The Great Debate

Vote is referendum on the New Deal


We have been told throughout this presidential campaign that the contest is a referendum about two visions of government, one activist, the other passive ‑ like every presidential election since 1980. But that may actually understate the stakes. In a larger context, it is a choice between maintaining the last 80 years of American governance or abruptly ending it.

In fact, this election is really about whether the New Deal and its descendant, the Great Society, will survive or whether they will be dismantled. And that is historic.

What does dismantling the New Deal and Great Society mean? It means converting Medicare from guaranteed medical insurance to a possible privately run system of health procurement. It means Medicaid could be capped, which could strip millions of children of their healthcare. It means scaling back financial regulation. It means poverty programs, like food stamps, may be cut dramatically. It means the Davis-Bacon Act, insuring that workers on government projects receive the prevailing wage, could be revoked. It means the end of subsidies for public transportation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and, of course, the Public Broadcasting System. It even means slashing disaster relief.

All these cuts, and so many more, are enumerated in the Ryan budget. More, they are a systematic program to gut government action – action that has accreted for decades to meet public needs.

This would constitute a gigantic reversal, even in Republicanism. It may be hard to believe, given today’s rancorous political climate, that Republicans never really challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s program to revive the country during the Great Depression. The Social Security Act passed the House of Representatives with 81 Republicans voting yes and only 15 voting no, and the Senate with 16 Republican yeses and only 5 nos. Similarly, despite grumblings from Wall Street, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 that regulated the financial industry received wide Republican support. The Civilian Conservation Corps, which put the unemployed to work on conservation projects, passed Congress by a voice vote. Even the National Labor Relations Act protecting union rights passed the House by a voice vote and the Senate with just 12 dissenters.

The war over ‘entitlements’

It’s all in the wording. Throughout this presidential campaign, voters have heard a stream of claims and counterclaims about “entitlements” – payments the federal government makes to individuals.

The power of words to frame political ideas can’t be overemphasized. How we label specific practices and proposals affects the ways we think about them. Decades ago statisticians and economists used a neutral phrase, “transfer payments,” to describe various government disbursements: unemployment assistance, old-age pension support, food for the hungry, disbursements to veterans and federal employees.

By calling these “transfer payments,” they sought to focus on accounting techniques. They wanted to avoid the kind of charged labeling and stigmatization that we see today -‑ which prevents thoughtful discussion of the effects and benefits of these practices.