- Historic Sites
Have Americans slid backward since the sunny, prosperous years after World War II, as so many feel? To find out, an English-born historian compares our recent past with earlier times, and in the process learns something about our likely course into the next century.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
That’s an extremely interesting question. Surprisingly little has been written on it, and the accurate story is hard to get. As far as I can judge, the period after 1945 was not marked by a squashing of income and wealth differences, but the rising tide really did lift all boats. Everyone had gotten richer at about the same rate. That’s important, I think, and it distinguishes that period from the 1980s. The eighties was an enormously successful decade economically for the United States, but it’s now generally acknowledged that income and wealth disparities have widened substantially in the last fifteen years. That was not true in the period after World War II. Before World War II, however, American income differentials were much wider than in the postwar decades.
“For most of American history up until FDR, the federal government was an occasional presence. It was there only during crises.”
In your golden age the highest-paid employee was likely to earn something like ten times the lowest-paid one, but the ratios were much much greater before 1940 and have again expanded. Do you think that narrowing helped produce cohesion?
Not in and of itself; more significant was the fact that everyone felt they were sharing in national prosperity, and this feeling was entirely rational. They were. Over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve come back time and time again to the Monongahela Valley in western Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, which used to be lined with steel mills and now notoriously is not. The Valley has very rarely been a happy place, but its happiest period was in the 1950s, and not because people lived blissful lives—they had lousy jobs pouring a lot of molten metal into buckets—but in the 1950s their prosperity was increasing at about the same rate as in the fanciest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
You say that the traditional American experience has been one of regional division and tension, and this has returned. But the conventional wisdom has it that the main regional frictions in this century had to do with the anomalousness of the South, and now the South is more like the rest of the country than ever before.
In the late 1940s the South truly was another country; Jim Crow laws were actually being extended, as new legislation was passed to segregate airports. And plainly the civil rights revolution and air conditioning transformed the modern South. All that’s true. California, too, has become more like everywhere else. The West, which was very different, largely living off natural resources, now has the same kinds of jobs, the same kinds of schools, the same kinds of everything. All that’s true. The United States, though, does span a continent, and you want to be absolutely sure that you aren’t doing things to encourage schisms in a country that big. Look at something like welfare reform, at the gradual retreat of the federal government from much of domestic policy, and you’ll conclude that different states will run health, welfare, education, and medical policies in ways quite different from one another. That’s a break from the consensus established in the New Deal period and continued through the 1970s.
You’ve observed in your book that the national government simply wasn’t a terribly important part of American life for most of our history. All that changed in the 1930s, though if you looked at America in 1980, you’d have concluded that federalism was a dead word. Now this apparently irreversible trend really does seem to be reversing.
I feel that very keenly. This morning I was in my daughter’s school for a parent-teacher conference, and the teacher had behind her desk a chart of the Presidents. Now I think I’m a relatively serious reader of American history, but I found myself looking at the Presidents between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and thinking, Who the hell are they? Wait a minute. Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Rutherford Hayes, who came first? I mean, for most of American history up until FDR, the federal government was an occasional presence. It was there only during crises, so there’s a good reason Chester Arthur doesn’t ring many bells: He didn’t matter very much.
Between 1932 and 1992, however, every presidential election took place against the backdrop of economic catastrophe, war hot or cold, or some kind of overwhelming social crisis, like the struggle for civil rights. For sixty years we believed that the federal government had to take the lead; it couldn’t leave the responsibility either to private action or to state and local governments. Well, in 1996, guess what? There was no such crisis, there was no such backdrop, and voter turnout levels fell to a rate not seen since the 1920s.
Everyone said, how terrible, so few people turning out for a presidential election. My reaction was, How predictable, because you’d have to go back to the 1920s to find a presidential election taking place in such a noncritical environment. I’m not very comfortable with this: I think that the virtues of local and state governments are constantly exaggerated by Americans, and I find peculiar at best the idea that Washington is a hellhole but Sacramento and Albany aren’t. But the fact is that the recent conventional political science of American government is obsolete; this is again becoming a true federal republic.
You also argue that class conflict in America has been a fairly common state of affairs, that this was sharply muted in the golden age and is again on the rise.