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Get with the modern world, conservatives: ‘Infrastructure’ is more than roads and bridges

Critics say President Biden’s plan to expand high-speed internet is a distortion of what “infrastructure” means. Conservatives said the same thing about rural electricity in the 1930s.

American history is replete with debates over legitimate infrastructure investment, including for such purposes as rural electricity and Great Lakes harbors, writes Theodore J. Karamanski.
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Shortly after President Joseph Biden unveiled his infrastructure plan, criticism surfaced over the wide variety of initiatives, from clean water systems to electric car charging stations, included in the proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leaped to complain this “plan is not about rebuilding America’s backbone” because “less than 6% of this massive proposal goes to roads and bridges.”

In doing so, McConnell articulated a well-established conservative critique of progressive attempts to invest in the nation’s future economic development. In that view, government should limit itself to well-established activities and steer clear of investments that would expand the scope of government.

American history is replete with debates over legitimate infrastructure investment.

In the 19th century the Democratic Party was the conservative watchdog of the federal budget. In 1830, roads were considered a controversial expenditure, which prompted President Andrew Jackson to veto a federally funded road in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky. Inspired by Jackson’s veto, the Democratic Party for the next generation embraced the position that the Constitution forbade the federal government from undertaking “a general system of internal improvements.”

Yet as the nation expanded westward, transportation between sections was critical. Newly emerging states such as Illinois, Michigan and Indiana attempted to meet the need for roads and canals only to bankrupt themselves in the process.

In the 1840s and 1850s, infrastructure controversy focused on the Great Lakes, where harbors were needed to shelter commercial and immigrant ships. In 1846, Congress approved $500,000 for Great Lakes and Mississippi River improvements, but President James Polk vetoed the measure as unconstitutional.

Chicago stepped on to the national stage for the first time by organizing a convention — the largest political gathering in America up to that time — to protest the veto. Most of the future leaders of the Republican Party, including Abraham Lincoln, attended. At the time, hundreds of sailors and passengers were dying each year in shipwrecks for want of safe harbors. Along with fear of slavery’s expansion, infrastructure was one of the issues that led to the creation of the Republican Party. At its beginning, it advocated that the federal government act forcefully for the common good.

It took a Civil War to break the hold of the conservative South on federal purse strings. The decade that followed the Civil War is usually known as the “Reconstruction Era.” But on the Great Lakes it might be better known as the “Construction Era” because of the steady flow of infrastructure investments made in harbors, channel improvements, lighthouse, and life-saving stations. These federal outlays sparked a transformation of the region from a sparsely populated hinterland to the industrial heart of the nation.

Modern America relied upon the maritime-industrial complex that sprouted on the shores of the inland sea. The mills and manufacturing of lake cities such as Chicago, Gary, Detroit and Cleveland were tied to mines and quarries by a fleet of commercial ships larger than the U.S. Navy. When war came to America in 1917 and 1941, the nation’s regional infrastructure investment was aptly repaid with war-winning industrial production.

Critics of Biden’s plan complain that expanding high-speed internet to all parts of the nation is another distortion of what infrastructure is, and McConnell cites the growing federal debt as a reason to restrict funding for roads and bridges. Yet in the 1930s when America was, as now, mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, the nation faced a choice between expanding the new technology of electricity and budget deficits. At night, cities like Chicago were awash in the glow of electric streetlights and the garish flash of neon marquees, while homes in Tennessee and Kentucky warded off the darkness with kerosene lamps. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to bring electricity to the rural South.

The investment paved the entry of McConnell’s part of the country into the modern economy. Today the Tennessee valley thrives due to GM, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen automobile factories attracted to the area because of the cheap power provided by the TVA.

Historically, the American economy grew by broadening the definition of infrastructure and empowering the federal government to take the actions needed to kick-start a new phase of economic growth. To hope for an economic revival without making an investment in new technologies and needed improvements is to live in expectation of getting something for nothing.

Theodore J. Karamanski, professor of public history at Loyola University Chicago, is the author of “Mastering the Inland Seas: How Lighthouses, Harbors, and Navigational Aids Transformed the Great Lakes and America” (2020).

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