Entitled to resentment
Historian James Sparrow analyzes the evolution of “big government” from World War II to present-day America.
During the Reagan ’80s, Senator Fritz Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, used to tell a funny allegory about Americans’ view of their government: “A veteran went to college on the GI Bill, bought his house with an FHA loan, saw his kids born in a VA hospital, started a business with an SBA loan, got electricity from the TVA and later water from an EPA project. His parents on Social Security retired to a farm, got electricity from the REA and had their soil tested by the USDA. When his father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and a life was saved with a drug developed by the NIH. His kids participated in the school-lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained at an NSF program, and went to college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by Army engineers. When the floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington to apply for disaster relief, and spent some time in the Smithsonian Museums. Then one day he got mad. He wrote his congressman an angry letter: ‘Get the government off my back! I’m tired of paying for all those programs created for ungrateful people.’” UChicago historian James Sparrow told that story during a talk this past spring on the origins of “big government.” In his 2011 book, Warfare State, Sparrow described how America’s powerful, centralized government got its start not with the New Deal, as historians have long argued, but during the mobilization for World War II. Calling the Hollings roll call of government programs a list of “collective obligations,” Sparrow said, “In other countries, these would be understood as obligations owed to the nation. But in the United States, we see only entitlements.” Sparrow, meanwhile, sees a kind of political confusion. “The origins of the confusion," he said, “lie in a paradox planted years ago at the center of the social contract that legitimized the most centralized and powerful government the United States has ever seen: during World War II.” Warfare State, which chronicles the rise of that powerful, centralized government, is the first of a trilogy. Sparrow’s forthcoming books will reach beyond the postwar years, into the 1970s, analyzing how the dynamic between Americans and their government, which was established during World War II, affected the country’s growing global power and evolving domestic society. Personal sacrifice and national unity for the government’s war effort led, paradoxically, to a sense of individual entitlement. People began to expect more fairness in their lives, and they expected the government to provide it. “For soldiers and civilians alike,” Sparrow said, “the war instilled a sense of entitlement to full citizenship that the federal government would increasingly have to placate, if not always fulfill, in subsequent years.” Provisionally titled “New Leviathan: Sovereign America and the Foundations of Rule in the Atomic Age,” Sparrow’s next book dives into the contradictions inherent in big government’s rise to legitimacy and how those contradictions evolved into problems over time. One contradiction that Sparrow said is a focus of the book: after 1945, the United States found itself “the replacement for the British Empire.” The US Air Force replaced the British navy, the dollar replaced the pound, and American soldiers began occupying bases around the world, just as the British once had. “This,” Sparrow said, “is a deep problem for Americans,” whose political culture from the beginning was defined against the British Empire and against the crown as a symbol of centralized European government. Americans, he said, weren’t used to ruling “so much of the world so thoroughly.” The process of “projecting American power,” though, depended on maintaining the state’s expanded power and on citizens’ continued compliance with it. “What I argue in the second book,” Sparrow said, “is that this produces a contradiction that nobody notices because they’re caught up in the nuclear arms race, and McCarthyism produces a really hot, intense nationalism.” And so, despite a national ethos toward individualism and a founding tradition of decentralized government, Americans continued to support their leviathan state. In Sparrow’s third book, which will carry the story forward through the 1970s, that contradiction leads to a collapse. “All the sinews of the state that are authorized in World War II fall apart,” Sparrow said. In 1969 antiwar protests forced Nixon to abandon the peacetime draft. The tax revolt began in the 1970s—before then, Americans had cited their federal income taxes as the fairest taxes they paid. The Bretton Woods economic system, created in the 1940s to govern international monetary policy—“central to how the United States projected its presence around the world,” Sparrow said—“collapses after being abandoned.” The legacy of that late-century breakdown and the contradictions that seeded it persist in today’s politics, Sparrow said, as Hollings’s allegory demonstrates. “Our problem is that we live in an age where the legitimation crisis never ended. And we’re still dependent on the state. And in fact, because of the nature of Americanism and entitlement, everyone becomes more and more dependent on the state and more and more resentful of other groups that are dependent on the state.”