Sunday, November 30, 2014

Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes -Blue- Red?

The 2014 election is now stiff and cold; the post-mortem of the roadkill aka Democrats showed that the losers got their Asses whipped. And that crudity, puts it mildly. Now, there is nothing to do but wait for Dumbo-overreach after January 1, 2015. This blogger knows the bitter results of the vote; his only winning candidates were Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008 and 2012. If this is (fair & balanced) non-musical mood indigo, so be it.

[x TX Trib]
How Red Is Texas? Count The Ways
By Ross Ramsey

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Texas, a hothouse for Republicans, is a decidedly hostile environment for Democrats. If that was not obvious in the first readings of election results this month and in the continuation of the Republican winning streak in statewide races, a dive into the numbers shows the depth of the hole Democrats are trying to fill.

This is what a red state looks like:

U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, received 61.6 percent of the vote statewide. Cornyn did worse than that, on a percentage basis, in only 38 of the state’s 254 counties. Put that another way: He beat David Alameel, his Democratic opponent, by more than his statewide average in 216 counties.

The numbers are a bit mind-boggling: Cornyn got at least 80 percent of the vote in 134 counties — more than half the counties in the state. That includes big ones, like Montgomery, where he won 81.6 percent of the 103,462 votes cast.

The senator’s best spot? King County, about halfway between Lubbock and Wichita Falls, where he received 87 of the 90 votes cast.

In contrast, Alameel broke 50 percent in just 16 counties, turning in his best showing — 76.4 percent — in Starr County, deep in South Texas. His column also included some counties with big populations, like Travis, seat of the state capital, and El Paso, Cameron and Hidalgo, on opposite ends of the state’s border with Mexico. And the Dallas resident won his home county, although he did so with less than 50 percent of the vote (some voters cast their ballots for third-party and write-in candidates).

But the numbers were impossible for Alameel: The counties where he received the majority of the vote accounted for only 11.1 percent of the statewide vote this month.

The numbers were similar in the marquee race — the contest for governor between Greg Abbott, the Republican, and Wendy Davis, the Democrat. She won in only 19 counties, and broke 50 percent in only 18 counties.

Again, there were some big wins: Dallas County sent 54.8 percent of its votes to the Democrat, and Davis won in some of the big counties along the Texas-Mexico border. But she lost others, including her home county, on her way to a demoralizing defeat. The counties where she prevailed accounted for only 20 percent of the statewide vote for governor.

Like Alameel, her best showing was also in Starr County: 77.3 percent.

Abbott, meanwhile, got more than 77.3 percent of the vote in 134 counties. He got 80 percent or better in 110 counties, and 90 percent or more in 14 counties. King County was the reddest of the red, giving 90 votes to Abbott and just one to Davis.

Leticia Van de Putte, the Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor, did something that neither of her up-ballot colleagues managed to do: She won Bexar County, which she represents as a state senator from San Antonio.

Like the other Democrats, Van de Putte lost big. Her Republican opponent, Dan Patrick, also a state senator, won 58.1 percent of the statewide vote; she won just 38.7 percent. He won 231 counties to her 23. The Bexar County win made Van de Putte the winner in counties that accounted for 26.5 percent of the overall vote — an anemic showing that nevertheless sparkles next to the numbers for Davis and Alameel.

Patrick’s numbers mirror those of Cornyn and Abbott: 90 percent or better in 12 counties; 80 percent or better in 102 counties; 70 percent or better in 187 counties.

As with the other Republicans, Patrick did best in King County, with 84 votes to Van de Putte’s one. The best of the big counties for him and the other Republicans was Montgomery, just north of Houston, where 79 percent of voters cast ballots for Patrick.

The Republicans had a big year, and their winning margins reflected that, even in the face of much-hyped Democratic efforts to identify and turn out new voters. Wins are not counted by the numbers of counties won, but by the number of votes cast over all.

That is all well and good. But the maps do show this: The state’s red counties outnumber its blue ones, and are more intensely partisan. For all the talk about turning Texas blue, the state remains reliably and overwhelmingly red. Ω

[Ross Ramsey is executive editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Before joining Texas Weekly, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas. Ramsey was born in Amarillo, reared (mostly) in El Paso, and educated at (but not graduated from) the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of North Texas in Denton.]

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Roll Over, Slobodan Milošević — Make Way For Governor John Evans

Today marks the sesquicentennial of the ethnic cleansing atrocity that took place with the slaughter of Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women, children, and infants by U.S. Army (Volunteer) cavalry troops at the Sand Creek Reservation in southeastern Colorado. When this blogger still lived in a cave, he read an account of the Battle of Sand Creek in the now out-of-print history of Colorado by Leroy and Ann Hafen. This blogger remained disabused by historical reality until he read Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971). Brown included lengthy excerpts from official transcripts of Congressional hearings that caused instant mental revision about the -Battle- Massacre at Sand Creek. Now, professor Ned Nighthawk has sharpened the focus to genocidal ethnic cleansing that rivals the Holocaust and other atrocities around the world. This blogger is ashamed that he graduated from the University of Denver because of the bloody hands of its founder, Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans. The governor (and prominent Methodist layman) participated in the planning of the Final Solution for the Cheyenne and Arapahoe people 150 years ago. If this is (fair & balanced) condemnation of crimes against humanity, so be it.

