A front-page story in Monday’s New York Times was headlined, “A Growing Trend: Young, Liberal And Open to Big Government.” The story was datelined Missoula, Mont.
Montana? The normally Republican mountain state in the far northwest would seem an unlikely place to harbor pockets of young liberals, but students at the university and young adults there appear more thoughtful than ideological.
A founder of a group encouraging youth in politics said young people believe there’s a role for government. “At the same time, this is not a generation of socialists. They are highly entrepreneurial and know that some of what it takes to create an environment where they can do their own exciting creative things is having basic systems that work.”
It may also have occurred to young adults in the free and invigorating air of the mountain West that for Americans to hate their own government is not only irrational, it is unpatriotic.
Youthful attitudes in Missoula are reflected nationwide according to the scrupulously nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which found voters ages 18 to 29 lean heavily toward a more activist government. Roughly 6-in-10 (59 percent) say government should do more to solve problems, while only 37 percent say government is doing too much.
A growing progressive wave, viewed with alarm by Republican advisers who study trends, is only the contemporary emergence of an old argument that dates back to President Andrew Jackson’s struggles in the 1830s with the national bank.
The Second Bank of the United States was due to have its charter renewed. Jackson opposed a re-charter because a private bank would use the nation’s wealth for a tight circle of officers, directors and investors.
After a furious struggle, Jackson withdrew federal funds from the bank and distributed them to state and local banks throughout the country, touching off a more widely distributed pattern of economic growth.
From the Civil War to the turn of the century, railroads tied the country together, a nation experiencing an amazing period of growth, which outstripped the economies of Britain, France and Germany combined.
The Supreme Court protected the emerging giants of industry with rulings such as Lochner vs. New York. The case involved an action of the New York Legislature limiting the workday of bakery employees to 60 hours a week.
That violated the law of contracts, said the court in overturning the regulation. In other words, a worker had the right to agree to be overworked, underpaid, fired at will and to enjoy old age sick and penniless.
Trusts such as U.S. Steel grew to monopolies that strangled normal commerce and inflated the owners with egos larger than the government.
In the coal strike of 1902, President Roosevelt called a White House meeting of government, labor and management. He found labor conciliatory but management arrogant and disrespectful in its refusal to compromise.
TR then appointed a commission, which included former President Grover Cleveland, that succeeded in reaching a compromise that ended the strike.
What the commission couldn’t resolve is a fundamental conflict of capitalism, which double-Pulitzer-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put this way:
“Even ‘governing least’ is likely to be government for the benefit of the strongest group in the community … This has been the irrepressible conflict of capitalism: the struggle on the part of the business community to dominate the state, and on the part of the rest of society … to check the ambitions of business.”
Business again had its place at the head of the table in the 1920s until the unregulated free play of greed produced the inevitable crash. The court continued to protect business, fighting Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to break the grip of Depression.
Finally, Justice Owen Roberts switched sides in 1937 allowing the New Deal to alleviate some of the effects of the Depression, liberal measures that in the post-World War II years created economic boom times.
But the struggle between the interests of society and the interests of business go on. It is a high art of governance to create an equilibrium that allows free enterprise and the middle class each to flourish, an art at which the George W. Bush administration had failed — demonstrated by the Great Recession.
One result of the Bush recession was the spawning of a group of panicky know-nothings, the Tea Party, backed by cynical and self-interested industrialists who created an immovable blockage at the center of a do-nothing Congress.
A wave of pragmatic progressive young politicians would be welcome to remove the blockage and allow government to function normally, but the struggle for dominance, and the art of managing it, will go on.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.