Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment

Summary: Campaign 2016 has sparked hopes of political reform in America, restoring aspects of America that we’ve lost. But our image of American history is false, because much of what we love existed only for two generations (from the New Deal to the 1970s). Understanding this makes real reform possible. Jefferson Cowie’s new book is essential reading for Campaign 2016!

The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics
Available at Amazon.


Much of what we esteem about America comes from the 1930s through the 1970s. Civil rights, high social mobility, falling inequality, a large middle class, strong social cohesion — all of these erupted into an American history of often violent oppression to maintain the stark division of social classes (for example, see the long history of violence against unions).

Forgetting the long struggle that produced this series of revolutions after 1932, we believe that our America is the true America — and so stopped struggling, after which it slipped away. Jefferson Cowie explains this in his new book “The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics” . From the publisher …

“The New Deal: where does it fit in the big picture of American history? What does it mean for us today? What happened to the economic equality it once engendered?

“Jefferson Cowie tackles the big questions in The Great Exception. Beginning in the Great Depression and through to the 1970s, he argues, the United States built a uniquely equitable period that contrasts with the deeper historical patterns of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.

“During those exceptional decades, which Cowie situates in the long arc of American history, the government used its considerable resources on behalf of working Americans in ways that it had not before and has not since. The crises of the Depression and World War II forced realignments of American politics and class relations, but these changes were less a permanent triumph of the welfare state than the product of a temporary cessation of enduring tensions involving race, immigration, culture, class, and individualism.

“Against this backdrop, Cowie shows how any renewed American battle for collective economic rights needs to build on an understanding of how the New Deal was won — and how it ultimately succumbed to contrasting patterns ingrained in U.S. history.

“As positive as the era of Roosevelt was in creating a more equitable society, Cowie suggests that the New Deal may necessarily belong more to the past than the future of American politics. Anyone interested in the politics of inequality in U.S. history will be interested in coming to terms with The Great Exception.”

Jefferson Cowie briefly explains this story in this excerpt from…

New Deal Button

We Can’t Go Home Again:
Why the New Deal Won’t Be Renewed

The New Labor Forum, 25 January 2011

I’d love to see a triumphal return of the New Deal. Many of the policies of the 1930s represented the best of what the United States might be as a nation — caring, sharing, secure, and occasionally visionary — while few issues seem more important today than bringing the concerns of working people out of the shadows and into the political and economic light. But bad history makes for really bad political strategy, so we must face up to a key fact: the creation of the New Deal was pretty tenuous to begin with, and the decades following — often called “the New Deal order” — were pretty close to an aberration in American history.

Indeed, the political era between the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt through the administration of Richard Nixon, as my co-author Nick Salvatore and I have argued, marks a “long exception” in American political history and culture (see here). During this period, the central government utilized its considerable resources in a systematic, if hardly consistent, fashion on behalf of non-elite Americans.

Editor’s note: Cowie gives too little credit to the years in which Nixon was president. Many important liberal accomplishments were made then.

One can visualize the outcome in the statistical graphs as an anomalous historical hump that rises in the forties and declines in the seventies: economic equality improves then tumbles, union density rockets upward and then slowly falls, working people’s income goes up before dwindling, and the percentage of wealth possessed by the most affluent dips before roaring back with a vengeance. Even the minimum wage rises to a useful figure in the late sixties before fading. (For more see the Extreme Inequality website.)

While it is useful and hopeful that the United States can achieve such a politics again, we ought not be misled by freewheeling historical analogies. The catalyst for these developments was neither FDR’s charismatic personality, the brilliance of his New Deal advisors, nor World War II. Rather, it was the sui generis circumstances of the Great Depression itself, particularly the ferocious impact it had on Americans over the three years and five months between its start in October 1929 and FDR’s inauguration in March of 1933.

It was this trauma — at once economic, political, and cultural — that propelled a more activist government intervention on behalf of everyday American citizens than the U.S. had ever seen before — or since. Even as partisan a champion of the New Deal as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. explained, the dawning of the New Deal was a “unique episode” in the nation’s history “which grew out of a unique crisis” (Anthony J. Badger, FDR The First Hundred Days, xv).

Nothing emerges de novo, of course, and the New Dealers built upon a number of historical trends: the Progressive reform impulse, Theodore Roosevelt’s demand for the regulation of big corporations, and — above all — the massive federal mobilization during World War I. Also, the new corporate paternalism of the 1920s, known as “welfare capitalism,” raised expectations of what the employment relationship could and should offer, just before it all collapsed following the economic crash. All that said, and it is admittedly not a short list, the New Deal was as clear a break with policy tradition as any in American history. Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisors, suggested the degree of departure when he described creating national relief on a blank drafting table “almost as if the Aztecs had been asked suddenly to build an aeroplane.” (June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer, 167.)

The rupture with the past may have been real, but the legislative achievements were also more tenuous and brief than most tend to recognize. What historians call the “first” New Deal basically turned the project of recovery over to business itself (along with some substantial relief interventions and dramatic efforts like the Tennessee Valley Authority). Those early reforms ended due to their internal contradictions or the Supreme Court — or both. With the notable exception of Glass-Steagall and other reforms of the financial sector, the first New Deal failed to have a lasting impact.

After 1935, the true breakthroughs, known as the “second” New Deal, offered a more cohesive, proto-Keynesian vision for reform and the most substantive parts of Roosevelt’s legacy: the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, the Works Progress Administration, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the empowerment of the CIO, and — above all — the landslide 1936 election that created the “Roosevelt coalition” out of a historically fragmented working class.

