The federal government should invest in its people to “make Americans great again” during these polarized times, just as it did in the years after World War II, said history professor Dr. David Goldfield in a Thursday night presentation sponsored by the Old State House Museum.
Goldfield also said President Trump’s rise is not surprising because the two political parties have failed to address Americans’ concerns for decades.
He presented his ideas Nov. 12 during an online presentation, “American Politics in the Age of Polarization,” as part of the Old State House Museum’s new Perspectives in History program. Goldfield teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and twice has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Goldfield said the country has been divided in the past. In the 1850s, the division was between the North and the South and over race and immigration. The country again was bitterly divided in 1968 around race and the Vietnam War.
Today, the electorate again is divided as the country suffers through the COVID-19 pandemic and Americans have lost faith in their government because they believe it doesn’t serve them.
Goldfield said the government could rebuild trust by following the path it took in the two decades after World War II. Government investments in education, science and technology, civil rights, infrastructure, and medicine helped the country thrive in those years.
“Together, government, corporate America and individual citizens collaborated to construct a nation and a people, proving that equality, prosperity and democracy could not only coexist but could thrive and strengthen each other,” he said.
Goldfield said public policies after 1945 addressed needs and expanded the middle class. The G.I. Bill created a “virtuous circle” by paying for returning veterans’ educations, which increased consumer spending and created more revenues for education and training programs.
Goldfield said there was significant racism after World War II, which the federal government addressed. In the 1948 presidential election won by President Harry Truman, civil rights and race relations were major issues for the first time since Reconstruction. Goldfield said when President Dwight Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the integration of Central High School, it was the first time the U.S. Army had been used in a “fairly hostile way” in the South since the Civil War.
Goldfield said Eisenhower followed Lincoln’s philosophy that government’s role was to do what individuals couldn’t do or do as well individually. His accomplishments included civil rights advances, the interstate highway system, and medical advances. Eisenhower expanded government-funded research in the 1950s, resulting in vaccines that saved lives. By 1960, life expectancy had risen from 62 to 69.7 years of age.
“We became the world’s laboratory and a synonym for invention and innovation,” he said. “Now these ideas and policies were mainstream in both the Democratic and Republican parties of that era. There was widespread understanding that government’s role would change over time as society and the economy became increasingly complex. It was a vision of government as an agile and vigilant champion for its people.”
The postwar measures created “a confident people and a confident nation,” Goldfield said. But the relationship between the government and the people faltered with the Vietnam War, Watergate, racial violence and the imploding industrial economy.
These should not have destabilized a country that survived the Great Depression and World War II, but political leaders in both parties divided Americans and bashed government for political gain. Even President Clinton would declare the era of big government was over. But privileged individuals were still benefitting from federal policies.
In recent years, the United States has seen stagnant or declining incomes, higher levels of income inequality than the rest of the developed world, and lower levels of upward mobility. Corporate concentration has stifled innovation and invention. The country trails the rest of the world regarding paid parental leave, early childhood education and job training.
‘“We live in an era of reduced expectations, and that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but we can fix this. … The nation still has good bones,” he said.
He said the nation is more inclusive than it was in 1945, but for four decades it has lacked a government that ensures opportunity for the greatest number of people.
“The record is clear. The U.S. has prospered in times of broad government activism,” he said. “The nation has faltered when it has failed to live up to its people.”
Times have changed since the 1950s, but what’s needed are the same investments in people that occurred after World War II, including infrastructure, basic research, enforcement of antitrust laws, and affordable housing, Goldfield said. He said an active government should invest in its people to “make Americans great again.”
“We need to do that today, renewing the investments in our citizens as we did a half-century ago,” he said. “We need an updating, not an upheaval.”
During a question and answer session, Goldfield said the rise of President Trump isn’t surprising because the two major parties for 40-50 years had been paying attention only to their major donors.
Asked how history would view Trump, Goldfield said his election reflected problems that the major parties had not been addressing, while his administration further polarized the nation and damaged its alliances. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration needs to restore those alliances and credibility abroad while toning down the rhetoric, he said.