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Kennedy Would Have Relished the Fight Liberals Face Now

by Molly Michelmore
Assistant Professor of History
(This piece appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

For many, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death last Tuesday marked an end of an era in American politics — an appropriate bookend to a bygone liberal era. For those on the right, the liberalism of the 1960s — a liberalism Kennedy embodied throughout his Senate career — was a failed experiment in “Big Government,” brought mercifully to a close with the election of Ronald Reagan. To others, ’60s liberalism represented an unfulfilled dream of a more socially, economically, and politically egalitarian nation, a dream dashed by a “backlash” against the social, cultural, and particularly racial upheavals of the 1960s.

But, our collective memories of American liberalism — before, during, and after the 1960s — are in need of some revision.

FIRST, LIBERALISM and liberal policy did not fail — at least not in the ways commonly imagined. Beginning in the 1930s with the New Deal, and accelerating after the Second World War, American liberals not only created a social safety net to protect most Americans from what President Franklin Roosevelt once called the “hazards and vicissitudes of life,” but also learned to harness the power of the federal government to grow and manage the national economy.

Thanks to liberal programs — both visible ones like the GI Bill of Rights and less apparent ones like the home mortgage guarantees provided by the Federal Housing Administration — millions of working-class Americans had, for the first time, access to the educational and financial resources that allowed them to move into the middle class. And while another key tenet of postwar liberalism, the dream of civil rights, has been imperfectly realized, it is hard to deny that the United States today is a far more equal nation than when Kennedy took office in 1962.

SECOND, THE “tax-and-spend” liberal is largely a fiction created by right-wing political entrepreneurs in the 1970s. True, the national government grew exponentially over the second half of the 20th century as politicians in both parties used the spoils of economic growth to meet their constituents’ demands for new schools, better roads, more jobs. But, throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, liberals consistently married these spending commitments to an equal commitment to lower taxes on ordinary Americans.

Indeed, over the course of the postwar period, the total level of taxation, as a percentage of GNP, remained relatively constant, regardless of who sat in the White House or who controlled Congress. And it was Ronald Reagan, not Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman, who signed the largest peacetime tax increases in American history.

But, if liberals succeeded in facilitating economic mobility and bringing an end to Jim Crow, they did so in ways that ultimately constrained their ability to build the kind of egalitarian nation many of them envisioned.

The state erected by liberal state builders in the postwar era provided economic security in largely invisible ways. By funneling federal money to individuals and corporations through the tax code in the form of complicated write-offs, deductions, and credits, liberals essentially erased the government (or at least its successes) from view.

This strategy not only reinforced — and in some cases exacerbated — existing discriminatory patterns in the housing and labor markets that favored white, male workers, but also helped to create the fiction of a “free market” independent of government interference.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party of today is still paying the price for the policy compromises and rhetorical choices liberals made in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debate over health care reform.

Much of the opposition to health care reform stems from a fear of government involvement in health care. But, the government is already deeply involved in health care — not only through Medicare, which has provided health security to the vast majority of American seniors for the past 44 years — but in private insurance as well. However, because the government’s role in health care provision is in the form of tax credits to — and regulations on — employers, its role here is all but erased.

Liberals’ response to the misinformation campaign disseminated by special-interest groups and other reform opponents has been tepid at best. Rather than sacrificing the “public option,” liberals should come to the defense of a government that has done so much for so many people — whether they realize it or not.

To do this, liberals will have to push back against 30 years of political rhetoric that assumed, rather than proved, that, in Regan’s famous formulation, “government was the problem.” More, they must combat a 70-year history of liberal policy that obscured its own role in creating economic security and social mobility, and enabled the kind of anti-statist and free-market fundamentalism that has colored and distorted domestic politics.

It’s going to be an uphill battle. And one that Ted Kennedy would have relished.

Molly Michelmore is an assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University, specializing in 20th century politics.