It has often been claimed that members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed “the greatest generation” were made of sterner stuff because of hardships endured during the Depression and World War II and that America advanced dramatically during their lifetimes thanks to their character..
But historian David Goldfield credits government programs established to address their needs. In his thoughtful new book, “The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good,” Goldfield writes that the “corporate concentrations that bedeviled the 1890s populists” and post-WWII Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower have returned “with a vengeance,” contributing to a 50 percent decline in new-business formation since 1978 and an imbalanced economy whose concentrated markets resemble the Gilded Age. The reason income inequality is rising, infrastructure is crumbling, and higher education is increasingly too expensive for even middle-class students “is not the global economy, nor the flight of manufacturing,” he contends. “It is the devolution of government, its failure to balance society that has limited national and personal advance.”
In the book and during a lively phone interview from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, Goldfield buttresses his position with statistics on life-enhancing benefits that exist because of federal programs, including today’s information economy (“the federal government provided seed money for Silicon Valley”), and shows how taxpayers benefited economically from investments in what he calls the “gifted generation” (“the first to grow up with television”). He also explores how the political party realignment of the 1960s redefined the populist movement and shifted congressional support away from the “commonwealth ideal” that inspired the GI Bill, national parks, flood-control dams, and the Voting Rights Act. What Truman, famed for his blunt denunciation of the “do-nothing” 80th Congress, would have said of Trump’s government shutdown is anyone’s guess.
PASADENA WEEKLY: Drawing comparisons to 19th-century populism, you write that modern-day populists “often chose to support leaders who promised them the carcasses of scapegoats rather than a path” to better policies, and observe that many contemporary populists supported Trump because of the instant community with his followers. Would he command such support without that community?
DAVID GOLDFIELD: Our communities have broken down: our religious communities, our family communities, particularly in areas that have been hard hit by economic transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society, like the Rust Belt. These are areas that succumbed to the opioid epidemic, for example, where you have relatively high rates of unemployment and divorce or people just don’t get married. So the sinews of the community, the institutions and the families that held these communities together, are frayed or just torn asunder. One of the major institutions of the post-war era was the government — not that government substituted for religious or family institutions, but government was there to back up the talents, ambitions and goals of younger people. I recall, growing up, how optimistic we all were. We went to high school and the future bloomed as something bright — unexpected, perhaps, but certainly something we could look forward to. Now many of my students and millennials in general tend to be more concerned about the future, tend to stay where they are. My generation was a generation of tremendous economic and geographic mobility; someone once characterized this current generation as the ‘stay put’ generation. … We were part of a greater whole — this idea of the commonwealth. We have lost that. Our government, the political leadership, has really shown the way by appealing to a very narrow segment of our society and forgetting about the rest.
Is it also because each generation asserts its own values while confronting fresh questions?
Our parents would say, ‘You guys have it so easy, when I was your age we’d walk nine miles to school through snow and wore hand-me-downs.’ [Chuckles] But I have it a lot easier than my kids did, and they had it even easier than my 2-year-old granddaughter [will]. Of course the future is uncertain. We all knew that growing up, and especially when we did those darn duck-and-cover drills … But the fact was that the federal government had our backs. We thought of it in positive terms. Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson and Roosevelt were giants to us because they created a country where at least the aspiration was that all men are created equal. The reality wasn’t there, of course, but the aspiration was, and we could build on that … opportunities were open to us that were open to no previous generation.
That’s a remarkable leap in two generations.
Exactly. My mother became a geologist — there weren’t too many women geologists. She couldn’t afford college, but she got federal support for her studies. If you invest in human capital, you will get a fantastic return. It’s so frustrating sometimes for me because I grew up when America was first in the future. We were the best in terms of discovery, innovation and progressive legislation. Now there’s only one company in the US that is top 10 in terms of patents, Qualcomm. … Getting back to the ideal of the commonwealth, corporations in the 1950s, in particular, knew that they had a responsibility to their workers and to their communities, and that’s pretty much gone.
Today’s transnational corporations aren’t vested in those local communities. Right. But there are ways to tap that interest. Instead, our leadership, through tax policies and a lack of regulatory policies, has made it easier for corporations to evade taxes, to take their profits overseas, and also to increase investment overseas. If I had to say in one sentence what we’re talking about, I would say that the problem with the one percent is the problem of public policy. That is, we can have a more suitable nation. We can share our vast wealth. All we need is the will to formulate and implement the public policy.
You draw a line from William Jennings Bryan to Bernie Sanders, whose politics are more in line with traditional populists than Trump.
Trump is unique as a president of the US. His ascension to the presidency is not that unusual because the Republican Party has been trending toward this for quite some time. If you look at the 1992 speech given by Patrick Buchanan at the Republican National Convention, it’s pure Trump, about 25 years or so before the actual Trump appeared. So these elements were coming together in the Republican Party as far back as the 1970s, especially after the great party realignment as a result of the civil rights movement, when the conservative Southern Democrats moved into the Republican Party, and moderate Republicans became very scarce or just became Democrats. We’ve had this now for over 50 years, and these lines have hardened. Trump really is a result of the realignment of our political parties. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are complicit in his ascension.
Now we have one party insisting on shutting out the other party to legislate, and an un-American notion that “moderate” and “compromise” are bad words.
Yes, bipartisanship is pretty much gone. There were really nasty partisan battles in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, it’s just that many of those battles occurred not between parties but rather within the political parties on issues such as immigration and civil rights. There would not have been civil rights legislation had not some moderate Republicans joined some liberal Democrats, because the Southern Democrats were not onboard with any of this civil rights business. We don’t get that anymore because the political parties have become more pure.
And more concerned about corporate donors?
They’ve captured the political party system. You could say that the Democratic Party is the party of the finance and high-tech industries, and the Republican Party is the party of oil and natural gas. Those are the holders, and where do the rest of us fit in. One of the saddest manifestations of this is that since 1980 the middle class really has shrunk. It’s not a case of standing still; it’s really a case of decline. But I’m still an optimist. n
David Goldfield discusses “The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. ookstore.com