We are used to political news that is almost all about politicians criticizing each other, battling in the trenches over budgets and appointments, responding to crises, and positioning themselves for election or re-election.
These forms of politics are inevitable, but I don’t think it’s widely recognized how little governance actually takes place in our time. In some ways, petty debate has filled a vacuum left by a lack of real law-making, if that means getting elected with compelling platforms and then turning them into legislation.
Teaching a (virtual) classroom of undergrads this week, I realized that I could only think of four bills passed during my students’ two decades of life that have really altered the social contract. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001) launched 19 years of war. The USA PATRIOT Act (also 2001) changed law enforcement and surveillance. No Child Left Behind (2002) made measurement and testing more important in k-12 education, although it was actually a set of amendments to the basic framework of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, some of which were relaxed again in 2015. And the Affordable Care Act of 2010 extended access to health insurance, albeit less dramatically than Medicare or Medicaid (1965).
Compare that list with what Congress passed (and the president signed) during the year 1965.
For the first few months of that year, Congress was presumably busy with committee work and markups. In April, it passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for the first time getting the federal government involved with funding education and regulating schools in return for those funds. In July, Congress began requiring health labels on cigarette packages and regulating tobacco ads. Three days later, Congress established Medicare and Medicaid and entitled millions of people to government-funded healthcare.
August started with the Voting Rights Act, which arguably made the US into a democracy at last. Four days later, Congress established HUD and got heavily involved with urban development. Under the Public Works and Economic Development Act, also passed in August, Congress appropriated money for urban development.
September saw the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, meaning regular federal involvement in culture. (The NEH also created the important national network of state humanities councils.)
October 1965 started with a law (the Hart-Celler Act) that permanently transformed the demographics of the United States by opening the country to mass immigration without the national quotas that had favored Europe. That was a big deal, but Congress also spent October passing major legislation against heart disease, cancer, and stroke; began to regulate automotive emissions; and passed the Highway Beautification Act, which is one reason our public roads are no longer lined with litter.
The year 1965 ended with the passage of the Higher Education Act, still the framework for federal involvement in college education; and the Vocational Rehabilitation Act.
I have chosen 1965 because it was a banner year, but I was tempted to mention 1964 instead. That was the year of the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Food Stamps, and the congressional authorization for Vietnam, among other bills. Imagine the TV news or newspaper headlines when every few weeks brought a transformative law.
The point is not that these laws were all good–their record is mixed and debatable. Nor that they were liberal; 1981-4 saw significant lawmaking in a conservative direction. The point is that they were highly consequential acts of governance, enacting new visions of how our country should function. No wonder reporters and voters often focused on substance.
To put it the other way, no wonder that reporters and voters rarely debate substance today. As many important bills have passed in 20 years as used to pass in a single month in the 1960s.
You could argue that we don’t need that pace of change any more, because our social contract is much closer to perfect than it was in 1960. You could argue that the reforms of that era created an administrative behemoth, and the best we can do now is to administer it competently. You could oppose the arrogant social engineering of the Sixties. Or you can decry today’s gridlock and blame it on partisan polarization, inequality, corruption, special interests, incompetence, propaganda, or a lack of civic virtue.
Regardless, I think you would expect an era marked by a lack of landmark legislation to be an era of tawdry politics. The tawdriness may be one reason for the stasis, but I suspect the causal arrow points the other way as well.