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Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders


The case has never been clearer for a transition to Medicare for All, but its achievement clashes with the Democratic Party’s decades-long hostility to funding the social-welfare state. At the heart of this resistance is the pernicious glorification of “personal responsibility,” through which success or failure in life is seen as an expression of personal fortitude or personal laxity. The American Dream, we are told, is anchored in the promise of unfettered social mobility, a destiny driven by self-determination and perseverance. This ingrained thinking evades the fact that it was the New Deal, in the nineteen-thirties, and the G.I. Bill, in the nineteen-forties, that, through a combination of federal work programs, subsidies, and government-backed guarantees, created a middle-class life style for millions of white Americans. In the nineteen-sixties, as a result of prolonged black protest, Lyndon Johnson authored the War on Poverty and other Great Society programs, which were intended to lessen the impact of decades of racial discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. By 1969, with Richard Nixon at the helm, during an economic downturn that ended what was then the longest economic expansion in American history, the conservatives attacked the notion of the “social contract” embedded in all of these programs, claiming that they rewarded laziness and were evidence of special rights for some. When Nixon ran for reëlection, in 1972, he claimed that his campaign pitted the “work ethic” against the “welfare ethic.”

This was an attack not only on public aid and subsidized housing but also on the people using those programs. Republicans successfully tapped into the racial resentments of white suburbanites, who decried “their” tax dollars going to unruly, rioting African-Americans. They resented “forced integration,” “forced busing,” and “the bureaucrats,” as Nixon derisively called the previous Democratic Administrations. It is important to understand that this was not demonization for its own sake or because of some irrational antipathy toward African-Americans. This was about keeping the corporate tax rate low and reëstablishing the profitability of capital in the aftermath of another, longer economic downturn. It is hard for businesses and their political representatives to counsel ordinary workers to do more with less. It was easier to blame welfare queens, welfare cheats, and an oblique, yet black, underclass for the end of these “wasteful” programs. In 1973, Nixon unceremoniously declared an end to the “urban crisis”—the catalyst for much of Johnson’s welfare state. This created the pretext for his gutting of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the office that managed the web of anti-poverty programs created by the War on Poverty.

The eventual defection of ordinary white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republicans meant that the Democrats soon aped the right’s strategy of downplaying the structural roots of inequality while portraying black communities as ultimately responsible for their own hardships. By the end of the nineteen-eighties, the Democratic Party was championing law-and-order politics and harsh, racist attacks on welfare entitlements. In a 1988 column for the Post of Newark, Delaware, titled “Welfare System About to Change,” the then Senator Biden wrote, “We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous. Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down—that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.” This statement was hardly extraordinary; it reflected widespread efforts to transform public perceptions of the Democratic Party. By the early nineties, President Bill Clinton was promising to “end welfare as we know it,” which he succeeded in doing by the end of the decade.


Read entire article at The New Yorker