Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-8kt4b Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-15T05:55:03.605Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

2 - The Long 1950s as a Policy Era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2014

David R. Mayhew
Yale University
Jeffery A. Jenkins
University of Virginia
Sidney M. Milkis
University of Virginia
Get access


If policy reform amounts to nonincremental change, what can we say about postwar America before the mid-1960s? Those early years are often dismissed as the doldrums and as a time of Deadlock of Democracy. I argue here that this judgment is quite wrong.

Discernible in those days is a policy era, with its own kind of content and integrity. By the term “policy era” I do not mean anything fancy. I mean a time span of policy enterprises, all involving congressional action, that can be apprehended using reasonable empirical care, that share an animation and direction, and that amount to a major cumulative policy record. For political context, think of Frank D. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones’s “waves of enthusiasm” or John W. Kingdon’s “national moods” that can pry open “policy windows.”

I use a particular empirical wedge in my discussion. I am wary of labels like the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the New Frontier as guides to policy eras. Politicians promote such labels for their own purposes, and they coast into usages that are both ideologically freighted and gauzy. They can become impediments to understanding. They can dominate and obscure the contents of their presumed packages.3 Possibly better is a nominalistic course of examining actual policy moves one by one, leaving aside any assumptions about lumping or labels, to see what they are and what they add up to. A good instance is the sequence of new regulatory legislation from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. That went from the Traffic Safety Act of 1966 through the Truth in Lending Act of 1968, theClean AirAct of 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, and the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. This is far from an exhaustive list. For a decade, the beat went on. At issue is pattern recognition. Through a one-by-one identification of items – not through an overarching label such as “the Great Society” – we can see a major policy era centering on increases in government regulation.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Burns, James MacGregor, The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963)Google Scholar
Baumgartner, Frank R. and Jones, Bryan D., Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 5Google Scholar
Kingdon, John W., Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (New York: Longman, 2nd ed., 2003), pp. 146–49,Google Scholar
Mayhew, David R., “Wars and American Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 3:3 (September 2005), 473–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mayhew, David R., Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations, 1946–2002 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2nd ed., 2005),Google Scholar
Vogel, David, “The ‘New’ Social Regulation in Historical and Comparative Perspective,” in McCraw, Thomas K. (ed.), Regulation in Perspective: Historical Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 157Google Scholar
Harris, Richard A., “A Decade of Reform,” ch. 1 in Harris, and Milkis, Sidney M. (eds.), Remaking American Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989)Google Scholar
Higgs, Robert, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 246–54Google Scholar
Neustadt, Richard E., “Congress and the Fair Deal: A Legislative Balance Sheet,” in Hamby, Alonzo E. (ed.), Harry S. Truman and the Fair Deal (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1974), pp. 15–42Google Scholar
Schlesinger, Jr. Arthur M., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 708Google Scholar
Sorensen, C., Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 339Google Scholar
Bolling, Richard, Power in the House: A History of the Leadership of the House of Representatives (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), pp. 204–17Google Scholar
Sundquist, James L., Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1968)Google Scholar
Maier, Charles S., “The Politics of Productivity: Foundations of American International Economic Policy after World War II,” International Organization 31:4 (Autumn 1977), 607–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Collins, Robert M., More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar
Weatherford, M. Stephen and McDonnell, Lorraine M., “Macroeconomic Policy Making Beyond the Electoral Constraint,” in Edwards, George C., Shull, Steven A., and Thomas, Norman C. (eds.), The Presidency and Public Policy Making (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), pp. 95–113Google Scholar
Weatherford, M. Stephen and McDonnell, Lorraine M., “The Role of Presidential Ideology in Economic Policymaking,” Policy Studies Journal 12:4 (June 1984), 691–702CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Madison, Grant, “The International Origins of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Political Economy,” Journal of Policy History 24:4 (2012), 675–708CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weatherford, M. Stephen, “The Interplay of Ideology and Advice in Economic Policy-Making: The Case of Political Business Cycles,” Journal of Politics 49:4 (November 1987), 925–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Eisenhower, Dwight D., The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953–1956 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), pp. 12Google Scholar
