I grew up in the 1950s in a factory town surrounded by smaller towns and small family farms. My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all factory workers or small farmers (or their wives). Layoffs and bad weather for farming were not uncommon. Some years were good, and some years were not so good. The 1950s were deeply tarnished with racism, sexism, and environmental oblivion.

Still, when I hear “make America great again,” it is those growing-up years that come to mind. My family was not rich or important. There were no college graduates in the family. However, we shared an understanding, widespread among the people living around us, that we were living in a world better than the past, that we were respected members of the community, and that we faced an even better future.

Today, the factories are almost all gone. The small towns and small farms are mostly gone too, replaced by much larger farms and empty crossroads.

I have given some thought to what happened. I have come to see the period from roughly 1945 to 1975 as having unusually widespread prosperity. So, what produced this unusual era, and how might widespread prosperity be restored?

Free-market economics played a part. It incentivized innovation that increased the amount of wealth produced. However, free-market economics left the increased wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. This remained true in the U.S. into the 1930s.

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Two other factors played major roles in producing the widespread prosperity of my growing-up years: strong labor unions created in the 1930s and the economic policies created by the New Deal.

Not everyone was happy with unions and government regulation of the economy. Living wages for employees could reduce profits for some employers. While World War II brought industrial peace focused on satisfying wartime production needs, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was a first step in rolling back labor unions and the New Deal. It allowed states to pass right-to-work laws that outlawed union-shop contracts. It also allowed court injunctions to restrict picketing. It laid the foundation for a 70-year conservative campaign to weaken unions and reduce governmental regulations.

In the presidential campaign of 1984, an ad for Ronald Reagan proclaimed that it was “morning in America again,” suggesting that the U.S. was returning to a happier past. That has not panned out. Union density peaked in 1955 and gradually declined to current levels. Income inequality increased in the United States, but wealth became increasingly concentrated. Tax burdens shifted from the rich to the rest of us.

Bretton Woods controls on international investment flows, circa 1944, were abandoned by the administration of President Richard Nixon, increasing foreign investments and the export of American jobs.

While we cannot undo the past and retrieve exported jobs, all in all, it seems to me, if we want to make America great again, we should rebuild strong unions for the workers we have, raise taxes on the rich, raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, and protect the right to vote. Proposals to do all of these things are part of the current agenda of the administration of President Joe Biden.

The so-called conservatives who rally around the call to “make America great again” often support small government and free-market economics, the very policy directions that undermined the broad-based prosperity of the past.

It is one thing to talk about making America great again; it is another thing to actually do it.

Richard Hudelson of Duluth comes from a blue-collar background and has done extensive academic work on the history of the labor movement, economic theory, and economic policy.