PS: Read another perspective on the Sand Creek Massacre here.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Remember The Sand Creek Massacre
By Ned Nighthawk

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Many people think of the Civil War and America’s Indian wars as distinct subjects, one following the other. But those who study the Sand Creek Massacre know different.

On November 29, 1864, as Union armies fought through Virginia and Georgia, Colonel John Chivington led some 700 cavalry troops in an unprovoked attack on peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers at Sand Creek in Colorado. They murdered nearly 200 women, children and older men.

Sand Creek was one of many assaults on American Indians during the war, from Patrick Edward Connor’s massacre of Shoshone villagers along the Idaho-Utah border at Bear River on January 29, 1863, to the forced removal and incarceration of thousands of Navajo people in 1864 known as the Long Walk.

In terms of sheer horror, few events matched Sand Creek. Pregnant women were murdered and scalped, genitalia were paraded as trophies, and scores of wanton acts of violence characterize the accounts of the few Army officers who dared to report them. Among them was Capt. Silas Soule, who had been with Black Kettle and Cheyenne leaders at the September peace negotiations with Governor John Evans of Colorado, the region’s superintendent of Indians affairs (as well as a founder of both the University of Denver and Northwestern University). Soule publicly exposed Chivington’s actions and, in retribution, was later murdered in Denver.

After news of the massacre spread, Evans and Chivington were forced to resign from their appointments. But neither faced criminal charges, and the government refused to compensate the victims or their families in any way. Indeed, Sand Creek was just one part of a campaign to take the Cheyenne’s once vast land holdings across the region. A territory that had hardly any white communities in 1850 had, by 1870, lost many Indians, who were pushed violently off the Great Plains by white settlers and the federal government.

These and other campaigns amounted to what is today called ethnic cleansing: an attempted eradication and dispossession of an entire indigenous population. Many scholars suggest that such violence conforms to other 20th-century categories of analysis, like settler colonial genocide and crimes against humanity.

Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible: The paltry Union Army of 1858, before its wartime expansion, could not have attacked, let alone removed, the fortified Navajo communities in the Four Corners, while Southern secession gave a powerful impetus to expand American territory westward. Territorial leaders like Evans were given more resources and power to negotiate with, and fight against, powerful Western tribes like the Shoshone, Cheyenne, Lakota and Comanche. The violence of this time was fueled partly by the lust for power by civilian and military leaders desperate to obtain glory and wartime recognition.

Expansion continued after the war, powered by a revived American economy but also by a new spirit of national purpose, a sense that America, having suffered in the war, now had the right to conquer more peoples and territories.

The United States has yet to fully recognize the violent destruction wrought against indigenous peoples by the Civil War and the Union Army. Connor and Evans have cities, monuments and plaques in their honor, as well as two universities and even Colorado’s Mount Evans, home to the highest paved road in North America.

Saturday’s 150th anniversary will be commemorated many ways: The National Park Service’s Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, the descendant Cheyenne and Arapaho communities, other Native American community members and their non-Native supporters will commemorate the massacre. An annual memorial run will trace the route of Chivington’s troops from Sand Creek to Denver, where an evening vigil will be held December 2.

The University of Denver and Northwestern are also reckoning with this legacy, creating committees that have recognized Evans’s culpability. Like many academic institutions, both are deliberating how to expand Native American studies and student service programs. Yet the near-absence of Native American faculty members, administrators and courses reflects their continued failure to take more than partial steps.

While the government has made efforts to recognize individual atrocities, it has a long way to go toward recognizing how deeply the decades-long campaign of eradication ran, let alone recognizing how, in the face of such violence, Native American nations and their cultures have survived. Few Americans know of the violence of this time, let alone the subsequent violation of Indian treaties, of reservation boundaries and of Indian families by government actions, including the half-century of forced removal of Indian children to boarding schools.

One symbolic but necessary first step would be a National Day of Indigenous Remembrance and Survival, perhaps on November 29, the anniversary of Sand Creek. Another would be commemorative memorials, not only in Denver and Evanston but in Washington, too. We commemorate “discovery” and “expansion” with Columbus Day and the Gateway arch, but nowhere is there national recognition of the people who suffered from those “achievements” — and have survived amid continuing cycles of colonialism. Ω

[Ned Nighthawk is a professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. He received a BA (history with honors) from McGill University, an MA (history) from the University of California at Los Angeles, and a PhD (history) from the University of Washington. He is the author of Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2006).]

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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Unsecured Borders Of Our Minds

Ah, we have the "wacko right" and its insane desire to destroy the United States of America in order to save it. Nothing lasts forever and the "wacko right" will pass, too. This country's political landscape is littered with the detritus deranged political movements, from the Anti-Masonic Party, the American Party, and of course, the GOP began as a slavery-conspiracy-fueled third party. It is small wonder the the Morons are DINOS (Dumbos In Name Only). It is no wonder that most of the Dumbos of today spout American Party nativist rhetoric. If this is a (fair & balanced) diagnosis of national psychosis, so be it.

[x The Nation]
The Republican Response To Obama’s Immigration Move
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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“Be positive,” the GOP’s advised.
“Suggest another way to ease the plight
Of families and kids already here.”
Well, fine, but how about the wacko right? Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Roll Over Colonel Sanders, Make Way For A Schmaltzy Thanksgiving Tale

On Turkey Day, 2014, Andrew Lawler takes up the cause of the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), a domesticated fowl that is one of the most common and widespread domestic animals in the world. The turkey is the supreme element of Thanksgiving cuisine, but Lawler upholds the primacy of chickens on all other non-holidays of the year. If this is a (fair & balanced) pecking order, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
How The Chicken Built America
By Andrew Lawler

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This season millions of Americans will celebrate with turkey on the table. The turkey is, after all, the native North American animal that Benjamin Franklin considered “a much more respectable bird” than the scavenging bald eagle. But while the eagle landed on the country’s Great Seal and the turkey gets pride of place at our holiday dinners, neither bird can claim to have changed American culture more than their lowly avian cousin, the chicken.

