The fear, anxiety, and rancor that dominate contemporary politics would be inconceivable without reference to the New Deal, for the 1930s and early 1940s marked the last time Americans engaged in substantive deliberations about the nature and future of their country.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he promised to undo as much of the remaining New Deal legislation as it was possible to eliminate. By then, the constituencies that had supported Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s and 1940s had already splintered and abandoned the Democratic Party; the influence of the party correspondingly diminished. Unhappy former Democrats voted for Reagan in substantial numbers. Yet, today many conservatives still identify the New Deal as the origin of the crisis that troubles the American polity. They blame the New Deal for governmental interference, bureaucratic regulation, judicial fiat, the welfare state, and a host of other evils too numerous to recount. I intend neither to vindicate the New Deal nor to rebuke conservatives. Nor do I intend the opposite. My objective is greater understanding of past and present concerns and deeper insight into the contours of recent American political history. In at least one important respect, the conservatives are right. The fear, anxiety, and rancor that dominate contemporary politics would be inconceivable without reference to the New Deal, for the 1930s and early 1940s marked the last time Americans engaged in substantive deliberations about the nature and future of their country. The outcome and consequences of those debates have set the tone for national life ever since.

The New Deal was a battle among Keynesians. One group of policymakers within the New Deal coalition, made up of such men as Thurman Arnold, Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, and Henry Wallace, was eager to use the power of the state to redistribute income, to protect workers and consumers, to assist the poor, to restrain corporations, and to govern the market. They were the progressive architects of the so-called welfare state. A second group sought to stimulate economic recovery through a less ambitious program of fiscal and monetary adjustments. When, in 1937, economic stagnation discredited the vision of those who proposed governmental administration of the economy, their more moderate counterparts prevailed. The exigencies of the Second World War went a long way toward securing their triumph.

During the war, union leaders such as Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and Philip Murray of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), along with their liberal allies in the Democratic Party, did not challenge the dominance of capital, but hoped instead to guarantee full employment and high wages for American workers, bolstering the peacetime economy and avoiding a postwar return to depression through the growth of consumption. As a result of their decision the labor movement lost its militant identity. Workers disappeared into the undifferentiated mass of a consumer society.

At the same time, corporate leaders and conservative Democrats resisted even these modest initiatives, and racism frustrated additional efforts to organize labor especially, but not exclusively, in the South. By the late 1940s, the political strength that labor had cultivated during the previous decade had nearly vanished. To save a vestige of the benefits that they had obtained for the rank-and-file, union leaders acquiesced in the narrow pursuit of economic security through a depoliticized system of collective bargaining, which is itself now under assault.

From the late 1940s onward the political fortunes of liberalism in the United States were thus bound to continuous and widespread prosperity and an expanding consumer economy. The poor, white and black, were largely excluded from this dispensation, and compelled to survive on the uncertain and inadequate munificence of the welfare system. It was better than nothing, at least for those millions who would otherwise have been condemned to an even more wretched existence. For whatever was creeping in the United States during the 1950s, it was not socialism, as Dwight D. Eisenhower had asserted. The welfare state was the preeminent capitalist solution to the inequities that the corporate and consumer economy had itself produced, a feeble effort to quiet apprehensions that the capitalist system could not provide all Americans and their families with the opportunity for a decent life.

To complicate matters, by the 1950s, the definition of what constituted a “decent life” had changed. Historians have long agreed that the rise of mass consumption was among the fundamental characteristics of American society after the Second World War. In People of Plenty (1958), David Potter was perhaps the first to contend that material abundance established and illuminated the American national character. During the 1950s, the isolation of home and family from the outside world offered a private haven from the combined tumult of depression, world war, and Cold War, to say nothing of the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse. The wealth of goods with which middle-class Americans surrounded themselves as they withdrew from the public realm enhanced their feelings of comfort and satisfaction, their peace of mind, and their sense of well-being. Consumption was supposed to liberate Americans from the cares of everyday life and the intricacies of geopolitics, and enable them both to express and to revel in their individualism. At the same time, the rush to acquire goods amplified tensions, and prompted many to rely on experts of every variety, including psychiatrists, to guide them back to the equilibrium and happiness that they had expected consumption alone to provide.

The exaltation of home and family that took place during the 1950s did not, therefore, signal a return to traditional attitudes or values. Severed from community ties and kinship networks, the family of the 1950s became more insular (perhaps the word to use is “nuclear”), with an emphasis not on sustaining generational connections and continuities over time but on self-indulgence and individual fulfillment through consumption, with ample doses of sedatives distributed to calm rattled nerves and temper unrealized expectations. The American family, more particularly its middle-class variant, thereby became the apotheosis of secular modernism.

The order that New Deal liberals had forged during the 1930s at last proved untenable in the post-war world. Liberals could not deliver on their promises to maintain prosperity at home and to keep the peace abroad. How could anyone have done so? Disenfranchised and impoverished blacks spoke out and pushed back, while the privileged sons and daughters of affluent middle-class families rejected the ethos of consumption that their parents had embraced and denounced the international commitments that led the United States into what they considered an immoral war. Both groups questioned the legitimacy of the American political and social order, and the liberal heirs to the New Deal could devise no satisfactory answers to these protests.

Post-war liberals relied instead on a series of improvised policies, all of them predicated on continuous economic growth. For the middle class, they encouraged mass consumption. For the poor, who could not fully participate in the consumer economy, they proposed increased spending on social services. The principal objective was to conciliate not only the disadvantaged but also potential dissidents in the hope that more explosive challenges to the social, political, and economic system would not evolve. This strategy, or something very like it, had already worked to defuse labor radicalism during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

In the wake of the sit-down strike at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan and the “Little Steel” strike against every steel manufacturer except U.S. Steel, both of which occurred in 1937, it seemed to many that the formation of a labor party in the United States was imminent. Not only did such a party fail to coalesce, but organized labor also emerged as a conservative force in American politics. First, the unions supported the American war effort against Germany and Japan, agreeing not to press their demands for the duration of the conflict. Second, after the war, the unions endorsed anti-communism, instituting loyalty oaths as a condition of membership and employment and expelling avowed communists from their ranks. Third, the unions welcomed Cold War foreign policy, opposing every reduction in defense spending. Concerned to ensure jobs and wages, union leaders during the 1950s regarded the health of labor as wholly dependent on the health of corporations. They had discovered multiple reasons to preserve the status quo.

As a consequence of these developments an amalgamation of liberalism and conservatism began to take shape, which the sociologist C. Wright Mills, perhaps condescendingly, called “sophisticated conservatism.” Proponents of this view reasoned that organized labor was no longer a threat to capital, but helped the economy to operate with greater efficiency and fewer disruptions. The existence of unions, so the argument went, improved workers’ morale, favored compromise and cooperation rather than confrontation and conflict between labor and management, brought stability to labor markets, and ensured uniform labor standards. According to this analysis, businessmen and industrialists ought to have approved organized labor as an enduring, if subordinate, partner in managing the economy.

By the 1940s, then, the more radical possibilities of labor activism had already been foreclosed. From an incipient social democratic insurgency, the labor movement had softened into a mere interest group. More importantly, racial inequality had supplanted class inequality as the foremost problem of American public life.

During the 1960s, liberal politicians, policymakers, and labor leaders were reluctant to use the Economic Opportunity Act, the 50th anniversary of which Americans are commemorating in 2014, to pose fundamental questions about the redistribution of wealth and power in the United States. Their diffidence, along with the ascendancy of the Civil Rights Movement, meant that the War on Poverty appeared to focus in the main on the economic hardship of blacks. Whether real or imagined (and it was both), this perception soon incited resentment toward the Great Society and the Democratic Party among poor and working-class whites.

Between 1945 and 1965, economic growth had substituted for a thorough going reform of American society. Prosperity made it possible to ignore systemic inequities and injustices. When the economy faltered, beginning in the late 1960s, these hidden pressures shattered Americans’ complacency and thrust the country into a period of turmoil from which it has yet to recover. The costs of the war in Vietnam forced reductions in domestic spending. The more serious and far-reaching challenge to American economic supremacy from abroad further taxed resources and engendered a series of misfortunes that continue to plague the economy, government, and society: waning investment, declining productivity, the loss of industrial jobs, negative trade balances, and, of course, budget deficits and unmanageable debt. Economic adversity invalidated the two essential components of liberalism since the New Deal. It turned out, first, that the benefits of consumer capitalism could not be extended to all Americans and, second, that the fiscal and monetary policies of the state were insufficient to ensure a fair and reasonable distribution of goods, resources, opportunities, and wealth.

