A historical survey of arguments advanced against social democracy in post-WW2 America

People seem to have mistaken this for a statement of my views and /msged me angrily. It isn't, it's history.

Addressing the melancholy state of the American mind and economy in his first inaugural address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan declared 'government is not the solution to our problem'.1 By stating such, he was rhetorically rejecting the practice of social democracy. Ira Katznelson defines social democracy as attempts in Western democracies to work through electoral systems and representative institutions to bring about a more equal distribution of wealth in the short-term, establish 'basic public controls over markets' in the medium-term and in the long-term to bring about a transition from capitalism to socialism.2 As is to be expected in the capitalist belligerent of the Cold War, many arguments were advanced against such policies in the United States of America.

In the post-war and post-New Deal period, a rich and varied conservative movement emerged that used a number of sometimes contradictory arguments to oppose any further inroads by social democracy. The nature of the arguments advanced varied over time and space, but some central themes can be discerned. The first is a distrust of government intervention per se, shaped particularly by the struggles with fascism and communism that America engaged in after the New Deal was passed. Secondly, there was a veneration for the American past, traditions and institutions that social democracy threatens to subvert. Finally, there was a belief that free market capitalism is the best possible economic system and one that is both moral and expedient.

Morgan states that 'For two decades after World War II American politics was shaped by the existence of a liberal consensus'.3 This consensus was based on the acceptance by most conservatives of New Deal liberalism and by most liberals of a staunchly anti-communist foreign policy. 'Prosperity was the most important prop of the liberal consensus', and it was believed that the free market was the motor of economic growth and even social progress.4 In the 1964 election campaign the American electorate endorsed the New Deal by giving Lyndon Baines Johnson the largest recorded popular victory in the history of the country. Barry Goldwater had been painted by the opposition Johnson campaign as an extremist who would undo the New Deal and bring the United States to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

As the most conservative candidate since Herbert Hoover, Goldwater was far too radical and out of touch with the national mood to be elected. Effectively a referendum on the liberal policies of the Kennedy administration, which Johnson promised to preserve while dampening talk of further innovation, the election was so one-sided because Goldwater's extreme opposition to social democracy failed to strike a chord with the American people. His arguments against social democracy, however, foreshadowed the main concerns on the 1970s and 1980s.

A speech that Ronald Reagan made on behalf of Senator Goldwater during the 1964 election campaign encapsulates well the worldview of both men, and their arguments against social democracy.5 Reagan begins by quoting James Madison, 'we base all our experiments on the capacity of man for self-government.' He saw the American people as facing a stark choice in 1964, between 'man's age-old dream - the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order' or 'the ant heap of totalitarianism'. Those wishing to expand social democracy would be choosing the latter option. Here the influence of Friedrich Hayek can be discerned, because in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom he warns that socialism of any form has a tendency to lead to totalitarianism and the devaluing of individual liberty. In his speech Reagan explained that 'the Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people', and so increased government control of the economy would destroy the cherished personal freedom of Americans.

Nor was Reagan's opposition to social democracy based purely on this love of liberty: socialism was simply not expedient either. 'The truth is,' said Reagan, 'that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector'. Here Reagan is drawing on the tradition of classical liberal economic theory, which holds that the private sector delivers the most efficient service to the consumer. Neo-classical economic theory flourished under the auspices of the Austrian School of Economics, who argued that entrepreneurship was the motor of an economy, and that private property was essential to the efficient allocation of resources within that economy. Social democracy would subvert this process and lead to economic ruin. Hence social democracy was both immoral and impracticable.

After Johnson triumphed with 61% of the popular vote, he took this as a mandate for the Great Society reforms he had in mind. Unlike the 'Social Security' that Reagan had accepted as necessary in his 1964 speech, the new Great Society reforms had the appearance of 'welfarism', being more a pro-active attempts to redress imbalance in the economy than a response to an immediate crisis.6 The Great Society was an attempt to effect changes in the market economy without undermining its central features and appeared to be compatible with the coalition that made up the liberal consensus; however, by provoking fresh attacks on social democracy it helped to destroy the consensus. Race was central to many attacks on the Great Society, as Morgan explains –