As much as Roosevelt famously wagged his finger at the “economic royalists,” however, he did so only briefly. The window of opportunity for substantive collective economic policies opened in 1935, but it also slammed shut less than three years later. What followed were the forgotten years of the Roosevelt administration: the 1938-1939 years of defeat and retreat, the return of hard times, and the possibility that the 1936-1937 strike wave would be just another failure like 1919 or 1934.

As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein argues in the case of the labor movement, “industrial unionism’s moment of unrivaled triumph proved exceedingly brief.” He notes that it was only a matter of weeks after the CIO’s famous victories at General Motors and U.S. Steel in 1937 before “the radical challenge posed by mass unions generated furious opposition: from corporate adversaries, Southern Bourbons, craft unionists, and many elements of the New Deal coalition itself.” (Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, 138.)

Maury Maverick, outspoken Democratic representative from Texas, was one of the few to openly declare the exhaustion of New Deal efforts. “Now we Democrats have to admit that we are floundering,” he told the House. “We have pulled all the rabbits out of the hat, and there are no more rabbits …We are a confused, bewildered group of people, and we are not delivering the goods.” (Alan Brinkley, The End Of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, 30.)

It took the Second World War to consolidate existing achievements — especially union strength — while simultaneously marking what the historian Alan Brinkley calls “the end of reform.” As macroeconomic planning for mass consumption and “full” employment trumped the disparate inventiveness of the Progressives and the New Dealers (almost completely ending the Democrats’ anti-monopoly tradition), the nation ended up with a postwar politics that Brinkley calls “less challenging to the existing structure of corporate capitalism than some of the ideas it supplanted” (ibid, 7). Yet even the path to a trimmed vision required a twelve-year-long depression, a false start, surviving a strongly-organized counter-attack, and a World War before it reached its modern form — a truly extraordinary gauntlet of historical circumstances.

How best, then, to think about the New Deal as it shaped the postwar era?  After the war, New Deal alliances seemed like an all-powerful force capable of implementing liberal policy, regardless of conservative opposition. Yet when challenged, this same juggernaut shattered, its central contradictions revealed in its own negotiations with the very real complexities of American history and politics.  The divisiveness of race, ethnicity, immigration, and religion (all bound up tightly with one of the thorniest problems in American politics — individualism) was temporarily mitigated, though hardly terminated, during the New Deal era.

Black-white race relations were certainly the most salient example of how important — and thin — the New Deal veneer was. While African-American voters switched their allegiances from the party of Lincoln to the Roosevelt coalition for good reasons, the price of almost every piece of New Deal legislation was the exclusion of black people. And, while the CIO devoted itself to organizing without regard to race, its project remained hamstrung on the racism of the white rank-and-file and the political power of the “Solid South.” When the Democrats dared to introduce a civil rights plank in 1948, or when they passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the entire coalitional edifice shook as the white South bolted from the Democratic Party and the urban North cleaved along racial lines.

The absence of immigration was another decisive factor in both the formation and continuation of the New Deal order. The “culture of unity” — a term used by historian Lizabeth Cohen to describe the shared sense of fate produced by the homogenizing forces of large-scale industry, welfare capitalism and mass culture — was based largely on the suspension of immigration after 1924.  As a result, when the crash hit, nativism was largely at bay and the workers living in this country were here to stay. When immigration resurfaced slowly in the generation after the 1965 immigration reforms, so did the neo-Know Nothings and militant nativism of today, returning “the” working class to historical patterns of internecine hostilities and political divisions reminiscent of the pre-New Deal era.

Like immigration, the divisiveness of religion in American politics also had a reprieve that allowed the New Deal to cohere. Evangelical Christianity, mocked into irrelevance after the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, largely went underground in the thirties and forties, offering limited “culture war” challenges to the rise of the New Deal (aside from those of Father Charles Coughlin and other populist dissenters). Garry Wills calls the postwar era a “Great Religious Truce,” an “interfaith Amity” in which a vague Judeo-Christian faith was enough to define Cold War Americanism (Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities, 451-3).

That consensus would finally fall apart in the 1970s, as people of faith questioned rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s when the state was busy intervening in cultural questions like abortion, busing, prayer in school, pornography, and birth control — issues that re-politicized religion’s place in American life and undermined the New Deal coalition, in the 1970s and beyond.

The ideology, though hardly the reality, of individualism wound around all of these other issues like vines in a political jungle. Roosevelt, despite being the architect of the regulatory state, never quite offered a clear alternative to the individualist ethos so deeply embedded in himself or America’s public culture.

Jefferson Cowie

—————– End excerpt —————–

About Jefferson Cowie

Professor of history at Vanderbilt, he studies how class, inequality, and labor shape America. The Nation magazine described Cowie as “one of our most commanding interpreters of recent American experience.” See his bio, his articles and his books.

For more information

Read the six-page preview to his book: “Getting over the New Deal“. Also see the article which spawned the book: “The Long Exception: Rethinking the New Deal in American History” by Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore in International Labor and Working-Class History (2008).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about rising inequality & falling social mobility and Reforming America: steps to new politics.

Other books by Jefferson Cowie

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class and Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization.

Stayin' Alive
Available at Amazon.
Beyond the Ruins
Available at Amazon.

1 thought on “Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment”

  1. Excellent point that the new deal period was fairly short lived exception. A similar statement would apply to England, where the Labor party implemented socialism in 1945, which Thatcher dismantled in the 1970s. A partial unraveling has happened in continental Europe too.

    In the interwar period, Max Weber claimed that in practice democracy is rule by capitalists. So it seems.

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