Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Race, Social Welfare, and the Decline of Postwar Liberalism: A New or Old Key?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Race, Social Welfare, and the Decline of Postwar Liberalism: A New or Old Key?

Article excerpt

In recent years, scholars and practitioners have offered an increasing number of explanations for the decline of liberalism in the United States after World War II. Whether "race" has been a determining factor in this decline is currently of much interest. As V.O. Key, Jr. (1949) suggested 51 years ago, the decline of liberalism and government activism could well be a result of racial heterogeneity in the United States and failures to reach racial accommodation through institutionalized processes (Key 1984, 1949; Williamson 1984). The only other industrialized country to decrease government social democratic programs following the Second World War is South Africa. Substantial evidence has been presented recently in the scholarly literature that race has shaped postwar public policy greatly out of proportion to many other influences, and it continues to do so.

One of the better-known examples of this literature is Quadagno (1994), who argues that welfare has had and continues to have a "color" about it. Likewise, Carnoy (1994) argues that race has had a strong, dominant, and continuing influence on economic policy, and, more recently, Jones (1998) has used extensive historical research to describe how race has persistently influenced access to jobs and employment opportunities. Recent studies supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation demonstrate that the U.S. health care system exhibits "health care divided" by racial lines consistently drawn by public policies (Smith 1999). In these books alone, race is seen to decisively affect a broad array of public policies from the end of World War II to the present, including welfare, fiscal, employment, and health care.

Most of this literature, only a minuscule portion of which is cited above, does not assert that race is the only factor influencing public policy, but argues that race often plays a dominant role. What this means specifically can be difficult to grasp in practical terms. Does race have a beta weight three or four times the value of other variables in a regression equation? Does race dominate solutions to a zero-sum game? Or what? And, is the influence of race on American policies broad, as the corpus of this literature and Key (1949) suggest, or is the racial factor more important in specific policy arenas? Such literature has been often dismissed quietly as "radical," "ideological," or labeled with a scarlet "L." At the other extreme, much of the mainstream literature in political science and public policy has relegated race to footnotes or a few sentences within several hundred pages of text. Typical of this literature is an increasingly arcane attempt to show how numerous, complex, diverse, and "exceptional" influences have shaped American public policy. Apart from dulling Occam's razor, such attempts have an air of medieval scholasticism about them. If a phenomenon were not adequately explained by observation, scholastics would simply increase the number of variables or concoct more abstract ones (Kuhn 1970).

Shipler (1997) may be correct. Americans appear uncomfortable with and reluctant to discuss race as an issue, and this may include and be reflected in the mainstream literature (or paradigm) in public policy and administration. Nevertheless, ignoring race or relegating it to simply one of many variables explaining limited government activism in the United States is increasingly difficult. Too much solid contrary evidence is accumulating.

The study described here began as an attempt to use the resources of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, to examine possible explanations for the decline of liberalism immediately following the Second World War. There is considerable agreement that the period of 1946-52 was crucial in determining subsequent patterns of government activism (or liberalism), yet great disagreement concerning evidence and its meaning (Brinkley 1995, 1998; Hamby 1973; Skocpol 1995; Lieberman 1998; Mettler 1998). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.