Even though the number of white poor was almost double that of black poor, poverty was disproportionately concentrated among blacks. In 1966, 41% of blacks lived beneath the official poverty line compared with some 12% of whites, black unemployment was double that of whites, and black per capita income was just over 57% that of the white average.7
Johnson tended to stress the racial aspects of his policies in his speeches. For instance, in a speech at Howard University in 1965 he stated his belief that 'unemployment strikes most swiftly and broadly at the Negro'.8 Great Society legislation was intertwined with civil rights legislation in the 1960s. This was a particularly contentious issue in the South, but increasingly also a national issue due to black migration during and after World War II. After the 89th Congress of 1965 – 66, 85% of respondents to a Harris poll believed that blacks were seeking "too much, too fast", whereas two years earlier in 1964 only 34% had taken this view.9 The 1968 presidential election took place amidst a background of social and cultural strife.

Some of those who opposed social democracy did so because of its connection with the issue of race. Whites felt that the War on Poverty disproportionately benefited blacks and that the social tensions created by black in-migration and workplace mobility unfairly burdened them. They also perceived themselves to be disproportionately victimised by crime, which was blamed on the black community.10 The twin developments of the outbreak of ghetto rioting in 1965 – 68 and a ‘huge increase in urban crimes like muggings, robberies, and rape, much of it committed by blacks against other blacks’ meant that in addition to the interlinking of racial and social issues, 'law and order concerns consequently became entangled with racial issues'.11

With 81% of respondents to a Harris poll in 1968 believing that law and order had broken down, the way the government addressed racial issues became crucial. Johnson's attempts to address racial issues with social solutions ran into trouble because many American people did not believe this was any solution at all. Thomas Sowell argued that by 'creating habits of dependency, removing the rewards for effort, and providing disincentives for family stability, federal and state governments have served to establish a permanent underclass.'12 While this argument could be applied to whites as readily as blacks, the perception that the black community’s lawlessness stemmed from their refusal to accept traditional forms of self-advancement meant it was mainly focused on blacks. Social democracy was hence taken to exacerbate the law and order problem.

Social democracy was also linked to progressive cultural trends that Middle Americans began to react against in the 1960s. Unlike libertarian critics of social democracy, cultural conservatives expressed concern about the effect of government intervention on the family, community and church. This reaction really took shape following the emergence of the New Left counterculture student movement, which valued permissiveness, criminality and sensuality over traditional morality, patriotism and rationalism.13 The movement had a profound effect on the national consciousness and youth culture, and brought issues of inequality and racism into a more central position in the national discourse.

'The sixties are over,' wrote literary critic Morris Dickstein in 1977, 'but they remain the watershed of our recent cultural history; they continue to affect the ambiance of our lives in innumerable ways.'14 However, the right associated 'the spirit of the sixties' with New Deal and Great Society liberalism, and began a broad attack on both. In the 1980s a 'New Right' emerged that rejected affirmative action and welfare schemes as attacks by an avaricious, liberal federal government on traditional family values and established communities.

They saw social democracy as a route by which the 'enemies of the family' could attack it, as had begun when the government had taken responsibility for education. Their relationship to free enterprise was complex, but it was commonly viewed as 'the best of all economic systems' if not actually 'a way of life'.15 What they certainly opposed was government intervention in the economy to bring about social change, as they placed the political centre in the family and the community. Clyde Wilson denounced government activism as Washington 'imperialism' that tended to break down traditional values and provide disincentives to community stability. Free enterprise was anyway 'part of the genius of the American people' and perfectly capable of existing alongside the traditional family and community structure.16

The ideas that were now receiving fresh impetus had been around since the fifties, when Frank Meyer had pointed out that the welfare state tended to lead to 'established patterns of community and long-accepted moral authority’ being 'sacrificed to the God of progress.'17 It was believed that social democracy had a radicalising effect on society and brought about the breakdown of community, which would be catastrophic because 'America's founders knew that political and personal freedoms were only beneficial for those who lived as loyal members of a community'.18 Social democracy hence amounted to nothing less than a frontal assault on the principles of America’s founders.

