Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age

Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age

Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age

Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age

Synopsis

Americans like to think that they look after their own, especially in times of hardship. Particularly for the Great Depression and the Great Society eras, the collective memory is one of solidarity and compassion for the less fortunate. Who Cares? challenges this story by examining opinion polls and letters to presidents from average citizens. This evidence, some of it little known, reveals a much darker, more impatient attitude toward the poor, the unemployed, and the dispossessed during the 1930s and 1960s. Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs show that some of the social policies that Americans take for granted today suffered from declining public support just a few years after their inception. Yet Americans have been equally unenthusiastic about efforts to dismantle social programs once they are well established. Again contrary to popular belief, conservative Republicans had little public support in the 1980s and 1990s for their efforts to unravel the progressive heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society. Whether creating or rolling back such programs, leaders like Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan often found themselves working against public opposition, and they left lasting legacies only by persevering despite it.


Timely and surprising, Who Cares? demonstrates not that Americans are callous but that they are frequently ambivalent about public support for the poor. It also suggests that presidential leadership requires bold action, regardless of opinion polls.

Excerpt

President Barack Obama inherited an economic crisis as severe as any we have known since the Great Depression, and many have likened his task to Franklin D. Roosevelt's. Indeed, the appeal to the 1930s and FDR's heroic rescue of the nation has been invoked many times as a model for the challenge Obama faces. From the West Wing “brain trust” of the Obama administration to the investment in public employment, there are many parallels to the Depression experience. Yet the present crisis takes place against a backdrop of rampant inequality and a legacy of political polarization that make any social compact of the kind expressed in the New Deal harder to jump-start.

Social critics often remark on the declining commitment to the common good in our era. The wealthy, who have benefited disproportionately from the economic growth of the last forty years, have pulled so far away from the middle—not to mention the bottom— that they no longer consider themselves bound by the social contract. During the long period of conservative dominance, the commitments of citizens toward one another eroded in the face of the more resonant message of individual accountability and self-advantage. Confidence in the efficacy of government all but disappeared.

From this vantage point, commentators tell us, the past appears more appealing. The New Deal and the Great Society stand out as periods when we made good on the idea that citizens should be sworn to the common good and the protection of the needy. As Michael Tomasky put the matter in The American Prospect . . .

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