The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics by Jefferson Cowie • Princeton University Press • 2016 • 273 pages • $27.95
A rhetoric of restoration has crept into Democratic presidential politics, from incumbents and insurgents alike. Barack Obama’s renomination speech at the 2012 Democratic convention described his party’s agenda as “a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known”—and, tellingly, the people he used to evoke such values were his grandparents. After one served as “a soldier in Patton’s Army” while the other worked “on a bomber assembly line,” Obama said, “my grandparents were given the chance to go to college, buy their own home, and fulfill the basic bargain at the heart of America’s story.”
The “values” captured in this dense thicket of allusions were something more specific than freedom, justice, and the American way: They were the institutions and social arrangements forged by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and entrenched in the aftermath of World War II. Obama was justifying his own Administration’s efforts as belonging in the tradition of the New Deal project, while implying that the New Deal itself was synonymous with the American story. A more recent paean to the Americanism of New Deal liberalism came last November, in Bernie Sanders’ speech explicating what “democratic socialism” means to him. FDR was the first person mentioned and the central figure throughout the speech. Sanders dwelled on FDR’s 1944 call for a “Second Bill of Rights,” grounded in the notion that real freedom requires guaranteed economic security for all. “That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today,” he said. Democratic socialism, in Sanders’s view, is really just a turbocharged Rooseveltian liberalism, and just as in keeping, he argued, with old-fashioned “American idealism.”
To those cheering to Sanders’s clarion call for a rebranded New Deal revival, Vanderbilt historian Jefferson Cowie comes as the bearer of bad news: We can’t go home again. The central argument of Cowie’s compelling new book, The Great Exception, is that the New Deal political order that lasted broadly from the 1930s through the 1970s should be thought of as a historical outlier—“a sustained deviation, an extended detour”—in the longue durée of American political economy and culture. A contingent, fragile, and likely un-replicable combination of historical circumstances served to sustain a politics of class power and (limited) social democratic reform for just a few decades in the middle of the last century. The American historical norm to which the New Deal era marked an exception is, conversely, characterized by an all-powerful individualism abetted by racial and ethnic divisions, political religiosity, and corporate power, all of which place overwhelming limits on the prospects for egalitarian reform. Contrary to Obama’s and Sanders’s implication, the New Deal’s marshaling of governmental effort on behalf of economic security and worker empowerment was hardly as American as apple pie, and an American restoration won’t come as a new New Deal. In fact, the American restoration has already come—in the form of the late twentieth century’s rightward turn to a new Gilded Age.
The implication that the contemporary era of political and economic inequality marks a return to the deepest mainsprings of American history amounts, of course, to grim tidings for progressives. Cowie, a labor historian and a man of the left, knows this. “By my values,” he writes, “the thesis of this book is an American tragedy.” It’s also resonant with a streak of chastened realism and declensionist analysis running through much recent American historical scholarship. Like Ira Katznelson in his recent magnum opus Fear Itself, moreover, Cowie sings the achievements of the New Deal order in a tragic register, emphasizing its transformative power while also lingering on the compromises and fragilities built into the system.
In this sense, Cowie’s argument, initially developed in an influential academic essay he co-wrote with Nick Salvatore, exemplifies the supplanting of New Left historians’ dismissive interpretations of the Progressive and New Deal reforms as mere conservative maneuvers to sustain elitist corporate domination of American politics. [See “What New Left History Gave Us,” Issue #35.] For post-New Left historians, such an easy dismissal of the New Deal’s real achievements smacks of complacency about the power of the forces arrayed against even incremental progress in American society and politics. But Cowie seeks also to move beyond the new liberal nostalgia for the Ozzie and Harriet political order—the midcentury era of exceptionally reduced economic inequality that economists call the “Great Compression.” As impressive and meaningful as the New Deal order’s achievements were for Americans’ collective economic security, Cowie argues, the system rested on a tenuous confluence of circumstances and political coalitions that rendered it a “fragile juggernaut.”
