicians communicated with their constituents via letters and newsletters that were written by their staffs. Now when mayors, aldermen, and dogcatchers answer questions on live television, there is nothing between the viewer and the official’s thought process. It is sometimes a scary prospect. But it is also illuminating.

3 The Success of the Conservative Movement

With the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, moderate Republicanism seemed triumphant. Robert A. Taft, the isolationist conservative from Ohio had been defeated at the 1952 Republican convention by the party’s moderates and liberals. The New Deal would not be repealed; the era of consensus politics had begun. The postwar era would belong to internationalist, big-government Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller.

But then a dissenter from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, won the party’s presidential nomination in 1964. He was defeated in a landslide, which was interpreted at the time as another repudiation of the Republican Party’s right wing. Not exactly. In 1980, another politician from the Sunbelt, Ronald Reagan, defied expectations, upset the party’s old guard (which supported the moderate, internationalist George H. W. Bush) and captured the Presidency. Conservatives were no longer mere political curiosities who read National Review . They were, in fact, mainstream politicians who clearly had a message millions longed to hear.

Reagan’s election and the movement that supported him reordered the nation’s political demographics. They created a new voting bloc known as Reagan Democrats. In the Northeast and the Midwest, these voters were, generally speaking, white, Catholic sub-urban homeowners, solidly middle-class and often members of labor unions. In the South, they were blue-collar white Protestants. Their parents and grandparents had been stalwart New Dealers from the old industrial cities, but by 1980, they were alienated from the party of their forebears. Ronald Reagan spoke to them in a way Democrats hadn’t since Harry Truman. By 2000 they were no longer Reagan Democrats. They were simply Republicans.

4 The Decline and Fall of New York

Who would have predicted it in 1954? Just ten years before, in 1944, the Empire State had had a monopoly on presidential candidates: Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey were New York governors who rose to the top in part because of their state’s extraordinary political power. It had had the nation’s largest congressional delegation (and thus the most electoral votes), and a New York governor ran for President in every election from 1928 to 1948.

But no New Yorker has won a major-party presidential nomination since Dewey in 1948. The Empire State is now the third most populous state, and its delegation in the House has shrunk from 43 to 29. New York now has fewer electoral votes than it had in 1884 (when its 36 electoral votes were decisive in electing Grover Cleveland, another New York governor who made good). While New York remains a place candidates visit to collect campaign contributions, it is no longer the state parties look to for national leaders. The state’s junior senator may yet reverse this trend, but then again, Hillary Clinton is something of a new-comer to New York.

5 The Rising Sunbelt

This change obviously is not unrelated to the two preceding ones. Reagan’s election in 1980, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and the nation’s changing demographics have moved the nexus of national politics south and west. California, Texas, and Florida are the new electoral powerhouses, at the expense of New York and the industrial Midwest. Except for Michigan’s Gerald Ford, who was never elected in his own right, every occupant of the White House since Lyndon Johnson has come from the South or the West—even that Connecticut Yankee from Texas, George H. W. Bush.

6 The Women in Office

The Washington that Harry Truman left in 1953 was a fraternity. The Washington presided over by George W. Bush includes a woman as National Security Advisor; women Supreme Court justices; cabinet members and members of Congress; a female Minority Leader in the House; and innumerable woman lobbyists, staff members, commentators, and reporters. And out in the provinces, women serve in unprecedented numbers as governors, mayors, state legislators, and local officials, positions that were, by and large, males-only in 1954. While many feminists would argue that real power remains in male hands—no woman has yet won national office or been appointed Chief Justice of the United States—there is no denying that women today have far more power and influence in politics than they did 50 years ago.

7 The Almighty Dollar

Yes, money has always had an important place in American politics. Yes, political candidates have always been dependent on the generosity of, er, public-spirited citizens with expendable incomes. But has money ever been more decisive than it is today, at all levels of politics? Probably not. Forget the extraordinary sums raised and spent on national campaigns, and consider the sums involved in local races. In New Jersey, for example, both parties raised and spent about $48 million in the state’s off-year legislative elections in 2003; 20 years ago, they spent about $8 million on state legislative elections. In one state senate race, the winning candidate spent $212 per vote, according to the Star-Ledger . The importance of money manifests itself not only in election results but in the political culture. Officeholders and candidates, including the President, now spend far more time soliciting contributions than they did 50 or even 10 years ago. Between shaking contributors’ hands and wolfing down rubber chicken, does anybody have time to think any more?

8 The End of National Conventions as We Knew Them

As this magazine noted nearly four years ago, national political conventions still serve a useful purpose. They are where delegates meet one another, they are where ambitious local candidates make their presence known to the national press, they are where a speech can make or break a career. An improperly managed convention can still lead to disaster. And, let’s remember, the convention is where a party’s vice-presidential nominee is introduced to the public.

That said, the convention just isn’t the same and hasn’t been since the 1950s. Nominees are selected not in back rooms, not on the convention floor, but in the presidential primaries. And even that is not entirely true. The nominee generally is chosen by late March, in a process that makes later primaries increasingly irrelevant. Gone are the days when Dwight Eisenhower could announce his candidacy in the very year he would stand for election, 1952. When Wesley Clark announced his presidential candidacy in the fall of 2003, most observers believed he was joining the fray far too late. Candidates need time to build organizations to contest the fateful early primaries.

Many political journalists still yearn for the days of dramatic conventions, and every four years somebody will write a speculative piece about a brokered convention. (Have you read about the scenario by which Hillary Clinton becomes this year’s Democratic nominee without having entered the primaries?) It never happens. And it never will again.

9 The Demise of the Urban Bosses

Franklin Roosevelt had Ed Flynn of the Bronx by his side. Harry Truman dealt with the Pendergasts of Missouri before he was in the White House. Those were prototypical political bosses, men who ruled over political machines that knew how to turn out the vote. But the bosses, who demanded nothing if not loyalty, have been replaced by consultants for hire, who have applied modern marketing methods to political campaigns. So in place of Ed Flynn, Bill Clinton had Dick Morris, who worked for Republicans as well as Democrats. In place of the Pendergasts, George W. Bush has Karl Rove. The bosses had instincts; the consultants have data. The bosses delivered votes; the consultants deliver polls, focus groups, and pretested messages. The bosses lived for politics; the consultants could be selling anything.

If this sounds like a lament for the bosses, let it be noted that politics is a good deal more unpredictable, and more democratic, without them. The old bosses simply would not have allowed a one-term governor from Georgia to run for President in 1976.

Then again, no political boss would have conducted polls to help a President decide where to spend his vacation, as Morris did for Clinton.

10 The Baby Boomers

They changed everything else (or at least they think they did), so why not politics? The next time you hear a presidential candidate discussing his or her choice of underwear, you know who to blame.