Pach, Jr. Chester J., and Richardson, Elmo, The Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991 rev. ed.), pp. 32Google Scholar
Morgan, Iwan W., Eisenhower versus ‘the Spenders’: The Eisenhower Administration, the Democrats and the Budget, 1953–60 (London: Pinter Publishers, 1990), pp. 17–18Google Scholar
Pusey, Merlo J., Eisenhower the President (New York: Macmillan, 1956)Google Scholar
Saulnier, Raymond J., Constructive Years: The U. S. Economy under Eisenhower (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), pp. 1–2Google Scholar
Matusow, Allen J., The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 18Google Scholar
King, Ronald F., “Continuity and Change: Fiscal Policy in the Kennedy Administration,” ch. 11 in Harper, Paul and Krieg, Joann P. (eds.), John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited(Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988), p. 173Google Scholar
Beck, Nathaniel, “Parties, Administrations, and American Macroeconomic Outcomes,” American Political Science Review 76:1 (March 1982), 83–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mayhew, David R., Partisan Balance: Why Political Parties Don’t Kill the U. S. Constitutional System (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)Google Scholar
Mollenkopf, John H., The Contested City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983),Google Scholar
Foard, Ashley A. and Fefferman, Hilbert, “Federal Urban Renewal Legislation,” ch. 4 in Wilson, James Q. (ed.), Urban Renewal: The Record and the Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966)Google Scholar
Dahl, Robert A., Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), pp. 116–18Google Scholar
Smith, Bruce L. R., American Science Policy since World War II (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1990), pp. 36–52Google Scholar
Polsby, Nelson W., Political Innovation in America: The Politics of Policy Initiation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 35–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bartley, Ernest R., The Tidelands Oil Controversy: A Legal and Historical Analysis (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1953)Google Scholar
Vietor, Richard H. K., Energy Policy in American since 1945: A Study of Business-Government Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 18–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Arrandale, Tom, The Battle for Natural Resources (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1983), p. 109Google Scholar
Christopher, Warren M., “The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act: Key to a New Frontier,” Stanford Law Review 6:1 (December 1953), 23–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stagg, Ronald, The Golden Dream: A History of the St. Lawrence Seaway (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010), pp. 158–68Google Scholar
Wood, Donald F., “The St. Lawrence Seaway: Some Considerations of Its Impact,” Land Economics 34:1 (February 1958), 61–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Congress and the Nation, 1945–1964 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1965), pp. 955–61
Smith, Jean Edward, Eisenhower in War and Peace (New York: Random House, 2012), p. 650Google Scholar
Reichard, Gary W., The Reaffirmation of Republicanism: Eisenhower and the Eighty-Third Congress (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975), p. 168Google Scholar
Duffy, Robert J., Nuclear Politics in America: A History and Theory of Government Regulation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), pp. 34–38Google Scholar
Wells, Wyatt, “Public Power in the Eisenhower Administration,” Journal of Policy History 20:2 (2008), 227–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schapsmeier, Edward L. and Schapsmeier, Frederick H., “Eisenhower and Agricultural Reform: Ike’s Farm Policy Legacy Appraised,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 51:2 (April 1992), 147–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Flanagan, Richard M., “The Housing Act of 1954: The Sea Change in National Urban Policy,” Urban Affairs Review 33:2 (November 1997), 265–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Checkoway, Barry, “Large Builders, Federal Housing Programmes, and Postwar Suburbanization,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (1980), 21–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hayden, Dolores, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 162–64Google Scholar
Witte, John F., The Politics and Development of the Federal Income Tax (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 144–50Google Scholar
Bauer, Raymond A., de Sola Pool, Ithiel, and Dexter, Lewis A., American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade (New York: Atherton, 1964)Google Scholar
Eisenhower, Dwight D., The Eisenhower Diaries (New York: Ed. Ferrell, Robert H., Norton, W. W., 1981), pp. 228–29Google Scholar
Pastor, Robert, Congress and the Politics of U. S. Foreign Economic Policy, 1929–1976 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 101–04Google Scholar
Harvey, Mark W. T., A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994)Google Scholar
Howe, Charles W. and Ahrens, W. Ashley, “Water Resources of the Upper Colorado River Basin: Problems and Policy Alternatives,” ch. 5 in El-Ashry, Mohamed T. and Gibbons, Diana C. (eds.), Water and Arid Lands of the Western United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 180Google Scholar
Peirce, Neal R., The Mountain States of America: People, Politics, and Power in the Eight Rocky Mountain States (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972), pp. 17–18Google Scholar
Worster, Donald, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 273–74Google Scholar