English settlers arriving at Jamestown in 1607 brought a flock of chickens that helped the struggling colony survive its first harsh winters, and the bird was on the Mayflower 13 years later. But the popularity of the Old World fowl soon faded, as turkey, goose, pigeon, duck and other tastier native game were plentiful.

This proved a boon for enslaved Africans. Fearful that human chattel could buy their freedom from profits made by selling animals, the Virginia General Assembly in 1692 made it illegal for slaves to own horses, cattle or pigs. Poultry, though, wasn’t considered worth mentioning.

This loophole offered an opportunity. Most slaves came from West Africa, where raising chickens had a long history. Soon, African-Americans in the colonial South — both enslaved and free — emerged as the “general chicken merchants,” wrote one white planter. At George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, slaves were forbidden to raise ducks or geese, making the chicken “the only pleasure allowed to Negroes,” one visitor noted. The pleasure was not just culinary, but financial: In 1775, Thomas Jefferson paid two silver Spanish bits to slaves in exchange for three chickens. Such sales were common.

Black cooks were in a position to influence their masters’ choice of dishes, and they naturally favored the meat raised by their friends and relatives. One of the West African specialties that caught on among white people was chicken pieces fried in oil — the meal that now, around the world, is considered quintessentially American.

Slaves laid the foundation for the American appetite for chicken, but it was the forced opening of China by the West in the 1840s that made the modern bird possible. American ships brought specimens of Asian chickens never seen in America. Breeders crossed the large and colorful exotics with their smaller but hardier Western counterparts to produce a bird that could lay more eggs and provide more meat. The results were famous varieties, like the Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red, that appeared just as the nation began to industrialize.

Still, chicken rearing in the United States remained a small-scale family business; American meat-eating tended toward pork and beef, with chickens used mostly for eggs.

That began to change with the arrival of millions of Eastern European Jews, who relied on chicken as a meat source. By 1900, New York City boasted 1,500 kosher butcher shops, stocked by train cars filled with live chickens that arrived mainly from farms in the Midwest, where rural women, who ran much of the poultry business at the time, took advantage of the growing demand.

Their market soon extended beyond immigrant Jews. Millions of people were leaving their Midwestern and Southern farms for factory jobs in the expanding cities in the North. Finding a reliable and cheap source of protein was critical. Pork and beef were expensive for urban shoppers, and there were not enough eggs produced in the United States to satisfy their appetites. The chicken business started to take off.

World War I gave chickens another boost, when beef and pork stocks were diverted to the troops. Then, in 1923, an entrepreneurial Delaware woman named Celia Steele began sending the first broilers to New York, birthing a multibillion-dollar industry. For the first time, chickens began to be sold solely for their meat on a mass scale.

The rise of the chicken continued through the Great Depression, when chicken farming helped many farmers get by. Henry A. Wallace, a sometime vegetarian pacifist from Iowa who also served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary and vice president, argued that the chicken was the savior of poverty-stricken rural Americans. The company he helped found in the 1920s is now the world’s largest single producer of egg-laying hens. Finally, in the 1950s, engineers and scientists created a bird that could grow quickly with minimal feed — and the chicken we know today emerged.

Today chicken is cheap, and it has become America’s favorite meat. In the land of the hamburger, we eat more of it than beef. And while we enjoy turkey at Thanksgiving, over the course of the year we will consume five times as much chicken.

The bonanza of cheap meat and eggs has been a boon in many ways, but it has come at a largely hidden cost. Billions of chickens, both layers and broilers, live in vast warehouses locked behind fences and unprotected by federal regulations, which don’t consider poultry raised for food as animals. Then there are the low-paid workers who labor in the cold and dark of processing plants with high rates of injury, and the environmental degradation that sullies our waterways. And today’s industrial bird is a relatively tasteless food that we must relentlessly flavor with sauces, marinades and rubs.

So as we celebrate and give thanks this season, take a moment to consider the lowly chicken, and how its story and that of our country are so deeply entwined. The bird that gets little respect is the creature that has given us more than we know. Ω

[Andrew Lawler is a freelance writer who has written more than a thousand articles for a dozen different magazines on topics ranging from asteroids to zebrafish. He is the author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? (2014). Lawler received a BA (interdisciplinary studies, with highest honors) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's As American As Green Bean Casserole?

Today, a foodie par excellence deconstructs our freedom from want; the largest supermarket chain in Texas (HEB) hosts a number of Feasts of Sharing in the major cities of Texas (including Austin) that are free and open to people of all ages. During the celebration, guests are served a complete Thanksgiving dinner by a wait staff of volunteers bringing meals to the tables, a significant departure from similar events where meals are dished out in cafeteria-style lines. This expansion on the tradition family meal is in its 18th year. In 2013, more than 250,000 people received a Thanksgiving meal at no charge. So, forks up! If this is (fair & balanced) gastronomy, so be it.