By the time Ronald Reagan was making his first inaugural address in 1981, a significant constituency had grown up that opposed social democracy. Following the economic uncertainty of the 1970s/80s, the middle class increasingly decided they wanted to protect their own and turned away from social activism. 'People have a 'money's worth' criterion for judging government,' says AFL-CIO research director David Smith, and the middle-class increasingly thought its dollars were benefiting others more than itself.19 There had developed a 'disposition to blame the government for one’s troubles'.20 In his speech, Reagan considered it to be 'no coincidence' that 'our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government'. It was only the heroic American people who could save the national economy, and any government action would be inimical to this goal.

Not only did America languish under a progressive tax system that penalized success, even the tax burden had 'not kept pace with public spending. For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present.' The only solution to the current crisis was for government to be invested back into the people, who knew much better how to govern themselves than anyone else could. What government there was would 'work with us, not over us; stand by our side, not ride on our back.' This renewal would also help revive appreciation of American national power abroad, something felt to be lacking: 'as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world.'21

Hodgson has encapsulated the arguments against social democracy in the America of the 1980s very well, and it is worth quoting him in conclusion –

A hatred of taxes. A suspicion, amounting sometimes to a hatred, of government. A resentment of government intervention to help the underprivileged, seen as discrimination against the working poor, and especially of affirmative action. A climate of fear; fear of crime, of drugs, of a loosening of the bonds of society. But also economic fear: of competition, of losing one's job, of poverty, of the boss. Fear of Communism, and of the frustrating complexities of the outside world, from Beirut to Panama.22
As soon as the prosperity of the post-war period floundered and it became plain that one of the central assumptions of the liberal consensus – the timelessness of a stable, growing capitalist economy – was faulty, the New Deal coalition fragmented. Fiscal conservatives, drawing on earlier anti-statist traditions, blamed government for the economy’s troubles, believing that as free a market as possible was required to get America back on the straight and narrow. Cultural conservatives saw America’s primary problem as been drugs, crime and the decline of traditional morality. Their solution was for the onset of social democracy to stop and for power to be devolved back to the community and family, where they believed it had once most productively resided. The solution was less and not more government, for this would encourage individual thrift and responsibility, and by encouraging such virtues eliminate the immorality of youth culture. Having achieved these goals, a renewed America could face the rigours of the war on Communism with its original principles in mind and a stable, balanced economy and budget.

1. Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address, http://www.townhall.com/documents/RR1st.html
2. Ira Katznelson, 'Was the Great Society a Lost Opportunity?' in: The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930 - 1980 ed. Fraser and Gerstle (Princeton, 1989), p. 186
3. G.W. Morgan, Beyond the Liberal Consensus: A Political History of the United States since 1965 (London, 1994), p. 1
4. Ibid., pp. 3, 9
5. Ronald Reagan’s Goldwater speech, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reagan/filmmore/reference/primary/choose64.html
6. Morgan, op. cit., p. 47 ; Katznelson, op. cit., pp. 199 - 200
7. Morgan, loc. cit.
8. Quoted in Katznelson, op. cit., p. 200
9. Morgan, op. cit., pp. 47 - 48
10. G. Hodgson, More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton, 2004), p. 39
11. Morgan, op. cit., p. 50
12. P. Gottfried and T. Fleming, The Conservative Movement (Boston, 1988), p. 56
13. Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, 'The Failure and Success of the New Radicalism' in: The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930 – 80 ed. Fraser and Gerstle (Princeton, 1989), pp. 224 - 6
14. Quoted in ibid., p. 228
15. R.W Whittaker (ed.), The New Right Papers (New York, 1982), p. 200
16. Ibid., pp. 106 - 27
17. Gottfried and Fleming, op. cit., p. 16
18. Ibid., p. 15
19. Hodgson, op. cit., p. 38
20. Ibid., p. 46
21. Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address, http://www.townhall.com/documents/RR1st.html
22. Hodgson, op. cit., pp. 45 - 6

Primary sources

Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address, http://www.townhall.com/documents/RR1st.html

Ronald Reagan’s Goldwater speech, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reagan/filmmore/reference/primary/choose64.html

Secondary sources

G.W. Morgan, Beyond the Liberal Consensus: A Political History of the United States since 1965 (London, 1994)

G. Hodgson, More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton, 2004)

P. Gottfried and T. Fleming, The Conservative Movement (Boston, 1988)

Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (eds.) The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930 - 1980 (Princeton, 1989)