Cowie orients his narrative of labor and politics from the first Gilded Age to the second around a set of themes that, he argues, constitute key forces of American historical development whose partial, one-time abatement enabled the New Deal. America’s traditionally porous borders had brought successive waves of newcomers to the industrial workforce, which complicated and fragmented efforts at collective working-class empowerment during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. But the borders all but closed for four decades following the restrictionist 1924 Immigration Act. In the process, Cowie argues, the drastically reduced levels of immigration effectively removed nativism as a political force from the American scene during those same years. Meanwhile, moral politics stemming from religious faith, while sometimes inspiring efforts at economic reform in the industrializing era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more often served as an obstacle to them. To an unprecedented extent, religious moralism too ebbed as a political force, beginning with the onset of the Great Depression (which overwhelmed religious institutions’ capacity to serve their faithful) and continuing with the political culture emerging out of World War II and the Cold War (which offered a vague language of “Judeo-Christian values” as a unifying civic religion in the face of the global struggle against totalitarianism).
And what of race? Racial conflict and the subjugation of African Americans hardly disappeared during the New Deal era. Indeed, in part due to the power of segregationist Southern Democrats, racism structured New Deal policies directly, excluding most African Americans from the benefits of Social Security, unemployment insurance, and housing support through either statutory provision or localized administration. At the same time, however, a powerful and newly government-sanctioned industrial labor movement worked to organize African-American and white workers alike, while the party of the New Deal, the Democrats, enjoyed a never-to-be-seen-again period of electoral dominance resting simultaneously on the votes of both Southern whites and the growing ranks of African Americans in the North. To call this set of arrangements unstable would be to understate the unwieldy balancing act of mobilization and bargaining that the architects and organizers of New Deal liberalism attempted to sustain—akin to juggling on a unicycle. The political dynamics and consequences of civil rights in the postwar era revealed that precariousness more clearly than anything else.
Still, no matter how unsustainable the political order undergirding it was, the unprecedented levels of economic equality during the decades of postwar expansion amount to an achievement worthy of historical respect, if not downright awe, in Cowie’s account. The polices and political coalitions forged during the Depression served in the postwar years as the “foundation for the greatest age of equality in the United States since the onset of the industrial revolution.”
At the center of this age of equality was an organized labor movement whose sustained, one-time explosion in growth during the late 1930s and ’40s brought the unionized share of the American workforce to a peak of one-third during the 1950s. That was a share sufficient to enable organized labor to set wages across entire sectors for unionized and nonunionized workers alike, to influence cultural norms and informal expectations for corporate behavior, and to create a political voice for non-elite economic interests in Washington and many statehouses that had never been seen before, and has not again since.
Cowie’s account of the rupturing of the New Deal order in the 1960s and ’70s is by now familiar ground from other works of recent history, not least Cowie’s own remarkable previous book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. But it deftly draws together his key themes as they resurge to the center of American political conflict—old dynamics of American history returning anew, and with new ferocity. Southern party realignment and racial tensions in the North ruptured the Democratic coalition and slowly eroded the party’s electoral advantage. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act served—unintentionally, Cowie argues—to unleash a new era of immigration comparable to that of the nineteenth century, and the politics of nativist backlash once again resumed its historical role as a potent source of internecine conflict among working people.
The new social movements of the 1960s, inspired by civil rights and typically organized around identity, offered a profound testament to the potency in American culture of political claims grounded in individual rights rather than demands for collective economic power. Some of those same movements, meanwhile, helped bring to political salience issues relating to morality, sexuality, and culture that a newly politicized movement of Christian conservatives would engage by the end of the 1970s, entering into coalition with a resurgent Republican Party.
Amid such cultural ruptures, a crisis of political economy in the 1970s—stagflation—stymied Keynesian economic managers and provided a window of opportunity for an intellectual revival of free-market orthodoxy. Corporate America politically reorganized in Washington while seeking with new ferocity to roll back the gains made by labor at the bargaining table—launching, in the prescient words of UAW President Doug Fraser in 1978, “a one-sided class war” that “discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.” Cowie speaks for a newfound historical consensus that his own work has helped to forge when he portrays the 1970s as a pivotal decade in American history, “a sort of ‘anti-1930s’ bookend to the New Deal order” that laid the political foundations for the resurgence of economic inequality to come.
The anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-labor “Reagan Restoration” that originated in the 1970s continues, in Cowie’s account, to define our political world. Such liberal gains as have been made in this era have come in the form of cultural progress and the expansion of individual rights to previously marginalized groups—moves to democratize access to the market without democratizing the market itself. Tepidly centrist Democratic presidential interregnums, Cowie argues, have largely reinforced rather than reversed the basic tenets of the neoliberal political order, which itself links seamlessly to the twin “enduring themes of moral reform and corporate power” in this country’s history.
Cowie’s vision is coherent and arresting, and helps to make sense of recurring puzzles in American political experience. As a literary-intellectual posture, moreover, his fatalism is downright infectious. But I didn’t come away from the book confident that he had nailed the story.
He’s surely aware that his framing of the New Deal as a great exception to American historical patterns ends up bolstering a much older vision of American exceptionalism—the transhistorical view of American society and politics as exceptionally individualistic, anti-statist, and inhospitable to collective working-class power in comparison with other Western countries. A plausible case can certainly be made for the uniqueness of American political development and class politics across time, but doing so requires comparisons, and one major limitation of the book is its lack of comparative analysis.
In Cowie’s account, the momentary taming of political and economic inequality and the subsequent passing of that moment are both U.S. phenomena with U.S.-specific explanations. But most Western European countries followed a broadly similar postwar political-economic trajectory, from a midcentury golden age of sustained economic growth and consensual politics to a neoliberal turn beginning in the 1970s that brought in its wake more fitful economic expansions and increasing inequality. Cowie’s account would have been enriched considerably by engagement with the work of scholars who have identified shared cross-national patterns in the postwar history of the industrialized world.
To be sure, even if the United States shares with other nations a basic historical trajectory of declining and resurgent inequality, the level of inequality and the virulence of its political rightward turn do, arguably, set the country apart. As befitting the author of Stayin’ Alive, with its rollicking mashup of wonky legislative history and deep exegeses of 1970s pop artifacts like Saturday Night Fever and “All in the Family,” Cowie’s preferred explanations for that American distinctiveness are, at their core, cultural. Americans’ ethno-racial heterogeneity, their religiosity, and their deep thrall to individualism define the “limits of American politics” referenced in the book’s subtitle. To my taste, this is a master theory of American political history that pays too little attention to institutions—to the ways in which the country’s constitutional structure, party system, and existing set of public policies at a given historical point serve to shape and constrain future political developments.
The new vogue among American historians is to reject “the myth of the weak American state,” in the words of William Novak. Scholarly acceptance of a laissez-faire U.S. governmental tradition has given way to historical portraits of an American state exercising power as aggressively as its European counterparts, just in distinct ways. However, the fact remains that the country’s constitutional system does fragment power in a manner that creates a veto-laden obstacle course to national policymaking unmatched by most other countries. Add to that a party system that, unlike those in Europe, developed prior to rather than concurrently with industrialization—organizing voters via patronage rather than ideology and along lines of region, community, and culture rather than class—and one can see the institutional sources of early-twentieth-century working-class political fragmentation and laggard welfare-state development in America. In this way of thinking, what made the New Deal era exceptional were, first, the sheer magnitude of the temporary legislative majorities for Roosevelt’s program, enabling the leapfrogging of ordinary American obstacles to policymaking, and second, the entrenchment of a larger, more interventionist role for the national state as a result of World War II and the Cold War. Cowie insists that “political culture must be foundational” to historical explanations of political-economic change. But ideas and culture affect a political order only through institutions and policy structures. The rules of the game determine as much as the players on the field.