[x Boston Fishwrap]
Thanksgiving, Or How To Eat American Politics
By Rachel Laudan

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On Thursday, almost nine out of ten Americans will gather around Thanksgiving dinner—some version of the traditional family-style meal of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie. And once again the accepted wisdom about how the Thanksgiving meal took root and what it means will be rolled out.

This story is as much a tradition as the meal itself. Even if we doubt the schoolroom version of an unbroken tradition going back to a founding feast shared by Native Americans and Pilgrims, it is still easy to think of Thanksgiving as a celebration of the bounty of the New World, an American custom whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

But food—what we eat and why we eat it—is rarely as simple as the tales we tell about it. In the case of Thanksgiving, a closer look at the history of the dishes we set out and how they came together on our tables suggests a different story.

Thanksgiving as we know it today—a holiday that brings family and nation together over roast turkey—took shape 150 ago. And although it is certainly built on American culinary traditions, the meal we’ll eat on Thursday is also built around a political principle. It is a deliberate, small-r republican contrast to the haute cuisine that for millennia had been served at events of state.

Food can embody ideas as well as customs, and our standard Thanksgiving draws on a long tradition of antimonarchical political and culinary thought. These ideas had deep European roots in France, England, and the Dutch Republic, and even before that among Roman republicans and the Church fathers.

Political philosophers and cookbook authors alike had long railed against the appetizers, complex sauces, sweets, and expensive, imported ingredients central to high cuisine. Indulging in these created an appetite for expensive luxuries that, it was widely believed, ruined the individual, the household, and the nation. But it was in the United States that the simple meal that these people advocated became a national celebration embracing all citizens.

Starting in the 1840s, Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the nation’s most widely circulated women’s magazine, campaigned in print and in letters to politicians to extend Thanksgiving, a holiday already celebrated in New England, to the country as a whole. She finally persuaded Abraham Lincoln to declare a national holiday in 1863. It was, in Lincoln’s words, intended to restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and union” to a nation torn by the Civil War.

At that time, the ruling classes in much of the world dined on French haute cuisine, widely regarded as a mark of a civilized, progressive nation. From Britain to Russia, from Mexico to Japan, and in the United States as well, diners dressed in formal attire sat at tables set with expensive crystal, china, and silver. Servants passed a sequence of richly sauced meats, elaborate molded desserts, and hothouse fruits that neither they, nor the professional cooks who prepared them, could enjoy. It was everything the anti-aristocratic republican tradition was arguing against.

To Hale and others like her, a feast based on such haute cuisine, far from being the hallmark of a modern nation, would only perpetuate the monarchic traditions so firmly repudiated by “our Great Republic.” To make good on its political ideals, the new state had to find a middle way—a meal that lay somewhere between the extravagance of Old World aristocratic feasts and the scanty fare of the common people.

The will to bridge this gap had long been at work in American political thought, and had long been expressed through food. In the 1760s, as a patriotic protest the Daughters of Liberty had organized boycotts of expensive imported tea, offering recipes for local herbal alternatives. In 1796, a few years after crowds in Paris had protested the king’s failure to ensure their daily bread, Amelia Simmons, the author of the first American cookbook, American Cookery (1796), promised her readers pies and cakes “adapted to this country and all grades of life.” And Lydia Maria Child’s Frugal Housewife (1829), which went through 32 editions in the succeeding 25 years, preached the values of the simple home-cooked meal as truly republican.

In her magazine, Sarah Hale published recipes for roast turkey and pumpkin pie, and popularized homecoming for the holiday through sentimental poems, images, and stories of “traditional” Thanksgivings. In the Union states, at least, her campaign finally found a receptive audience, accustomed through long tradition to the notion that household meals of national ingredients contributed to the flourishing of the greater American family. Although the wealthy continued to dine French-style on other occasions, and although the South was not to accept it until after Reconstruction, Thanksgiving was on its way to being the celebration we recognize.

Turkey, a large, affordable, and readily available fowl, allowed the whole family generous servings of meat. Pumpkin pie could be prepared by the housewife in the home kitchen. Children, traditionally barred from aristocratic tables, were expected at the meal as well, to be physically nourished by ample, wholesome food and mentally nourished as they absorbed civic principles from the adults’ manners and conversation.

Neither turkey nor pie nor any of the other dishes that appear on the Thanksgiving table was a new invention. All of them had appeared in other times and other contexts. Gravy was a democratized version of lush sauces served at court; cranberry relish has origins that stretch through medieval Europe to Islam. This thing we now call tradition was a creative reworking of culinary elements from different, often even unrecognized cultures to create a feast that in its accessibility to all citizens was uniquely American.

Over the years, as the Thanksgiving dinner has spread to all regions, all faiths, and successive waves of immigrants within the United States, it’s been easy to forget what a radical achievement it was, and what a specific expression of American ideas. When we look across the table on Thursday, we see a meal both more politically American and more philosophical than many of us give it credit for. What could be more worthy of thanks? Ω

[Rachel Laudan is a Visiting Scholar at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies of The University of Texas at Austin. Laudan received a BA First Class (summa cum laude) from the University of Bristol as well as an MS and PhD (history and philosophy of science) from the University of London. She has written The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage (1996) and Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013).]

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Today, A Cure For Historical Amnesia

Even Charles Dickens would say "These are the worst of times — over & out." Public discourse is filled with anti-government invective and the skies are smoky over Ferguson, MO. The racial divide is no narrower in 2014 than it was in 1964. There are as many dog-whistles and racist whispers today as 50 years ago. If this is a (fair & balanced) echo of Cassandra in the realm of Clio, so be it.

