Making Sense of American Liberalism

Making Sense of American Liberalism

by Jonathan Bell

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This collection of thoughtful and timely essays offers refreshing and intelligent new perspectives on postwar American liberalism. Sophisticated yet accessible, Making Sense of American Liberalism challenges popular myths about liberalism in the United States. The volume presents the Democratic Party and liberal reform efforts such as civil rights, feminism, labor,


This collection of thoughtful and timely essays offers refreshing and intelligent new perspectives on postwar American liberalism. Sophisticated yet accessible, Making Sense of American Liberalism challenges popular myths about liberalism in the United States. The volume presents the Democratic Party and liberal reform efforts such as civil rights, feminism, labor, and environmentalism as a more united, more radical force than has been depicted in scholarship and the media emphasizing the decline and disunity of the left._x000B__x000B_Distinguished contributors assess the problems liberals have confronted in the twentieth century, examine their strategies for change, and chart the successes and potential for future liberal reform._x000B__x000B_Contributors are Anthony J. Badger, Jonathan Bell, Lizabeth Cohen, Susan Hartmann, Ella Howard, Bruce Miroff, Nelson Lichtenstein, Doug Rossinow, Timothy Stanley, and Timothy Thurber.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"With the proliferation of scholarly monographs on the conservative movement, this volume's serious engagement with US liberalism is surprisingly refreshing.  Highly Recommended."—Choice

"This impressive collection of thoughtful essays pulls together an all-star roster of prominent historians and promising younger scholars to make an important contribution to our understanding of postwar liberalism."

—Steven M. Gillon, resident historian for The History Channel and author of The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After: Lyndon B. Johnson's Pivotal First Day as President

"A compelling narrative of the shifting dynamics of ideas and policy on the left end of the political spectrum."—The Journal of American History

"An exciting collection of ten essays exploring liberalism and the New Deal coalition in the twentieth century. . . . a wonderful preview of some interesting new scholarship."—The Journal of Southern History

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Making Sense of American Liberalism


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03686-6



At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the future of American liberalism is uncertain. Liberals and their allies in social reform have much to celebrate, but plenty of challenges ahead. The difficult choices faced by the Obama administration are representative. On the one hand, the election of an African American president on a platform of activist government and health care reform was a stunning achievement. It fulfilled the promise of the civil rights revolution, while putting together an alliance of ethnic minorities, liberals, youth, labor, women, and the urban poor that promised a revival of the New Deal coalition. On the other hand, President Obama and the Democratic congress faced immediate and serious opposition from a revived conservative movement, big business, and the right-wing media. Many saw the credit crunch as an opportunity for social reform, but ballooning deficits reduced its appeal to Middle America. Nor did the Democratic majority always hold up under the weight of its own contradictions. Opportunities were missed and squandered by bad prioritizing and internal strife. There is a widespread feeling that, at the moment of their greatest opportunity since 1964, liberals might have blown it.

This book considers the challenges, setbacks, and accomplishments of American liberal reformers in the twentieth century. Covering themes such as gender, class, labor, race, urban development, and underlying ideology, ten experts in their given fields have identified ways in which liberal politics has helped shape the nation's political landscape over the last half century. All the writers are concerned with the work of mainstream liberals—office-holders, urban planners, social issue activists, trade unionists. They are situated mostly in the Democratic Party, although both parties have embraced progressive and reactionary policies at different times. The essays assess the motivations of social reformers, the conditions under which they operated, the tactics they employed, and the outcome of their endeavors. Some were heroes to the cause, some hurt it. All were genuine in their desire to transform America and expand equality of opportunity. The essays pay particular attention to the importance of grassroots coalition efforts to the functioning of "high politics" and policy making. Although all of these authors highlight the shortcomings of liberalism, they also acknowledge that it remains a vibrant movement full of potential.

The Historical Consensus

Making change happen in the twentieth century has been a difficult process, and the historiography reflects that. American politics has shifted to the right since the heyday of liberalism in the 1960s. Identification with the Democrats has declined and the Party has lost seven out of eleven presidential elections since 1968. Popular reaction to the social liberation and antiwar movements of the swinging sixties combined with antitax sentiment in the stagnating seventies to produce the Reagan Revolution in 1980. President Reagan's assault on taxes and spending tapped into an instinctive American antipathy toward big government. Fear that liberals were using state machinery to promote cultural revolution from above forged a powerful electoral alliance between social and fiscal conservatives that Democrats struggled to break. Only when the Democratic Party rejected much of its liberal past did it win the presidency, in 1992. The economic and electoral success of Bill Clinton's administration fueled the popular suspicion that New Deal and Great Society liberalism is unpopular and anachronistic. One might even suggest that the few moments of clear Democratic success have been thanks to Republican errors. Watergate, the recession of 1992, and the credit crunch of 2008 all certainly contributed to electing Democrats, who then struggled to sell government-driven reform to a skeptical public.

