- The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good by David Goldfield
Making its appearance when many ordinary Americans and most of the powerful ones regard federal activism as inherently alien to the nation's ideals, David Goldfield's magisterial study is a welcome reminder that the national government was instrumental in making postwar America a country of opportunity and advancement for a broad cross-section of its people. As he sees it, public policy in the two decades after 1945 operated on three basic principles of governance: the state should enhance opportunity for all, balance competing interests to prevent any becoming dominant, and enforce obedience to and equality before the rule of law. The result was an era of prosperity and innovation as members of the "gifted generation" of early baby-boomers (whose emergence Goldfield dates from around 1940, not 1946 as conventional) took full advantage of the growing educational and career opportunities afforded them. Adding a personal touch to the story, the volume draws on the author's interviews with fellow members of Brooklyn's Tilden High School graduating class of 1961, who made their way in the world with Uncle Sam's help.
Although lesser known figures in the ranks of activist government receive due attention, Goldfield's protagonists are Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The inclusion of Eisenhower in this trinity may appear questionable in light of his second term battle against supposedly inflationary spending and his passive Keynesian response to recessions. Nevertheless Goldfield lauds his support of large public projects, federal aid-to-education, and research and development. He might have clinched his case by citing Eisenhower's address to the nation in March 1954 opposing bipartisan demands for tax exemptions to both rich and low-income taxpayers because government needed the revenue, inter alia, for social security expansion, slum clearance, and improved healthcare, a heretical stand for later Republicans. Goldfield also demonstrates [End Page 142] how each president strove to make America's promise more accessible to racial minorities and credits Lyndon Johnson for women's breakthrough into high-profile government posts.
Of course, there were public policy failures in the good-government era, as Goldfield readily acknowledges. For example, postwar efforts to ensure decent public housing and private credit for rehabilitation of units in declining neighborhoods ran afoul of congressional conservatism and the powerful real-estate lobby. The resultant failure to break the cycle of inner-city social disintegration left a legacy that bedevils contemporary America. Other shortcomings associated with the Cold War state receive little or no coverage, however. The good-government era saw the introduction of federal loyalty programmes that threatened civil liberties, the harassment and illegal bugging of Vietnam-war dissenters, and support for authoritarian regimes over democratic nationalism in the third world in the name of anticommunism. These issues do not invalidate Goldman's thesis but they merit consideration.
The final quarter of the book—entitled "The Great Regression"—deals with the retreat from good government that began in the 1970s and accelerated thereafter. Goldfield excoriates Ronald Reagan for reorienting government away from the commonwealth ideal to serve the rich elite of Republican donors, CEOs, and financial moguls. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama come in for equal rebuke for redirecting the Democrats towards the post-industrial professional class and identity politics. The result, in his eyes, has been populist reaction against a political class insensitive to ordinary people's needs that found differing expressions in the Tea Party, Donald Trump, and Bernie Saunders. With eye to the future, Goldfield urges examination of what government accomplished in the postwar era. "What is [now] lacking," he laments, "is leadership to implement the policies to grow and energize the many—the commonwealth—rather than just the few, and the people to demand it" (p. 449).
This is a work of impassioned rather than neutral history and all the better for that. Readers of progressive outlook can take heart [End Page 143] from its rehabilitation of government's potential for good, while...