The Founders, back in 1787, knew that it would be very difficult to get their new central government approved by the former thirteen colonies. As part of the war to escape the monarchical government of George III, those colonies had been transformed into thirteen little independent Republics. In order to win them over, a system had been created where the states were the highest level of government dealing directly with citizens. The new central government would, for instance, defend against outsiders (including Indians), and would collect tariffs. Real government interaction with people would be left to the governments already in place in the states.
By 1932, one hundred and forty five years later, the role played by the federal government had remained much the same. The President in 1932 was Herbert Hoover, who through Herculean efforts had arranged food supplies that saved the lives of millions in Europe after World War I ended in 1918. Hoover, a wealthy well-traveled, intelligent man, in his heart of hearts still believed in that original concept. Any real help to citizens belonged with the states.
Then, as a result of the Great Depression and a less doctrinaire Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government for the first time began to deal directly with the aiding of citizens. That led to the creation of a bundle of massive programs, packaged now in the public mind as the New Deal. Many Republicans, who still believed in the original hands-off federal contract, fought the New Deal programs tooth and nail. The New Deal programs were socialism!
Despite the repeated invoking of socialism by the end of World War II, the Democrats seemed to have achieved a kind of permanent political dominance. In 1948, even a candidate as prominent and as capable as New York’s governor, Thomas E Dewey, was unable to defeat Roosevelt’s much less imposing and often unpopular former Vice-President, Harry Truman.
In 1968, to off set what seemed to be a permanent Democratic majority, Richard Nixon settled on what is now known as the Southern Strategy. It meant that Republicans would downplay their connection with Black Republicans in the North (they were all Republicans then), and concentrate on winning over the white South.
The White South since the Civil War had been conservative Democrats (They could hardly be enthused by the party of Lincoln.). If those people could be won over to the Republicans that would finally tip the balance so that Republicans could once more win Presidential elections. White Southerners understood that supporting Republicans meant less federal intervention in their racial affairs.
And it worked. Beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Republicans set out to go back to that original lack of federal involvement in the affairs of states. Federal programs were hollowed out, made less effective (Ronald Reagan had new graduates from Liberty University lording it over experienced government employees in the departments.). As much as possible real help for citizens would be left to the states. It was an attempt to move the federal government back to the role it had played before the New Deal. It was a revolution in reverse.
Now, forty years later, it is clear that a system which cripples the central government does not work well. It does not work well for the same reason that it failed in 1932. A government which takes no role in helping its citizens ends up benefiting only the wealthy. Once again, the top one or two percent make huge rapidly accelerating economic gains. Because of their ability to buy elected officials, the rest, including the vital middle class, make no gains at all.
That is how we got to 2016 and to Donald Trump. Trump was the end result of a government that appeared to many to not really care that they had been left behind. Since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 we have moved resolutely backward. The federal government takes less responsibility for the welfare of ordinary people. More and more functions are really left to the states. And, particularly with the election of the vindictive and disinterested Donald Trump, what it has done, it has done halfheartedly.
There is an irony in the fact that Donald Trump, whose term has just ended, still manages to hold the undying loyalty to so many of those people who have suffered the most and have gained the least from the great Republican reversal. With the attack on the Capitol, Trump and his supporters are, of course, responsible for their own behavior. It is hard to believe that a more responsive and effective federal government would not have made such behavior unlikely.
So, a question: With the arrival of a new more enlightened Joseph Biden administration and the clear warning posed by the Capitol invasion, is it not possible that we are ready to pick up where we left off in 1980? Biden can reasonably argue that forty years in the wilderness is long enough! If his administration is successful we can really begin to catch up to where we would have been had the “Reagan Revolution” never occurred.
We can hope that the Republican desire for revolution backward has run its course. Tragically, four hundred thousand deaths has made clear that leaving what are really national tasks up to the states simply does not work. It doesn’t work well in other ways either. The bad results are just not so deadly or so obvious.
The virus has been a great teacher. It is telling us that it is time for us to grow up and to move on! The great reversal may finally be over!