Several key liberal legislative goals have been frustrated. The 1930s and 1960s saw remarkable strides made in the right to form unions, business regulation, civil rights, and social welfare. The record is more mixed from the late 1960s onward. Some important pieces of equalities legislation have either been defeated (the Equal Rights Amendment) or watered down after popular backlash (affirmative action). The slow advance of gay rights is a case in point. Vacillating leadership from the Democratic Party has overseen delay in reform (allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military) and significant defeats (the outlawing of gay marriage in California in 2008). Public education remains underfunded and its syllabus controversial. Health care reform has been piecemeal and unsatisfactory to many liberals. While Medicaid, Medicare, and the 2010 health care reform act have expanded coverage and funding, they fall short of the kind of comprehensive health care insurance of which Senator Edward Kennedy dreamed.

There is an assumption in some quarters that these goals have failed because they are unpopular—even un-American. Liberalism is prone to nurse the appetites of special interest groups, often representing marginalized communities. While the Democratic Party's various causes are laudable, they are controversial and divisive. Association with lifestyle campaigners like gays and feminists has alienated religious voters. Commitment to the black freedom struggle lost the South. The targeting of public moneys at poor and nonwhite communities has angered many middle-class taxpayers. Since 1964, no Democratic nominee has ever won a majority of the white vote. A patchwork approach to the politics of identity has stripped liberalism of a universal, American narrative—presuming that one ever existed. There is a broad sense that the decline of a class-based discourse since the 1930s has splintered and paralyzed the Left. Coalitions are difficult to form between groups with divergent interests. Internal strife and widespread dislike of collectivism has prevented a serious social democratic discourse taking hold in American politics. The collapse of the New Deal order was inevitable, and labor's class-based appeals look more and more anachronistic.

By contrast, recent work on conservatism has emphasized its popularity, innovation, and ability to exploit American mythology. The Goldwater implosion of 1964 is now widely regarded as a reorientation of the GOP away from elite, East Coast politics and toward the concerns of the expanding suburbs of the West and the South. Manipulation of the issues of race, religion, and taxes helped effect Nixon's New Majority and Ronald Reagan's revolution. Arguably, Republican populism was still driven by the same old business interests, but it succeeded in convincing large numbers of middle-class voters that liberalism was the politics of tax-and-spend and social disorder. Conservatism has on occasion divided and imploded—most notably in 1964, 1992, and 2008. But it is resilient. In the twenty-first century, the Right rebounded even in the wake of the credit crunch and the scandals that rocked the Republicans. The Tea Party movement was a prime example—spontaneous, media-savvy, a blend of racial and fiscal themes, populated by ordinary middle-class Americans, historically minded, and hugely popular. As late as the mid-1960s, historians still wrote of U.S. history as a Whiggish progression from barbarism to liberalism. The conservative movement was ideology-free, circumstantial, irrational, and too extreme to catch hold of the popular imagination. But in retrospect, the years of profound liberal reform (19321966) seem like the aberration and conservatism the norm.

Few contemporary historians still share the "consensus" school's faith in American progressivism, yet things are not as bleak for liberalism as this catalog of problems suggests. Indeed, these essays address a paradox—the continued advance of social reform in a conservative political context. Several historians have pointed out that even in the post–Great Society period the federal government has continued to expand; the bureaucracy has developed its own logic and momentum. Richard Nixon flirted with environmental protection, welfare reform, and affirmative action. Ronald Reagan was unable to abolish federal support for schools or privatize Social Security. And George Bush Jr. oversaw a massive increase in government regulation of education standards and health care spending. Where liberal politicians have failed, the law courts have stepped in. The language of civil rights has been extended and defended via the courts into age discrimination, gay marriage, abortion, and equal access to public services. Even where conservatives have succeeded in mounting popular opposition to social reform via referenda, the courts have typically upheld the consensus of the 1960s and overturned their decision. One of the most important public policy decisions that a president can make is in the appointment of Supreme Court justices—reflecting the power of legislation from the bench.