[x Origins]
An Enemy Until You Need A Friend: The Role Of "Big Government" In American History
By Steven Conn

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We live at a moment in American politics when there has never been more anger directed toward “big government,” and that anger has boiled over during the last several election cycles. For some of those angry Americans, the federal government has usurped the role of state and local governments ever since the New Deal of the 1930s. Others fulminate that anything the federal government does amounts to an existential threat to their liberty.

So with another round of federal elections looming, let’s start with three vignettes to help illustrate the problem Americans have understanding the role of the federal government in American life:

1) At a town hall meeting in Simpsonville, South Carolina hosted by Republican Congressman Robert Inglis in the summer of 2009, an angry senior citizen thundered: “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

2) In April 2013, Kentucky Republican Senator and Tea Party darling Rand Paul traveled across Washington, D.C. to deliver a speech to students at Howard University, perhaps the most venerable of the nation’s historical black colleges. He told them, among other things, that “big government” had failed African Americans.

3) In July 2008 David Koch, billionaire energy magnate and funder of libertarian political causes, pledged $100 million to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. In return the theater was renamed “The David H. Koch Theater.”

The first of these scenes is a risibly obvious example of the ignorance some Americans have about the place of government programs even in their own lives, and plenty of people have poked fun at that sputtering geriatric from South Carolina. Even Congressman Inglis, no friend of the federal government or of the Obama administration, seemed a little exasperated: “I had to politely explain,” he told a reporter afterward, “that ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government.’ But he wasn’t having any of it.”

Senator Paul’s speech in front of a group of African American college students was a breathtakingly obtuse misunderstanding of the role the federal government has played in the history of black civil rights. Senator Paul regularly denounces the reach of the federal government as an intrusion on the rights of the states, but he can’t quite acknowledge that “states rights” was responsible for the creation of Jim Crow segregation, nor can he acknowledge that our system of American apartheid was broken, finally, in large part because of the actions of the all three branches of the federal government.

My third vignette about how we misunderstand government resides in the department of irony. David Koch is apparently a big fan of opera and ballet and he has been a regular patron at Lincoln Center over the years. His philanthropy was, at one level, an act of generosity toward the arts that he loves.

At another level, of course, it gave him the opportunity to create his own legacy by putting his name on what is arguably the center of the cultural life of New York, which is arguably the center of the nation’s cultural life. A kid from Wichita, Kansas, Koch wanted to buy himself a piece of New York cultural cachet.

But Lincoln Center itself was created as part of a large-scale urban renewal project in the early 1960s and partially funded by the federal government. Whether he recognized it or not, David Koch put his name on a pure piece of “big government.”

These three stories – and I could have chosen any of a dozen others from the past few years – demonstrate that there has never been more confusion about what the federal government does, how it does it, and why.

At its root, that confusion is historical: the three people at the center of my little stories – the angry senior, the angry senator, and the angry billionaire – each misunderstand the role the federal government has played in creating the nation we inhabit today, whether in health care, civil rights, or cultural achievement.

In fact, the federal government has from its inception been an active force in American life across a wide range of sectors. An activist federal government is as old as the nation itself, and that history demonstrates how seriously the federal government has pursued its Constitutional charge “to promote the general welfare.”

In 1996 former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen (R-ME) famously quipped, “Government is the enemy until you need a friend.” And for over two hundred years many Americans—from the largest of businesses to the most dispossessed of citizens—have benefited in all sorts of ways from that friendship.

Government Intervention, American Tradition

When the First Congress of the United States assembled in 1789, the first major piece of legislation it passed involved an intervention in the economy and raising taxes. The Hamilton Tariff, named because it was championed by Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, slapped a tax on a range of imported manufactured products.

The tariff had two goals: first, it was designed to raise revenue so the new government could pay off its debts; and second, it was supposed to stimulate domestic industry by making imported goods more expensive. Call it an economic stimulus package, 18th-century style. And by and large the Hamilton Tariff achieved its goals. Money was raised and American producers, especially in northern urban centers, grew.

The Hamilton Tariff was by no means an anomaly. In fact, it is worth remembering that the Constitution itself was written and adopted so that the federal government could take a more active role in promoting American economic growth (the Articles of Confederation having proved a miserable failure for the economy).

Just three years later, in 1792, Congress created what was then a huge new national program when it passed the Postal Act. The act didn’t merely create a postal system, the most important means of communication at the turn of the 19th century. It guaranteed privacy for our mail and it permitted newspapers to travel through the post.

The Postal Act helped tie a far-flung nation together and permitted news to travel even into the American hinterland. Our 1st amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press are splendid abstract principles. The Postal Act made those principles real for Americans and allowed them to be put to work.

Across the 19th century, the federal government acted in a variety of ways to stimulate American growth. Once he became president, Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the founder most suspicious of big government, used the power of the office to expand the nation through the Louisiana Purchase. He imagined that this government acquisition would provide farmland for countless generations of American yeoman farmers.

His ideological successor, Andrew Jackson, used federal authority to remove Native people from their homeland, marching them brutally on the Trail of Tears. Thus did he clear space for southern farmers and slave owners to prosper.