The New Left destroyed what remained of the liberal coalition by dissolving the alliance between blacks and working-class whites whose predecessors had together championed the New Deal. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Democratic politicians, such as the beleaguered Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, could no longer fashion a coherent program that satisfied, on the one hand, black and white radicals and, on the other, white conservatives in the South and ethnic, working- and lower-class whites in the North. Whatever divisions eventually grew up between them, black and white radicals had embarked on a crusade to end racism, sexism, and poverty, to stop the war in Vietnam, to halt the support of right-wing dictators, and to extend personal freedom. Southern conservative and ethnic working- and lower-class whites, by contrast, expressed unquestioning pride in the nation, demanded a return to traditional values in the home and family, and insisted on a respect for law, hard work, self-restraint, and self-reliance. To them, liberalism seemed permissive. Its doctrines and practices offended their political and moral sensibilities. They came to form the “Silent Majority” that first put Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan in the White House. From that moment to this, the Democratic Party, and especially its liberal wing, notwithstanding intermittent electoral victories and unremitting conservative dismay, lost the capacity to articulate and control the political agenda of the United States.

Liberals appreciated this reality much more fully than did conservatives. As a consequence, they turned to the courts to extend the programs that they had failed to enact through legislation. They engaged in what amounted to a judicial fiat that, although obscured in constitutional language, was itself a kind of violence reproducing the ugly confrontations in the streets which had so disfigured national politics. Desperate to revive their political fortunes, liberals did not work to achieve social and economic justice or to extend civil and political rights to the poor and the downtrodden in an effort to create a more integrated and cohesive social order. They sought instead to convince these unfortunate men and women to portray themselves as clients of the state, victims of society in need of remediation from the courts. To show minorities that they really did have access to the American Dream of economic prosperity and upward social mobility, liberals enforced policies that eliminated any hint of intolerance. They imagined a permanent revolution in the United States that orbited around social mobility and ethnic and racial pluralism. Persistent social divisions and economic inequalities became acceptable because, like working-class status in the nineteenth century, they were dismissed as impermanent. The courts would translate the rhetoric of tolerance into the reality of inclusion and advancement. Yet, even when such efforts proved successful, modest upward social mobility always rested on uninterrupted economic growth. Under all other circumstances, workers, the poor, and now even members of the fragile middle class are left to scramble for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.

In the final pages of The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (1994), the late Eugene D. Genovese pondered the grim possibilities likely to result from such a consolidation of wealth. “According to the free marketeer’s best-case scenario,” Genovese declared, “a well-organized international economy should be able to deliver affluence to enough Americans to allow us to write off the rest–with or without an occasional crackdown on the lower-class losers in the competitive struggle… Social and moral questions are beside the point. We may very well be on the threshold of that brave new world of affluent depravity for many people and unspeakable misery for many others.” (pp. 97-98)

We have now passed beyond that threshold. Before the recession of 2008, it was possible to dismiss the vast imbalance of wealth, if for no other reason than the expansion of sub-prime credit veiled such inequities for those whose earnings had long remained stagnant. The financial crisis and the long, slow, agonizing recovery have exposed such illusions, inspiring reasonable fears that the plutocratic elite, governed by narrowly self-serving motives, wields exaggerated political influence and remains indifferent to the welfare of anyone outside its exclusive and rarefied domain. Such a world, Genovese concluded, may be “comfortable for some or even many and brutal beyond description for the rest.” (p. 99)

If the United States has entered upon the “brave new world” that Genovese contemplated, then the real story of recent American political history is not the so-called Reagan Revolution that sounded the deal knell of the New Deal, but the comparative irrelevance of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The fatal combination of manufactured popularity and the intrusion of money are robbing both parties of the influence and independence that they once exercised. The American people may need to prepare themselves for another shock to the body politic. If a new elite really has usurped control and made government the instrument of the rich, then all of the dreadful squabbling to which we have been witness these last years is little more than a sideshow designed to keep citizens bedeviled and perplexed, not knowing where to turn for relief, and vulnerable to every political gigolo who whispers to them the sweet nothings they long to hear.

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The featured image is “Franklin D. Roosevelt waves from the rear platform of a rail car, .From the FDR library (copyright free). It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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