, Stephen E., Eisenhower: Soldier and President (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 387–88Google Scholar
Rose, Mark H., Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1939–1989 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979), p. 69Google Scholar
Patashnik, Eric M., Putting Trust in the US Budget: Federal Trust Funds and the Politics of Commitment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000),CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dunn, Jr. James A., Miles to Go: European and American Transportation Policies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 118–22Google Scholar
Schwartz, Gary T., “Urban Freeways and the Interstate System,” Southern California Law Review 49 (March 1976), 406–513Google Scholar
Meinig, D. W., The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, vol. 4, Global America, 1915–2000 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 61–69Google Scholar
Schwartz, Richard A., The 1950s: An Eyewitness History (New York: Facts on File, 2003), p. 284Google Scholar
Jones, Charles O., “The Agriculture Committee and the Problem of Representation,” ch. 8 in Peabody, Robert L. and Polsby, Nelson W. (eds.), New Perspectives on the House of Representatives (Chicago: Rand McNally, 3rd ed., 1977)Google Scholar
McDougall, Walter A., The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985)Google Scholar
Eisenhower, Dwight D., The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956–1961 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 205–12Google Scholar
Gladieux, Lawrence E. and Wolanin, Thomas R., Congress and the Colleges: The National Politics of Higher Education (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1976), pp. 8–9Google Scholar
Light, Paul C., The President’s Agenda: Domestic Policy Choice from Kennedy to Clinton (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 70Google Scholar
Giglio, James N., The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), pp. 103–04Google Scholar
Zelizer, Julian E., Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 185–87Google Scholar
Parmet, Herbert J., JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (New York: Dial Press, 1983), p. 94Google Scholar
Aschauer, David Alan, “Is Public Expenditure Productive?” Journal of Monetary Economics 23 (1989), 177–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gramlich, Edward M., “Infrastructure Investment: A Review Essay,” Journal of Economic Literature 32:3 (September 1994), 1176–96Google Scholar
Morrison, Catherine J. and Schwartz, Amy Ellen, “State Infrastructure and Productive Performance,” American Economic Review 86:5 (December 1996), 1095–1111Google Scholar
Fernald, John G., “Roads to Prosperity? Assessing the Link between Public Capital and Productivity,” American Economic Review 89:3 (June 1999), 619–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Strand, Ginger, Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012)Google Scholar
Peirce, Neal R. and Keefe, John, The Great Lakes States of America: People, Politics, and Power in the Five Great Lakes States (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), pp. 25Google Scholar
Barrett, Joe, “Lake Invaders Face a Salty Rebuff: Salinity Test Aims to Catch Creatures Sneaking into U. S. in Ballast of Ships,” Wall Street Journal, May 12–13, 2012, p. A4Google Scholar
Schlesinger, Jr. Arthur M., “The Cycles of American Politics,” ch. 2 in Schlesinger, , The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986)Google Scholar
Huntington, Samuel P., American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981)Google Scholar
Melnick, R. Shep, “Risky Business: Government and the Environment after Earth Day,” ch. 7 in Keller, Morton and Melnick, , Taking Stock: American Government in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 156–86Google Scholar
Erikson, Robert S., MacKuen, Michael B., and Stimson, James A., The Macro Polity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002),Google Scholar
Pierson, Paul, “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” American Political Science Review 94:2 (June 2000), 251–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Patashnik, Eric M., Reforms at Risk: What Happens after Major Policy Changes Are Enacted (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)Google Scholar
Leighninger, Jr. Robert D., Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), p. 210Google Scholar
Greenstein, Fred I., The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader (New York: Basic Books, 1982)Google Scholar
Vatter, Harold G., The U. S. Economy in the 1950’s: An Economic History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963)Google Scholar
Sloan, John W., Eisenhower and the Management of Prosperity (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991)Google Scholar
Campagna, Anthony S., U.S. National Economic Policy, 1917–1985 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1987), ch. 8Google Scholar
Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, “Presidents and the Political Economy: The Coalitional Foundations of Presidential Power,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 42:1 (March 2012), 101–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Eisenhower, ’s “active leadership in codifying the unique public-private structure of U. S. social policy.” The Divided Welfare State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 238Google Scholar
Wayne, Stephen J. reports that “the Eisenhower administration retained and even expanded the presidency’s capacity to develop, coordinate, and achieve legislative policy.” The source is “The Eisenhower Administration: Bridge to the Institutionalized Legislative Presidency,” Congress and the Presidency 39:2 (2012), 199–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats