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Getting New Deal History Wrong

  • Nancy MacLean (a1)

Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have written an ambitious and provocative essay. Ranging across more than a hundred years of history in less than half as many manuscript pages, it seeks to unlock deep secrets of the American past. The New Deal, Cowie and Salvatore argue, constitutes a lone “long exception” in a history otherwise determined by “a deep and abiding individualism” so definitive of U.S. political culture that it dooms any radical rupture in advance. Presenting themselves as realists, Cowie and Salvatore claim that their interpretation of the long sweep of national history “can provide a more stable intellectual foundation on which to build discussions of present and future politics.” I disagree, and the reasons why matter.

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1. “Conflict and Consensus in American History,” in Hofstadter, Richard, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York, 1968), 437466.

2. See, for example, Foner, Eric, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?History Workshop 17 (Spring 1984): 5780.

3. Among others, see Gordon, Colin, Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health Care in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, 2004); Quadagno, Jill, One Nation, Uninsured: Why the U.S. Has No National Health Insurance (Oxford, 2005); Katznelson, Ira, Geiger, Kim and Kryder, Daniel, “Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933–1950,Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 108, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 283306.

4. See, for example, Lichtenstein, Nelson, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, 2002); Korstad, Robert Rodgers, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill, 2003); Vargas, Zaragosa, Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, 2005); Lewis, George, The White South and the Red Menace: Segregationists, Anticommunism, and Massive Resistance, 1945–1965 (Gainesville, FL, 2004); Woods, Jeff, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948–1968 (Baton Rouge, 2004); Biondi, Martha, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, MA, 2003).

5. Quote from MacLean, Nancy, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 46. See also chapters 2 and 7; Nash, George H., The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York, 1976), and Perlstein, Rick, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001); Phillips-Fein, Kim, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York, 2009), and her many articles on this theme.

6. This history is summarized and the vast literature cited in my essay, “Guardians of Privilege,” in Critchlow, Donald and MacLean, Nancy, Debating the Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present (Lanham, MD, 2008).

7. For introductions to the now vast literature on these themes, see Katznelson, Ira, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in America (New York, 2005); Gordon, Linda, ed., Women, the State, and Welfare (Madison, 1990); Kessler-Harris, Alice, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford, 2001).

8. For recent works on these well-established patterns, see Cobble, Dorothy Sue, The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton, 2003); Jackson, Thomas F., From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia, 2007); Honey, Michael K., Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign (New York, 2007).

9. See, for a sampling, Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White; Self, Robert O., American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, 2003); Klein, Jennifer, For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America's Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton, 2003); Kruse, Kevin, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, 2005); Morone, James A., Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Haven, 2003).

10. See note 7 above; also Hamilton, Dona C. and Hamilton, Charles V., The Dual Agenda: Race and Social Welfare Policies of Civil Rights Organizations (New York, 1997); MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough (which Cowie and Salvatore enlist in ways that grossly distort my findings). For a brilliant study that confounds the artificial dichotomy they create between the New Deal and unionism, on one hand, and feminism, civil rights, and welfare rights organizing, on the other, see Orleck, Annelise, Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston, 2005).

11. Early entries in a now-vast literature include Edsall, Thomas Byrne, The New Politics of Inequality (New York, 1984); Ferguson, Thomas and Rogers, Joel, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York, 1986); Lind, Michael, “Conservative Elites and the Counterrevolution against the New Deal,” Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, ed. Fraser, Steve and Gerstle, Gary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

12. See, for example, the three decades of such interventions in Kessler-Harris, Alice, Gendering Labor History (Urbana, 2007); Roediger, David, “What If Labor Were Not White and Male?: Recentering Working-Class History and Reconstructing the Debate on the Unions and Race,ILWCH 51 (Spring 1997): 72-95; Kelley, Robin D.G., “Identity Politics and Class Struggle,New Politics 6 (Winter 1997); Cobble, Dorothy Sue, “A ‘Tiger by the Toenail’: The 1970s Origins of the New Working-Class Majority,Labor 2 (Fall 2005): 103114.

13. For examples of this kind of learning, see Mort, Jo-Ann, ed., Not Your Father's Union Movement (New York, 1998); Tait, Vanessa, Poor Workers Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below (Cambridge, 2005); Milkman, Ruth, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement (New York, 2006); Fine, Janice, Workers Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream (Ithaca, 2006).

14. Examples include Payne, Charles M., I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, 2007); Orleck, Storming Caesar's Palace; and, with a different explanatory project, Steedman, Carolyn Kay, Landscape for a Good Woman (Rutgers University Press, 1987).

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International Labor and Working-Class History
  • ISSN: 0147-5479
  • EISSN: 1471-6445
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