The Civil War certainly marks the most dramatic expansion of federal power in the 19th century. As Americans have been marking the 150th anniversary of that conflict, we have been reminded that in order to prosecute the war President Abraham Lincoln instituted military conscription, suspended habeas corpus rights, and started printing paper money. It is worth stating forthrightly: this creation of big government was necessary to end the institution of slavery . Had we left the question to the states, as Southerners regularly demanded, slavery might have lasted a great deal longer.

But fighting the war was not all Congress did during those years. In 1862, Congress enacted three pieces of legislation intended “to promote the general welfare” that still resonate today.

When Congress wanted to facilitate the expansion of the nation westward and to stimulate the transportation network necessary for this, it chartered the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad corporations. The terms of this charter should strike us today as extraordinary. Congress loaned money to these private corporations on very generous terms. Even more than that, it granted free land to the two railroads—to the tune of 20 square miles for every mile of track laid! —that they could turn around and sell to raise capital.

The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and it simply wouldn’t have happened without that public support. The railroads did not build themselves.

At the same moment, Congress passed the Homestead Act. That act enabled settlers in the trans-Mississippi to lay claim to 160 acres each. If they farmed it for 5 years, the land was theirs. For free! (The Homestead was joined by other acts that opened up ranching and timbering as well.) The Homestead Act became one the greatest land giveaways in human history.

It turns out that those rugged pioneers of American myth traveled west on federally subsidized railroads to settle land given to them by the federal government. And once out in the west, those railroad networks and those settlers were protected by federal troops who, between 1865 and 1890, engaged in continuous military action against native people. This is how the west was won.

Congress wasn’t finished in 1862. The third of its big initiatives in that year was the Morrill Land Grant Act. This act gave federally owned land to individual states in exchange for the promise that states would sell or use revenue from the land to establish universities. Collectively we call them “the land grants” and they amount to nothing less than the greatest democratization of higher education ever.

We can measure the economic impact of those railroad charters and of the Homestead Act, but the value to the nation—economic, social, cultural, and intellectual—of the land grants is incalculable. I say this from personal experience because I am lucky enough to teach at one.

Transportation, agriculture, education, communication.

All four were profoundly reshaped by the actions of the federal government in the 19th century because the American people, through the elected representatives they sent to Washington, believed this was how to promote the general welfare.

The Roosevelt Revolution (TR, that is)

In the late 19th century, the federal government continued to help the growth of American business in any number of ways. Indeed, during this era, the American economy grew to become the largest in the world and that would not have happened without the help of the federal government.

In the 1880s the Supreme Court ruled on “corporate personhood,” granting corporate enterprises extraordinary Constitutional protections. Titans of industry who preached “laissez-faire” economic dogma did not hesitate to call upon government troops to suppress their workers when they went on strike . And, in 1890, Congress passed yet another tariff on imported goods, this one a whopping 50% tax in order to protect domestic industry.

They called it the “McKinley Tariff” after the Ohio Congressman who sponsored it and it was designed to protect American industry from foreign competition. American businesses preferred their laissez-faire to be situational: no government interference when it suited them; lots of government intervention when they needed it. Six years later, William McKinley was repaid handsomely for his service to big business when they funded his presidential campaign.

Theodore Roosevelt was among a younger generation of politicians and reformers who watched the spectacular rise of industrial capitalism, aided generously by the federal government, with real skepticism. When he accidentally became president in 1901 after McKinley’s assassination, he brought new ideas about the role government ought to play to the White House.

Roosevelt looked at the landscape of American life at the turn of the 20th century and saw that ordinary citizens were more or less powerless in the face of enormous corporations that controlled everything from their wages to the price of consumer goods. The only force in American life strong enough to push back, he concluded, was the federal government.

So if the private sector was going to receive all kinds of support from government, Roosevelt announced that the people would also get protection from corporations through the mechanisms of the federal government. Roosevelt called it his “Square Deal” for the American people, summarized with three “C’s”: conservation of natural resources (against the depredations of timber, mining and other extractive companies); control of corporations; and consumer protection.

This was the bargain TR laid out: big business could continue to grow and prosper and enjoy all sorts of public support, but in exchange they would accept some measure of legal limitations and regulatory controls. If they didn’t play by the new rules, Roosevelt threatened, they might find themselves in court.

Then as now, big business howled at what they saw as over-reaching federal imposition. Most of the rest of us, I suspect, are pretty pleased that our food supply is safe because of the Food and Drug Administration, created by Roosevelt in 1906 after the horrifying conditions of the meat packing industry had been exposed.

Barry Goldwater, Republican Senator from Arizona, and GOP presidential candidate in 1964, famously said that “individual initiative made the desert bloom” in the western part of the country. He was right. Plenty of hard working settlers took that journey (on federally subsidized railroads) to farm hard-scrabble land in the west (which they received through the Homestead Act).

In his ringing call to individuality, however, Goldwater neglected to mention that without the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which created massive and expensive dam and irrigation projects throughout the region and thus provided federally subsidized water to those farmers, no amount of hard work would have made the desert bloom.

Goldwater is regarded as the godfather of today’s anti-government politics because of his angry denunciations of big government and his celebration of individualism. He is the godfather of those politics as well because of his profound historical amnesia.

The Roosevelt Revolution Part II (FDR This Time)

For those Americans angry at the federal government, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a four-letter word.

There is no question that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded the scope of government activity and its reach into American life. Nor is there any question that the scale and scope of the crisis he faced when he moved into the White House in 1933 was unprecedented and that FDR had a mandate to do what he did. Americans waited for nearly three years for President Herbert Hoover to do something that might reverse the Great Depression. He failed, and the voters punished him for it.

