Rich Yeselson’s essay “What New Left History Gave Us” [Issue #35] is not merely about what New Left historiography did, but what contemporary historians of the liberalism birthed by the New Deal—historians like myself—are currently doing. According to Yeselson, we are less likely to judge “the hegemonic liberalism of the post-New Deal order” as harshly as the generation of New Left historians, who viewed that liberalism as complicit in building and maintaining racial and economic inequality. Recent generations, on the other hand, have seen the havoc that the ideological right can wreak, and accordingly have developed a more sympathetic take on liberalism, while focusing most of their attention on accounting for the rise of conservatism.
I found myself agreeing with much of Yeselson’s critique of New Left history. Certainly, his critique of Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism as “arid and mono-causal” is overstated—Kolko’s scholarship was far from perfect, but Yeselson’s complaints don’t really speak to whether the “political capitalism” Kolko identified was a real quality of twentieth-century liberalism or purely a construction by a polemical author. Nevertheless, Yeselson’s general assessment of New Left historiography is on target. He is especially astute in his discussion of how New Left historians tended to produce stories that were either from the “bottom up” or the “top down,” with the expected roles scripted for each: The “bottom-up” histories focused on the victims of oppression and their efforts to liberate themselves, while the “top-down” narratives looked at how elites schemed to keep everyone else more or less in their place. Such a perspective, Yeselson notes, resulted in predictable shortcomings: Instead of writing “histories of society,” New Left historiography too often fractured the interrelated whole into the few versus the many. Consequently, New Left historians of New Deal and postwar liberalism did not look kindly at the elites of the Democratic Party, who, they argued, protected capitalism and subverted the potential of populist radicalism.
For a while now, Yeselson correctly notes, historians on the left, living in the age of the right’s rise, have paid more attention to the history of conservatism. What he doesn’t emphasize, however, is how much of that scholarship corrected for the shortcomings of the original New Left take on liberalism. Explaining conservatism, scholars realized, required more than simply documenting the motives and goals of elites. It also required understanding how large segments of the American public—even the benighted folks of the “bottom up”—not only condoned that program, but actively supported it. In short, conservatism represented not merely the machinations of the haves, but the dreams and aspirations of some of the have-nots.
Surely, any “history of society” that focuses on liberalism should likewise do the same. Yeselson points to recent scholarship he thinks heads in this direction, citing the work of Eric Rauchway and Ira Katznelson, who, as he rightly points out, situate New Deal reformers in the context of their political predicaments: Having to make deals with the Southern bloc of a Democratic Party that wanted to preserve Jim Crow, they could only do so much. From this perspective, Yeselson writes, the New Deal “looks rather good.” But does it necessarily follow that holistic histories of New Deal and postwar liberalism will lead to more sympathetic assessments?
It is true that such work encourages the conclusion that the New Dealers did, to put it simply, the best they could. But while such an analysis rightly abandons the clichéd categories of guilty elites versus innocent grassroots, what it does not do is suggest that liberalism, on the whole, is any less problematic than New Left historians argued. On the contrary.
Take, for example, Yeselson’s point that despite his efforts, Roosevelt failed to get more progressive Southern senators elected, which hamstrung his agenda. In Yeselson’s eyes, given the circumstances under which liberal elites operated, the limited, racist welfare state that emerged looks relatively good. Yet if such small but significant triumphs look from this view notable, the reformers who pushed them through can only appear impressive if we separate their own liberalism from the rest of the political culture they operated in. In this narrative, the most progressive-minded of New Dealers represented true liberalism, while everyone else who stood in their way—well, they were something else. From this perspective, the bigger problem with liberalism that New Left historians pointed to—that liberalism was not merely a discrete philosophy of a particular elite, but an entire political culture that constricts possibilities by policing what counts as normative politics—gets lost.
For although New Left historians myopically focused on elites, they did get one thing right: Liberalism itself, with its roots in individualism and its commitment to capitalism, ensured that certain possibilities were never seriously entertained. Yeselson evades this insight by pinning the limitations of the New Deal entirely on the South. Southern senators who, he reminds us, possessed the power to prevent any of Roosevelt’s legislation from passing ensured that the welfare state he did set up would be weak and racist. But does that mean, therefore, that Southern Democrats were not liberals? Certainly, the popularity of a Democrat like Huey Long of Louisiana showed that support for liberal, redistributive policies was strong in certain segments of the South, racist though those voters may have been.
And what about Northern liberals—did they all strongly support a racially egalitarian reconstruction of American society along the lines of an economic social democracy? Hardly. When the first Great Migration brought thousands of African Americans to the North, whites often defended their neighborhoods from integration through violence, forcing blacks to settle in crowded, neglected ghettos. Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration—created by the New Deal—pioneered the use of redlining, identifying non-white neighborhoods in Northern cities as undesirable sites for investment. And what of the 79 percent of Americans who believed that those employed by the Works Progress Administration should not be allowed to unionize, or the majority of Americans who, even in the midst of the Depression, still believed that the government was spending too much on social relief? Were none of these people liberals? Were the aspirations of Roosevelt’s reformers really stymied solely by Southern racists and committed conservatives?
Such questions only multiply when we move forward to consider the Great Society. At a moment when Democrats controlled large congressional majorities and liberalism’s popularity with the American public seemed close to dominant—so much so that scholars such as Louis Hartz argued that it represented the only real political tradition the nation had ever had—liberals seemed to have a free hand to reshape the country. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the Democratic Party had finally stopped trading the civil rights of African Americans for a secure white voting base in the South. What would now prevent the construction of a welfare state worth its salt?
