Cousin Theodore, FDR’s lodestar in things large and small, had been correct at the turn of the century when he said that the industrial revolution (along with and beside a mass immigration) had rendered the laissez-faire model obsolete. Child labor, sweatshops, and the Triangle fire had demonstrated the need for some regulation. In a complex economy, people could fail through no fault of their own, and social insurance seemed feasible in the 1930s. In an era when few people grew very old, it seemed right and sustainable to save those who did from complete destitution. Believe it or not, unions in those times sometimes did positive things. Roosevelt got electoral thumbs-ups from voters in the 1934 and 1936 cycles, but they slammed on the brakes in the 1938 midterms, effectively saying “thus far and no further” and putting an end to this era of government growth. From then on, the country would want what Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat have called “the government that the New Deal liberals had built, but run by conservatives.” This is what they got with Eisenhower and Kennedy, two pragmatic centrists who abhorred ideology and whose approval ratings were higher for longer periods than those of any other president since modern-day polling began.
Their approach would emerge as the public consensus, but the problem was that what most of the country thought of as the ceiling, the progressive faction continued to see as the floor. They talked of the New Deal’s “unfinished business” and kept on seeking a hero to take care of it, believing that history moves to the left and that progressive eras are followed by times of consolidation, which in turn are followed by times of still further action, in which the country will move left again. Lyndon Johnson tried to fulfill this hope, but his excesses set off a whole new dynamic, consisting of liberal overreach, a conservative backlash against it, and then a moment of more-or-less moderation — to be followed, once memories faded, by liberal excess again. This was back-and-forth alternation, instead of progress in a single direction interrupted with pauses. Johnson’s Great Society ran into a wall in the 1966 midterms, and then spawned a run of Republican presidents.