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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Political Pendulums


Last night the president outlined the federal government's plan for coping with the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history: "state and local leaders will have the primary role of planning for their own future," he said, rejecting large-scale federal activism such as the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Marshall Plan. While he did commit the U.S. government to paying the lion's share of the costs of reconstruction, he downplayed hands-on federal intervention. Instead he called on local agencies, public and private, to shoulder the burden of reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina: "it is the armies of compassion -- charities and houses of worship and idealistic men and women,'' the president said, "that give our reconstruction effort its humanity."

How different this is from the approach of Wisconsin leaders to social problems a century ago. Under the leadership of Robert M. LaFollette they fashioned an agenda in which government successfully protected everyday people against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune caused by circumstances beyond their control. What did the Progressive Movement accomplish in Wisconsin? It enacted laws making enormous corporations such as railroads more accountable to the public. It created the nationís first effective workers' compensation program to protect people injured on the job. It passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged the formation of cooperatives, established a state income tax, formed a state life insurance fund, limited working hours for women and children, and passed forest and waterpower conservation acts. Having a government safety net against catastrophe became a commonplace assumption of common people who lacked the means or the skills to acquire abundant wealth (by definition, always a majority).

Twenty years later the stock market crashed, the Great Depression struck, and government again stepped in to help impoverished citizens and to rebuild an economy shattered by the over-reaching speculation of private investors. Several of the most successful New Deal programs were created by Wisconsin thinkers or were based on Wisconsin models, including unemployment compensation and Social Security.

Twenty more years further on, the U.S. government sponsored two programs that successfully transformed European and American society. The Marshall Plan funded the rebuilding of war-ravaged Western Europe, and the G.I. Bill funded the college education of millions of American veterans. The first lifted liberal democracies out of the rubble of World War Two and the second lifted millions of families into the middle class. People whose parents had lived in rented tenements and worked at manual labor found themselves owning homes in the suburbs and working in offices, thanks to the intervention of the federal government.

In the twenty years that followed World War Two the federal government acted decisively to try to ensure that equal opportunity for such benefits would not be restricted by race. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. 48 years ago this month the federal government put teeth into that decision at Little Rock Central High School, where federal troops ensured that black students would receive the same classes in the same schools as white students. Without the strong support of the U.S. government in the early 1960s, the basic civil rights of American citizens that we take for granted today, such as equal opportunity to jobs, housing, health care, and recreational facilities, would have been delayed even longer. In Wisconsin, as in much of America, this long and painful process is still underway.

History shows us that political assumptions are continually in flux; that the unique blend of beliefs, desires and standards of value which one generation calls common sense is usually considered bizarre by the next one. It also shows that the institutions created to meet one historic situation may not be well-adapted to meet another: liberal government programs did evolve over the decades, in many cases, into bloated bureaucracies that inhibited not just individual potential but also solutions to the very problems they were created to address. And history teaches us that the pendulum is always in transit from one political worldview to another: small government to powerful government, laissez-faire to intervention, and back again. Our posterity will look at many decisions our leaders make today and say, "How could they have believed that?" with the same incredulity that LaFollette looked on previous Republicans or Ronald Reagan looked on the New Deal.
:: Posted in Curiosities on September 16, 2005

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