Liberalism itself, it became apparent, was a part of the problem: Sincere liberals, no longer restrained by the South, still produced timid and ineffective anti-poverty policy. And in the enclaves that were supposedly liberalism’s refuge, the more ambitious initiatives of the Great Society, such as the Community Action Programs, were not welcomed but rejected by urban—and yes, liberal—political elites. Indeed, by 1965 many mayors across the country had already organized to express to the Johnson Administration how deeply displeased they were with the practice and implications of Community Action—and many of the voters those mayors represented began sending letters to their Democratic congressmen, threatening to start voting Republican if a federal open-housing bill was passed. The passage of that legislation—and other initiatives the Democratic Party made toward racial equity—drove the migration of many former Democratic voters into the Republican Party.
To be clear, the Great Society fell short not for lack of trying. Liberal think tanks, social-welfare workers, and policy experts inside the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations all worked on solving the “paradox” of poverty in the context of affluence. And yet those efforts were constrained from the outset by liberalism’s flaws. What these liberal champions produced was a body of thought that treated poverty more as a cultural handicap, or psychological affliction, than as a condition resulting from structural inequality and racism. Unable to look directly at capitalism and racism, Great Society liberals mostly crafted social policy that assumed that mere tinkering with America’s political institutions and practices could end poverty and integrate the excluded. And as they did so, they relied on racist tropes and condescending assumptions about the urban poor that insisted that the primary problems rested elsewhere anyway. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his 1965 report on the dire state of the black family, his focus on matriarchy represented not merely a rhetorical flourish but deep-seated liberal assumptions about the causes of multigenerational black poverty.
The history of liberalism from this point onward is nearly too sad to relate, as any concerned progressive today knows. By and large, the Democratic Party responded to the new conservative mood in politics, inaugurated by Ronald Reagan, by capitulating to it. Fast-forward a dozen years after Reagan’s election and we’re witnessing Bill Clinton—in the eyes of some a testament to everything great and good about contemporary liberalism—further eroding the already meager social safety net and ratcheting up a racist war on drugs. Contrary to current popular commentary, Clinton’s presidency did not represent so much a betrayal of liberalism as the expression of some of its oldest impulses.
Yet reading Yeselson’s essay, you would never know that our current neoliberal norm represents a deeply bipartisan project. To be sure, it is easy to come under the impression that current political realities reflect the dreams and desires of the right alone, rather than the center as well—the conservative news media, in particular, highlight the most feverish nightmares of the reactionary mind, drawing our attention to their overt absurdity. Next to this “revanchist hysteria of the modern conservative movement,” as Yeselson puts it, almost anything looks good.
At the least, he argues, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) looks good. And this gets us to the heart of Yeselson’s concerns. Criticizing leftists who opposed the ACA because it fell far short of a single-payer system, Yeselson makes the completely sound and important point that when people’s lives are on the line, something is better than nothing. Politics is and always has been the art of the possible—and if you reject the possible in defense of the perfect, you will end up instead with nothing. In this sense, the spirit of the New Left historians can thwart progress, threatening to reject a messy compromise in the name of an unobtainable ideal.
There is much here to sympathize with. I count myself amongst leftists who, while very unhappy with the final form of the ACA, did not wish for its defeat or belittle the very real, if limited, good it would do. The same can be said, in turn, for the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society. Yet to simply state that politics is the art of the possible, so we had best take what is possible, is to elide the greater question and, ultimately, the deeper historical task at hand: How, then, do we change what is possible?
This is the question that New Left historians asked and, overwhelmingly, answered by rejecting liberalism. For, as American history repeatedly reveals, one of the greatest obstacles to liberal attempts at reform has been liberalism itself. As a set of ingrained, nearly unstated assumptions, liberalism has always represented the tortured attempt to mold something egalitarian out of an individualist ethos that owes its hypnotizing power over the American mind to a foundational relationship with racism. By locating that ugliness solely in the segregationist South and contemporary conservatism, Yeselson ironically reproduces the good guy/bad guy reductionism of the shabbiest of New Left history.
Unfortunately, the “histories of society” that he calls for have a far more depressing diagnosis: that this darkness is part and parcel of liberalism as well. During the New Deal, African Americans suffered not only from the unwillingness of Southern legislators to extend them welfare rights but also from the policies of Northern cities that kept them unemployed and in crowded ghettos. In the heyday of the Great Society, even weakly funded programs intended to help black communities help themselves were attacked by Northerners—elites and laypeople alike—while liberal politicians and social scientists explained to white America why black poverty could never be overcome as long as black families continued to reproduce the pathologies of weak men and strong mothers. The history of failed attempts at liberal reform, then, is not a history of defeat at the hands of conservatives alone, but also a history of liberalism’s own racist and reactionary character.
Finally, Yeselson misses that rather than just condemning liberalism, New Left historians also tried to find a way out of it. Offering an oppositional alternative does not merely mean taking a self-satisfying stand, but applying the pressure of rejection on the limits of what is permitted. Indeed, as Michael Kazin’s 2011 book on the American left illustrates, a stubborn refusal of liberal norms and notions has often been the dynamic pushing the center to move farther to the left; curiously enough, much of the best of liberal reform might have been impossible had leftists not insisted on something better than what liberals initially offered.
As a young historian of liberalism, I confess to having been surprised when I read that I am unlikely, given the “measured” historical accounts of the relative accomplishments of twentieth-century liberalism, to “chastise” the postwar New Deal order. For although I started out, years ago, looking to find the lost potential of liberalism, I found myself coming to much the same conclusion that New Left historians arrived at: that whatever is going to get us out of this mess, there seems little reason to believe it is going to be liberalism. Thus, while it is wise, on an immediate and pragmatic level, to cast down our buckets where we are, it is even more crucial to make sure we don’t cast them down too deep.