Each of these essays enriches the narrative of twentieth-century American politics by reconsidering the experiences of reformers across different eras and in different fields. They analyze the stumbling blocks to reform (race, popular backlash, disunity, personality, economic recession), but also its triumphs—and what made them possible. American political history cannot be labeled uniformly conservative or liberal. Rather, there are conservative moments and liberal moments. Throughout them, reform is possible if given the right leadership and political context. Liberal moments have included 1932, when the failure of the Hoover administration to alleviate the Great Depression put Roosevelt in the White House. In 1964, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moral impetus of the civil rights movement, and the implosion of the GOP gave the Democrats their last real presidential landslide. In 2008, war and recession created a profound liberal moment. Public desire for reform of the financial sector was brief but powerful. It is up to good presidential leaders to exploit those moments effectively. They have sometimes benefited from the Democratic domination of Congress and state governments during sustained, typically coincidental periods. Such success has even occurred in supposedly conservative epochs like the 1980s or conservative regions like the South during the same decade.

Liberalism and Social Democracy

This collection of essays also revisits the difficult question of definitions that surrounds twentieth-century liberalism. Historians of the United States have provided rich narratives of the halting and tentative development of welfare systems since the early part of the century and have charted the relationship between government and the establishment of civil rights legislation since World War II. But overarching histories of the relationship between ideology and policy making often suggest the United States never really participated in the social democratic experiment that proved so important in the political histories of many industrial democracies in the last hundred years, or if it did, that the United States departed radically from that path after 1945. Many historians argue that the increased power of corporate capitalism after the war, together with the rise of private-sector pension and health programs, left Keynesianism and civil rights as the only real left-of-center policies in the federal government's arsenal. Any expansion of governmental involvement in areas such as health care and welfare was merely an extension of the existing Social Security system.

Yet a number of the essays in this volume force us to define more rigorously the meaning of liberal and left in an American context in order better to understand U.S. political development over the last century. The ideology of social democracy turned upon questions of social and economic equality with the state as arbiter, using a range of redistributive economic policies together with civil rights legislation enforced through the courts to iron out some of the massive injustices in capitalist societies. Several of these essays demonstrate how labor unions, state governments and political activists, feminists, and presidential candidates engaged with this ideology, even if it proved less popular in the United States than elsewhere. Crucial battles over the future of the New Deal state between 1945 and the recent past, including those concerning "right to work" laws, minimum wages, working conditions, and a social safety net, have received detailed attention from historians of the Right. But closer consideration of those often termed "liberals" shows that these debates demonstrated an increased awareness of social democratic thought as the century wore on, as opposed to the gradual retreat from leftist nostrums after the New Deal often described in existing historiography.

The collection identifies three analytical themes in the history of twentieth-century liberalism. Because of the importance of an enduring social democratic tradition, it begins by addressing the relationship between mainstream liberals, principally in the Democratic Party, and the wider American Left. Several of the essays in this volume question the idea that postwar liberalism was completely straitjacketed by private sector capitalism and cultural conservatism. Even the violent divisions of the 1960s testified as to how far American society had changed since the Progressive and New Deal eras had ushered questions of social reform and public policy onto the political stage. The thorny question of racial equality helped to defeat southern liberals and made a united front between liberalism and organized labor harder to realize. Yet the collapse of the awkward New Deal coalition between the urban North and the South was the inevitable consequence of the widening of the parameters of social democracy to embrace many who had fallen by the wayside prior to the 1960s.

Rather than viewing liberal politics through a teleological lens that emphasizes decline from a golden electoral age of the 1930s and 1940s, this collection focuses on the increased ideological and policy ambition of liberals in areas like urban renewal, welfare provision, and coalition building with movements striving for greater diversity of political representation. The themes of policy innovation and alliance complete the portrait of liberal politics in this volume. They suggest that the electoral challenges of contemporary left-of-center politics lie in many respects in the success of liberals in altering the social landscape of the United States in the last five decades, often prompting an angry backlash from those frightened by the pace of change. Liberalism has sometimes been a victim of its own success.

Part I explores the difficult but fruitful relationship between established Democratic and liberal politicians and the wider left in the twentieth century. In "Partners for Progress? Liberals and Radicals in the Long Twentieth Century," Doug Rossinow argues that from the Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s through to the anti–Vietnam War movement and the "new politics" of the 1960s and 1970s, liberals and leftists worked together to strengthen individual political and social rights, to advance the interests of the industrial working class within the framework of liberal capitalist society, and to oppose war and empire. Although vestiges of the left-liberal tradition continued to exist after the 1940s and the onset of the post–World War II "red scare," it was greatly weakened by the 1950s and is little remembered today. Rossinow describes the left edge of the liberal political tradition across the broad sweep of industrial U.S. history, revealing both the way in which the radical left provided idealistic, sometimes utopian fuel for liberal reform projects and the broad influence of liberal ideas on the political left in the United States.


Excerpted from Making Sense of American Liberalism Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jonathan Bell is a senior lecturer in the history department at the University of Reading, England, and the author of The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Politics in the Truman Years. Timothy Stanley is a Leverhulme research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and the author of Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party's Soul.

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