We can think of FDR’s New Deal—that vast array of initiatives, agencies, and projects they called “alphabet soup” because of all the acronyms—as trying to accomplish two things.

First, FDR wanted to rescue American capitalism from its own cupidity by reforming and stimulating it. The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, promised to bring oversight and honesty to the stock market in order to avoid the kind of disastrous bubble that triggered the economic collapse in 1929.

Likewise, Roosevelt created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) because so many ordinary Americans had lost their life savings when their banks failed. Not only did the FDIC insure depositors’ money, which it still does, but in so doing it restored confidence in the entire banking system.

No sector of the economy was stimulated more by the New Deal, however, than housing construction. The Great Depression brought the housing industry to a virtual standstill. As a result thousands were laid off and a housing crisis grew as virtually no new housing units entered the market.

FDR’s solution was to use public money to guarantee private home mortgages through the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). This opened up the mortgage market to large numbers of Americans who would otherwise not have been able to purchase a home and, in turn, it created a demand for new housing.

And it worked: by 1970 nearly two-thirds of American families owned their own homes, thanks to the largesse of the federal government, and housing construction had become a major indicator of the health of the overall economy.

There was much that was “new” about the New Deal, but there was much that continued the patterns set out in the 19th century. HOLC and FHA, in the way they promote private home ownership, can be seen as updated versions of the Homestead Act.

The second broad aspect of the New Deal was certainly new.

Under FDR the United States began to develop the rudiments of a social welfare state. When anti-government activists rail against the New Deal it isn’t the mortgage subsidies or the SEC they have in mind, it’s the social welfare programs.

We ought to remember that these programs were modest and that FDR resisted them as long as he could. Only political pressure brought to bear on behalf of the millions of Americans in desperate straits convinced him to initiate employment programs like the Works Progress Administration.

The most enduring of these New Deal social welfare programs is Social Security. This too was an old idea, and the United States was among the last of the industrialized nations to adopt an old-age pension system.

Social Security was denounced by conservatives as paternalistic and insulting because it implied that Americans couldn’t save for their own retirement. Never mind that many Americans in the 1930s didn’t make enough each week to set aside for retirement. Or that Americans over the age of 60 were the poorest demographic group in the nation. Or that many of those Americans had lost all their savings in bank failure.

Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon campaigned in 1936 on a promise to repeal Social Security, though it had only been passed the year before. Conservatives still hate Social Security, and when President George W. Bush vowed to privatize Social Security in 2005 he was channeling his inner Alf Landon. As it happens, Landon lost that election by what was to that point the most lopsided margin in American history.

If many anti-government Americans misunderstand the way the New Deal helped create future economic growth and stability, if they fail to recognize that federal social welfare programs grew only because private charity and local relief funds had all been exhausted, then they also misinterpret Franklin Roosevelt altogether.

FDR was no ideologue, despite the charges leveled against him then and now. He was a pragmatist in the best tradition of American politics. Campaigning in 1932 he told a crowd, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” And that’s what he did.

The fact that he was elected to the presidency four times is perhaps the most important measure of the New Deal’s success.

The Post-War American Government

There were some very strange moments during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan made “small government” the center of their campaign and promised to rein in what they saw as the runaway expansion of federal power under President Obama.

Yet there was former Republican Senator Rick Santorum on stage invoking the memory of his father and how he raised a family while working a government job in the Veterans Administration. Not to be outdone, New Jersey governor Chris Christie got teary-eyed while telling the assembled Republicans about his own father who worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. When he took the stage, Paul Ryan promised to save Medicare for the next 100 years.

An observer could be forgiven for mistaking all this for, well, the Democratic National Convention. Each of these Republican heavyweights celebrated initiatives created by Democrats and they all involved the expansion of the federal government.

The post-war expansion of government was driven by several factors, not the least of which was the war itself and the Cold War which followed it. Funding for scientific research and education, for the study of “strategic languages,” and even for cultural events all had Cold War rationales. Yet as much as World War II and the Cold War changed the landscape, the post-war expansion of government represented important continuities as well.

For example, the G.I. Bill so beloved by Governor Christie provided the financial wherewithal for returning veterans to attend college, thus extending the democratization of higher education set in motion when the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed in 1862.

Likewise, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, he continued the pattern of federal subsidy to large-scale transportation projects that started with the Union and Central Pacific railroads and also included construction of the Panama Canal, another project initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Through the Highway Act, the federal government picked up the tab for highway construction to the tune of 90 cents out of every dollar.

Most people angry at government, however, don’t complain about the G. I. Bill or the National Science Foundation (created in 1950) or the interstate highways. Their anger is directed primarily at the civil rights revolution and at the War on Poverty, launched in 1964. For these people Lyndon Baines Johnson is another four-letter word.

For his part, Johnson saw his initiatives as firmly in the American tradition.

When he pushed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), he framed these historic pieces of legislation as completing the process of emancipation and citizenship begun during the Civil War.

And when he declared his War on Poverty he saw himself as completing the work begun by his political hero, Franklin Roosevelt. FDR gave the nation a New Deal; Johnson would turn it into a Great Society.

Medicare, of course, was part of Johnson’s Great Society, extending as it did the Social Security pension with health care coverage. It’s worth remembering that this was opposed bitterly by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater among other conservatives.

