Departmental Papers (ASC)

Document Type

Book Chapter

Date of this Version

January 1994

Publication Source

An American Half Century: Postwar Culture and Politics in the USA

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The economic and political reforms begun in the United States during the 1930s and expanded during the 1960s and early 1970s represented a significant change in the relationship between government and citizens, shifting the boundary between public and private spheres of influence. Much of this expanded government was harnessed to benefit previously powerless groups, often in ways that violated the tenets of classical liberal democracy and free market capitalism. To some degree, this expansion of the state was accompanied by a parallel shift in the terms of public discourse (consider, for example, the imagery contained in a phrase like 'The Great Society'). In general, however, essentially socialist policies were justified using the rhetoric of liberalism: political reforms were defended in terms of individual rights, and economic reforms in terms of equal opportunity. Indeed, some have argued that the reforms of the 1930s and the 1960s were designed to prevent a more conscious and comprehensive embrace of democratic socialism.

The creation of a limited welfare state led to tangible gains for America's politically and economically disadvantaged classes. However, the failure openly to address the relationship among the often competing values of democracy, capitalism and socialism, coupled with the incremental, piecemeal nature of the reforms themselves, resulted in a double bind. Grafted on to essentially unchanged political and economic institutions, processes and values, the reforms were incapable of producing the 'Great Society' that was promised. By the late 1970s these limits were clear. Against the backdrop of 'stagflation', political and economic justice could no longer be sold as costless. No longer assured of the expanding economic pie that helped mask both the limits and the costs of many federal programmes, America needed to confront its half century ménage à trois with democratic capitalism and democratic socialism. However, the failure to develop a coherent justification for the socialist reforms of the past 50 years meant there was no 'public language' with which directly to defend them, let alone to advocate for more comprehensive change.


NOTE: At the time of publication, the author Michael X. Delli Carpini was affiliated with Columbia University. Currently January 2008, he is a faculty member of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.



Date Posted: 11 January 2008