Friday, October 7, 2011
When Democrats Built Dams
Seeking another term as president in 1948, Harry Truman was making a tour of America’s farm belt. At one stop he was told that a local farmer, a lifelong Democrat, had decided to vote Republican after four years of record-high farm prices.
“What’s the matter with that fella?” Truman replied. “Can’t he stand a little prosperity?”
Something similar seems to be happening in American politics today. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of prosperity going around lately, but in a tough economy, one party, the Democrats, is generally pushing for policies more beneficial to consumers and the middle class, while the Republicans are acting as if the solution to what ails us is to give the keys to the vault to the businesses largely responsible for the mess.
And while it’s far too early to tell, there’s a chance that the Republican party could get enough people to vote against their own economic interest and elect its candidate for president.
The phenomenon of people voting against their economic interests is one of the great puzzlers of American politics. Part of it has to do with the fact that there’s a substantial bloc of voters who are utterly nonideological and willing to try the other side if things aren’t going well — regardless of what the other side proposes.
Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the Democratic Party has, in the last half-century, gotten away from its core focus on jobs and housing. That has enabled Republicans to paint it as the party of gay rights, minority special pleadings, entitlements, and environmental elitism.
If there’s a metaphor for this, it would be the party’s change from building dams to opposing them. Nobody outside China and Africa is building dams any more (environmental laws make that nearly impossible), but when Democrats were building dams, they were a much more popular party.
One of the first programs of the New Deal was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built a series of dams in the south and brought electrification to a region that literally had been living in the Dark Ages.
In addition to the TVA, the Roosevelt administration built numerous other large dams, including Fort Peck, Montana, Shasta near Redding CA, and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River. Each of those projects provided thousands of jobs, turned the local communities into boomtowns, and created substantial benefits from cheap hydro power to flood control.
Unless you were a fish, how could you complain?
Eventually, of course, the fish got a voice through environmental legislation, and while that’s a good thing, it’s a hard sell to someone whose livelihood depends on building a dam. If you’re looking at several years of steady employment working a bulldozer, with good wages and overtime, it makes no sense at all to scrap or delay the project to protect some three-inch-long endangered fish. You can’t win an environmental argument with that person.
The fact that dams aren’t being built any more is a reflection of increased awareness resulting in increased complexity. The entire TVA was completed without a single environmental impact report (as we know it, at least) being filed, and that’s one of the reasons it could be done so quickly and effectively. Businesses complain about regulation, but it affects government as well. Part of the problem with President Obama’s stimulus package was that there were few shovel-ready projects environmentally approved and good to go.
We’re paying a price for listening to our better angels. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that when Democrats could just go out and build a dam, they were winning a lot more elections.