The postwar years in American politics contain some of the great policy conflicts in all of American history, several of which characterized the entire period. Battles to extend or retrench the American welfare state, institutionalized with the New Deal and then delayed by the Second World War, resumed in its aftermath and stretched across all these years, right up to the present, in headlines on Medicare, tax cuts, and Social Security. Likewise, questions about how to address the outside world were omnipresent. The Cold War arrived, colored an extended era of foreign relations, disappeared, and was replaced by an era still in its formative stages as this is being written. Along the way, the United States found itself intermittently enmeshed in struggles in geographic theaters as divergent as East Asia, Central America, and the Middle East.
Others of these great policy conflicts, while they did not dominate politics during the entire period, were remarkably intense when they arrived, and gave no indication that they would readily depart thereafter. A civil rights “revolution” burst upon the national stage, with a policy surge and then spin-offs in every institutional theater: in Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, and the federal executive. Conflict over race policy seemed here to stay. In a different fashion, behavioral norms fundamental to social life – bedrock cultural values involving religion, gender, achievement, and order – produced an insistent parade of policy issues that, if they lacked a single dominant thread like the Cold War, sustained their claim on the political agenda by their very multiplicity.