Roosevelt's strategy, which involved large-scale development programs for modernizing the nation, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority providing electrification for much of the rural South, was carried forward by subsequent presidents, Republican as well as Democrat, through the post-World War II years.
President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway project which improved the national transportation system; President John F. Kennedy launched the space program which achieved major technological breakthroughs; President Lyndon Johnson pushed medical programs and research that aided later pharmaceutical advances; and even the "failed" presidencies of the 1970s -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter -- focused the United States on environmental safeguards and energy self-sufficiency.
During this era -- from the 1930s into the 1970s -- millions of Americans were lifted into the middle-class and others grew rich from exploiting the innovations that government projects made possible.
All companies benefited from the U.S. transportation infrastructure; many piggybacked onto the technological breakthroughs in electronics; the drug industry exploited taxpayer-funded research in the development of new medicines. It turned out that government could create jobs, especially through alliances with the private sector.
Indeed, it is fair to say that the great American middle-class was largely the creation of the federal government -- from the New Deal, which guaranteed labor rights and created Social Security, to the GI Bill which sent World War II veterans to college, to more recent developments such as the creation of the Internet and GPS devices.
It was not until Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s that the political dynamic shifted. As Reagan declared that "government is the problem," the role of Washington in the lives of Americans was demonized. Many middle-class Americans forgot how much they and their families had benefited from actions of the federal government.
The myth of self-reliance proved seductive. The government was recast as an instrument for helping the lazy at the expense of the productive. Through subtle and not-so-subtle messaging, white Americans were told that the government was hurting them to help undeserving blacks and other minorities.
Government regulations were redefined as meaningless red tape that penalized important innovations, such as the exotic "financial instruments" that Wall Street was devising to "revolutionize" the banking industry. The thinking was that the government just had to get out of the way and let industry "self-regulate."
It followed, too, that Reagan's economic theories, such as "supply-side economics," would evolve into gospel on the Right. Since the beloved Reagan more than halved the top marginal tax rates on the rich -- so they could invest in "supply-side" production and thus create more jobs -- many conservatives embraced this notion with religious zeal.
Today, Gingrich boasts about his role in helping to formulate and enact "supply-side economics" -- despite the fact that it has proved a crushing failure, as the American super-rich do little to create American jobs with their extra wealth. Indeed, U.S. corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in capital because of a lack of consumer demand.
That lack of consumer demand has resulted from the decline in the American middle-class over the past few decades as Reaganomics has increasingly transformed U.S. society into one of extreme wealth and widespread want. In other words, the shrinking middle-class is proof that "supply-side" economics doesn't work, even as Republicans keep promoting it.
But the now-undeniable damage to the American middle-class -- inflicted largely by right-wing ideology -- creates a political problem for Republicans. Many voters may be hesitant to double-down on a bad bet.
So, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates have turned again to more and more blatant appeals to racial prejudice. After all, racism is the primeval "wedge issue."
In this sour economic climate, more racist messaging -- like Santorum's opposition to giving money to "blah people" and Gingrich's endless allusions to "food stamps" -- can be expected as the Republican primary season rolls on.
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