- - Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The reason why Congress is unable to pass sweeping measures desired by the Left to fundamentally change American capitalism is simple. Democrats don’t have the votes. Neither major party dominates Congress the way Democrats did during the New Deal era, for instance, with more than 70 seats in the Senate and a massive advantage in the House.

Why a partisan stalemate has endured for several decades is the more difficult problem to unpack, but the answer leads to today’s congressional math. Throughout U.S. history, very few periods of one-party dominance have occurred, says historian Michael Kazin. And in this episode of History As It Happens, Mr. Kazin, a distinguished scholar of leftist political and social movements at Georgetown University, discusses why moments of great legislative activity have been so rare.

“Usually it takes some kind of crisis for that [one-party] dominance to take place, and we haven’t had many crises on that order in American history,” said Mr. Kazin, referring to the economic cataclysms of the 1890s and 1930s.

The Panic of 1893 led to three decades of nearly uninterrupted Republican control of the White House. The Great Depression then triggered the collapse of GOP dominance. It was succeeded by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal order, a period of Democratic dominance of the federal government that finally broke in the late 1960s. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican president throughout the 1950s, upheld the most important pillars of the New Deal.

In Mr. Kazin’s view, Americans are living in “the long 1960s” because the decade’s divisive issues continue to roil politics today. Neither party has been able to hold onto the White House or Congress for more than a handful of election cycles.

“We’re still arguing about a lot of issues that were really first raised in a serious way in the ’60s. Think of what is in front of the Supreme Court this session, affirmative action. The content of education, too. There were a lot of battles in the late 1960s over how history should be taught,” Mr. Kazin said.

There is a debate on the left today over how best to affect progress. Centrist or pragmatic liberals argue in favor of incrementalism, while more radical leftists wish for sweeping changes designed to dismantle capitalist structures. Mr. Kazin contends that no one should expect a New Deal- or Great Society-type program with Congress so narrowly divided and the Supreme Court dominated by conservatives.

Listen to the full interview by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.

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