Memo to Obama:

Appeal to history

By Michael Kazin

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"The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen,” reads a sign one of my neighbors has planted in his front yard. This Tea Party sentiment is pretty rare in my section of Montgomery County, Maryland. But, as the results of the midterm election showed, it is alarmingly widespread in much of the nation.

The only way to counter its harmful influence on both policy and politics is to take it on directly, Mr. President. Some history might help. In your State of the Union address, you might remind Americans that, from the Civil War to the present, the federal government has played an active part in boosting the economy, promoting technological progress, and providing a social safety net. The federal government has done this continuously—not only during times of crisis, such as the Great Depression and the two world wars, but also in times of tranquility.

From the Civil War until the 1930s, it was the Republican Party that took the lead in such endeavors. Under Abraham Lincoln, Congress appropriated more than half the capital needed to build the transcontinental railroad and gave huge land grants along the construction path to the railroad companies that built it; somewhere along that famous golden spike should have been stamped “Made in Washington.” While it is true that the railroad barons made corrupt bargains with some legislators, the end result knit the country together and made its rapid industrialization possible.

Later in the nineteenth century, the GOP created the first entitlement program in U.S. history: a pension system that eventually covered nearly every Union veteran. By the 1890s, any man who had fought honorably for the North—regardless of his race—received a monthly payment if he was unable to do manual labor. Though it discriminated against veterans of the Confederate army, the pension program enabled millions of northern families to avoid going hungry or losing their homes.

In 1921, Congress enacted a pioneering bill to help a group of women upon whom the nation’s future depended. The Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act was a bipartisan effort, signed by Republican President Warren G. Harding, that funded health care for expectant mothers and helped individual states to set up child care centers. Nurses even made house calls in rural communities where medical professionals had previously been all but nonexistent.

Then, beginning in the 1930s, Democratic presidents and Congresses took the lead in enacting programs that helped develop the economy and spread its benefits to a majority of Americans. It’s often forgotten that the most important of these passed with a good deal of Republican support. In 1935, the Social Security Act received the votes of eighty-one GOP representatives and sixteen GOP senators. Three decades later, the Medicare bill was supported by seventy Republicans in the House (more than half their total number) and thirteen in the Senate. Conservatives tried to paste the “socialist” label on both these bills. Fortunately, common sense proved a powerful antidote to paranoia.

In the mid-1940s, large bipartisan majorities also enacted the GI Bill of Rights and the Hill-Burton Act, which provided grants to build and upgrade dozens of hospitals around the nation. The result was a leap in the number of Americans going to college and in the overall health of the population. A decade later, the Federal Highway Act enabled the construction of forty-one million miles of interstates—a system officially named for Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president who vigorously promoted it. Our modern consumer society would be impossible without an excellent network of highways financed by federal revenues.

But maintaining the health of that society also requires environmental regulation. During the 1960s and ’70s, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, despite their partisan differences, backed legislation to temper industrial growth with a concern for the preservation of the planet. Nixon implored Americans to “make our peace with nature” by making “reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water.” The results of their commitments included the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Few Americans, even among Tea Party activists, would favor abandoning the fruits of any of these programs. Yet not many are willing to face up to the reality that it took billions of dollars in taxes—income, payroll, corporate, and excise—to change the nation for the better. So you may not want to quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous defense of revenue collecting, chiseled onto the front of the IRS headquarters—“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”—but Americans should at least be reminded about the variety of ways their government has aided them and their ancestors. They should also know that the taxes they currently pay are lower than those prevailing in most European nations.

Undergirding all these material benefits is a bedrock of civic morality: our nation has always worked best when its citizens regard themselves as members of a society that works for the common good. And when the president, Congress, and federal employees work together in that spirit, the government makes us bigger citizens, not smaller ones.

This is a belief that goes as deep in our national traditions as does the free-market individualism that has become the contemporary GOP’s entire governing philosophy. Exactly one century ago, an eminent Republican and former president declared, “Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” That was Theodore Roosevelt, arguing for the need to curb the abuses of large corporations.

In a similar vein, you stirred the nation at the 2004 Democratic Convention when you declared,

We are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother … It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family.

Our fellow citizens need to be reminded about these programs and this tradition, before more of them become convinced by erroneous tales of a government that has always been a malicious force that takes their money and gives them little or nothing they want or need in return. Such cynicism will frustrate anything we hope to accomplish over the next six years. It is our most dangerous foe.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is the author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan and the forthcoming American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.  
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