An institutional perspective complicates simple analogies between the last era of inequality and our current one. The major difference between the new Gilded Age and the old is the enduring policy legacy of the New Deal order itself. Some such polices, like financial regulation and cash welfare assistance, did indeed experience major retrenchments in the passing of the New Deal order to the new Gilded Age, while labor law was left deliberately to ossify in its 1930s-vintage form. But pillars of American social policy enacted during the two policy “big bangs” of the New Deal and Great Society have remained politically robust even given newly consolidated conservative opposition. The American welfare state, inadequate and comparatively stingy as it continues to be, has neither withered with the political breakup of the New Deal order nor, indeed, ceased growing in the face of conservative resurgence. The United States ranks predictably low among industrialized democracies in the percentage of its GDP dedicated to public social spending—but that figure is still considerably higher today than it was even at the height of the Great Society.
Another institutional feature that contrasts as much as it connects the new Gilded Age with the old is party politics. As Cowie notes too briefly, the middle decades of the twentieth century saw historically exceptional levels not only of economic equality, but also of bipartisanship in national politics. This bipartisanship was less a reflection of consensus than a byproduct of a liberal-conservative ideological divide that crosscut rather than reinforced the Democratic-Republican partisan alignment. The gradual sorting out of the parties into coherent ideological camps is what underlies the resurgence of disciplined partisanship in the contemporary period. But the very ideological content of this new party system, importantly, distinguishes it from the disciplined but non-ideological nineteenth-century parties of torchlight parades and mass patronage armies.
The ideological discipline at the heart of the new party system is certainly well reflected in the vanguard tactics and substantive radicalism of the modern GOP. But Democrats, too, have proven more capable of discipline and coherence than most left-leaning scholars, Cowie included, have given them credit for. This tendency to systematically underrate modern liberal achievements in the face of steep odds—ironic given Cowie’s interpretive posture of sober-minded realism when it comes to evaluating the strength and limits of the New Deal itself—is most evident in his relentlessly dour assessment of the Obama years. His presidency proved not only to be “a lost opportunity for the American reform tradition,” but an out-and-out “humiliation” for those retaining “hopes for a progressive revival” following the Great Recession.
Even as Cowie grudgingly concedes the significance of policies Obama and congressional Democrats did manage to enact, his focus remains squarely on their limits. But surely the emphasis could be flipped, given the headwinds of American history faced by the Administration that Cowie has done so much to elucidate. The unprecedented degree of hardball partisan discipline mustered by liberal activists, Administration officials, and congressional Democrats to implement a stimulus package that exceeded in real terms the size of FDR’s Works Progress Administration; a Wall Street reform law fought tooth and nail by both Big Finance and the entire GOP; and a massively redistributive health care law that stands as the largest expansion of the American welfare state since the Great Society is ill served analytically by a framework that sees only political continuity in an ongoing conservative era ushered in by Reagan.
The political costs of such efforts were, to be sure, extraordinarily steep, and Cowie’s evocation of the ethno-nationalist resentments roiling politics in the Obama era are certainly powerful, particularly when one reads it, as I did, during the Season of Trump. But Cowie’s unmistakable sense of identification with a core white male segment of the working class can sometimes lead him to render the resentments of conservative working-class whites and Tea Party populists synonymous with those of Americans writ large. In fact, the American working class, even more so than the American electorate, has diversified demographically in ways that may yet shake up old polarities of cultural and class politics. Powering one of the more remarkable social movement mobilizations of the new century, immigrant-rights activists have managed to combine demands for civic rights with economic empowerment, while organized labor—beleaguered as it is—has formally ended its old opposition to immigration in order to strengthen political ties with others in the polyglot liberal coalition. The Occupy movement, the “Fight for 15” living wage struggles, Bernie Sanders’s quirky, so-old-school-it’s-new social democratic insurgency—all these reflect a revival of interest in issues of economic justice, at the same time that party politics has attained an ideological edge and definition new in American experience. Cowie’s sense of enduring and discouraging continuities in American history is valuable. But liberals have more than chimeras on which to rest hopes that further American “exceptions” may yet be in store.