My new book in progress, States of the Union, 1789-2021--a concise political history of the US based on presidential addresses--is now complete in draft form through Herbert Hoover, and I am working on the research for FDR, focusing so far on the New Deal and his various attempts to reshape the economy before 1940. Coincidentally, President Biden and the Democrats are trying to push a kind of new New Deal through Congress, including both an infrastructure package and redistributive measures dealing with health care, child care, and the tax code. FDR had the advantage of huge Congressional majorities. 1930 through 1936 represent the only time in American history when the same party--the Democrats--gained strength in four consecutive presidential elections--although their greatest majority, the 1936 one, suddenly proved elusive during 1937. He also enjoyed the support of some very liberal Republicans such as George Norris of Nebraska and Robert Lafollette of Wisconsin. I am struck, however, by the difference in the kind of debate the country was having then and what we are having now. The country debated many complex issues in a very sophisticated way in the 1930s--and we don't seem to be able to do that anymore.
For at least the first 160 years of our history, our leaders spoke frequently about the great democratic experiment that we had undertaken, and what it would take to make it succeed. They took their mission very seriously--and so did the country. Every significant newspaper (and some insignificant ones) printed major presidential addresses in full, and without radio, the movies, or television before 1920, the people had little choice but to read them, and they did. The length of the State of the Union message grew steadily during the 19th century, partly because presidents didn't deliver it in person, and it peaked with Theodore Roosevelt, who annually sent messages of 20-25,000 words. Woodrow Wilson brought the annual address into the modern era by drastically reducing its size and delivering it in person, and that has been the norm ever since. FDR, despite the extraordinary breadth of his program, also kept his addresses relatively short, and he supplemented them with one or two radio Fireside Chats lasting 30-60 minutes each year, which also explained how he saw the nation's problems and what his administration and the Congress were trying to do about them in some detail. In my earlier book on 1940-1, I found that evening radio addresses by major political figures had been another key forum for political debates.
By contrast, it seems to me that neither President Biden nor any other leading Democrats are making a sustained, detailed effort to explain what they are trying to do, what it will cost, and what effects they expect it to have to the American people. If we read the newspapers and listen to a little cable news we know that a $550 billion infrastructure bill has already passed the Senate, and that the Democrats have an addition $2.5 trillion bill for child care, medicare expansion, and environmental measures under consideration, whose cost is likely to shrink to $1.5 trillion or less to get Senators Manchin and Sinema on board. Checking, I find that the $550 billion infrastructure bill is for five years--$110 billion a year--whereas the $2.5 trillion infrastructure bill is for ten, another $250 billion a year. Federal expenditures currently are about $6.6 trillion annually. While I am not a domestic policy wonk, I think I'm better informed than average, and I have very little understanding of the details of either bill, how they will change the US, and what economic effects they are expected to have. No one seems to be making much of an effort to let us know.
This must in part be the fault of our politicians. Given that they are more or less required to spend several hours a day fundraising with wealthy donors and institutions, they don't have that much time for communicating with the public at large. But it is also the fault of the media, which have transformed our political landscape. I can't remember the last time that a Senator, a Congressman or a cabinet member made a major impression on the country with an hour long speech on some policy--perhaps because they do not think that significant numbers of Americans would watch or read such a speech. The media runs on sound bites. And broadcast media--television and talk radio--no longer sees its role as the vehicle for politicians to reach the country. Rather than market our political leaders or our political process, the TV networks market themselves. Even on NPR's News Hour--easily the most serious tv news broadcast available now--one sees many times as much of Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins than one does of any political figure from Joe Biden on down. That problem is even bigger on the private cable networks. The consequences of this trend emerged in dramatic, horrifying fashion in 2016, when a reality TV star defeated the leading candidates of both parties in the presidential election. Our political leaders still hold our destiny in their hands, but we no longer pay them nearly as much attention as we did in the first two-thirds of our history. The media used to tell us what politicians said and what they were doing--leaving the citizenry to decide how they felt about it. Now they spend most of their time telling us what to feel about it.
Democracy, the founders understood, required an informed citizenry. That is why several early presidents, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, called frequently for a national university in Washington--a proposal Congress never adopted. Perhaps American democracy grew and thrived largely because of a nationwide thirst for the printed word, then almost the only form of entertainment. Now books play much less of a role in our lives, the newspaper audience has shrunk, and the newspapers have cut way back on conveying complex information in favor of fanning approved emotion. That is why even I had to look up the total of federal revenues (about $3.6 trillion) and expenditures (about $6.6 trillion) lately. The cyberworld has been a godsend for me because it makes so much information instantly available--but one has to have the curiosity to find that information, and the framework in which to integrate it. We don't teach those things anymore, and we are suffering for it.