In fact, Goldwater made his opposition to Medicare central to his 1964 bid for the presidency. “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets” he asked in rhetorical disbelief, “why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?”

In the end, Medicare did not provide free beer to seniors, but Goldwater lost the election of 1964 by an even greater margin than Landon lost his presidential bid in 1936.

The anti-government backlash against the Great Society, which began in the 1960s, has culminated in the Tea Party and related opposition to President Barack Obama and it has crystallized around the Affordable Care Act.

Whatever one thinks about Obamacare as a policy, much of the opposition to it displays all the historical misunderstanding discussed here. Obamacare opponents, with varying degrees of histrionics, have decried it as an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into the private sector.

In fact, since the turn of the 20th century, health care has been among the most federally subsidized areas of American life and at a host of levels.

The federal government provided money for hospital construction, especially in the under-served South, and it has provided the training for countless doctors, nurses, and public health professionals. Between 1947 and 1971, to take one example, the Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act provided almost $4 billion in federal funds (matched by state money) and added 500,000 hospital beds in almost 11,000 hospital projects.

Likewise, the pharmaceutical industry has relied for years on the basic research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health among other agencies. Between 2003 and 2013, fifteen Americans have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Exactly none of them did their path-breaking research in the private sector. They all received public support of one kind or another.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Centers for Disease Control are located in Atlanta and not Washington, the answer is that they started out in 1946 as a federally sponsored malaria control effort, when malaria was still endemic to parts of the South. It’s hard to imagine that the “Sun Belt” would have taken off in the post-war years if all those new arrivals had to spend their time swatting malarial mosquitos.

In fact, the Affordable Care Act itself is not only an outgrowth of the Great Society or even the New Deal. It can trace its origins back to the health care system created after the First World War for veterans returning from that war .

One might not like Obamacare, but its lineage, like so many other government programs, is all-American.

Why All the Fuss?

Given the history of the federal role in fostering the economy, education, health care, transportation, communication and more, why do so many Americans seem to resent our government with such vehemence?

One answer is that Americans like their government hidden from them. Steeped in myths of rugged individualism, we don’t like to believe that we’ve had any help achieving what we’ve achieved.

So while Americans have never been eager to support public housing for those who need it, few of them thank the federal government for subsidizing the mortgage on their own house. Likewise, these people see funding for public transportation as a waste of money even as they drive down interstate highways extravagantly paid for with federal money.

When Lincoln Center officials renamed the New York State Theater after David Koch, they not only honored a donor but they hid from the public the public source of the theater in the first place. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s exactly what Koch intended.

Another reason Americans are hostile to their own government is our conflicted views about race and class. If we’ve achieved our success all on our own, then those who do need more obvious forms of government help must be failures of some kind. More to the point, they suck up my tax dollars.

Government programs that aid the have-nots appear to many Americans to reward laziness and irresponsibility, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In contrast, programs which benefit middle-class people are seen as something they have worked hard to deserve, like deducting the interest payments on your mortgage on your federal taxes. Bluntly put: Americans don’t like government when it works for the poor (even if Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson thought it should).

Nor, it must be said just as bluntly, do they like government when it is designed to benefit African Americans. Barry Goldwater campaigned just as energetically against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 as he did against Medicare. In so doing he created the coalition that joined segregationist bigots with anti-government zealots, the one that helped elect Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. Now that a black man is the face of the federal government, the worst nightmare for this group of Americans has become real.

Those cheering GOP conventioneers in Tampa point to a final reason why Americans don’t like big government. It has become, over and over again, the victim of its own success. After all, before the Republican Party supported the G. I. Bill and Medicare, it opposed them. Just like conservatives opposed the SEC and the FDIC in an earlier generation, and they opposed the FDA a generation before that.

Despite the rhetoric we are used to hearing that government programs are wasteful failures, the record of many of them is quite successful. We did create the greatest system of higher education in the world, and we did build 40,000 miles of interstate highway, and we did raise seniors out of poverty. The list could go on.

Yet because so many of these programs are hidden from sight, and because they have worked as effectively as they have, we have taken them for granted. A kind of familiarity that has bred a bitter contempt.

One final scene

On August 28, 2010 media demagogue Glenn Beck sponsored a rally in Washington, a quasi-religious revival to “restore America.”

The ironies were thick on the ground that day, though I suspect few of the assembled thousands noticed them. Beck issued his call for restoration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – the shrine to the man who expanded federal power dramatically – and he did so on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington . Beck was shamelessly trying to invoke the moral authority of that event, oblivious, apparently, to the fact that King and others came to Washington to demand federal action to advance the civil rights agenda.

Most of all, however, Beck and the thousands who came to restore America all demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the role the federal government has played from the very beginning of the nation: to promote the general welfare as each generation has defined that task.

We can and should have debates over what is and is not appropriate for the federal government to do in American life. But those debates can only be fruitful if we wake up from the historical amnesia we seem to be suffering currently.

In the meantime, keep your government hands off my Medicare.

Suggested Reading

Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in 19th Century America (2009)

Steven Conn, ed., To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (2012)

Richard John, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010)

Paul Light, Government's Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Defense (2002) Ω

[Steven Conn is a co-editor of Origins and teaches American cultural and intellectual history at the Ohio State University. He is the author or editor of 5 books, most recently To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (2012). Conn specializes in 19th and 20th century cultural and intellectual history. He received a BA (history) from Yale University and a PhD (history) from the University of Pennsylvania.]

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