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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Jan 3, 2019

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we look at the decades following World War II when the federal government passed civil rights laws and enacted social programs concerning public health, housing, education, transportation, and anti-poverty initiatives that aimed to provide opportunity and spread prosperity to the greatest number of citizens. To explain how this era of activist government succeeded – and then how it was scaled back after 1980, I speak with historian David Goldfield about his new book, The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good.

For the past few decades in the US, anti-government rhetoric has become a major force in American politics. Conservatives insist that government has grown too big and too expensive. Many also claim that it tramples the liberty of individuals through onerous regulations concerning the environment, the economy, the workplace, and education.

But there was a time in the not too distant past when Americans liked and benefitted from big government. It started in the 1930s when President FDR’s administration responded to the Great Depression with a vast array of policies and programs known as the New Deal. But it really ramped up from 1945 – 1969 during the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. In those decades an activist federal government enacted laws and policies promoting civil rights, public health, housing, education, transportation, and anti-poverty programs.  This era of activist government greatly expanded opportunity for success and upward mobility for millions of Americans, boosted the economy, and extended life expectancy.     

But then in the 1970s, a conservative political movement that had been gaining momentum since the 1960s, began to push back against activist government, denouncing it as socialist and wasteful. And before long, the US began to shrink or eliminate the programs that had opened up opportunity for so many in the postwar years.

To learn more about this history of the rise and fall of activist government in US history, I’ll speak with historian David Goldfield, author of The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good

In the course of our conversation, David Goldfield discusses:

How three presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson in part due to their own humble origins, supported laws that expanded civil rights and access to education, as well as programs that reduced poverty.  

How these programs emanated from a commitment to the Commonwealth ideal -  the notion that the purpose of government is to enact laws and policies that promote the general welfare of the citizenry.

How and why in the 1970s American conservatives began to demonize activist government and preach a doctrine of radical individualism and free market capitalism.

How the presidency of Ronald Reagan began a decades long retreat from programs and policies that reduced inequality and provided broad opportunity to the largest number of Americans. 

David Goldfield is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of 16 books, including Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture and Cotton Fields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region, both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.   

Recommended reading

David Goldfield, The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good (Bloomsbury, 2017). 

Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 (2019) 

David McCullough, Truman (1993)

Julian E. Zelizer, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (2015)

More info about David Goldfield - website 

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Related ITPL podcast episodes:

018 Nicole Hemmer talks about the rise of conservative media before 1980

036 Christine Woodside, author of the book, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books

046 Richard Rothstein The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Borrtex, “Perception” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits 

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting

Podcast Editing: Wildstyle Media

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too 

Social Media management: The Pony Express 

Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight

© In The Past Lane, 2018

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