If you ever visit Hyde Park, the home-turned-museum of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, you will be struck by how many people view Roosevelt as the savior of American democracy. It is a useful chance to step away from political and historical analysis and see the hordes of octogenarians there to visit a museum dedicated to their political hero. As you leave the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center it may occur to you how often those ancients and their descendants can be heard to say things like, “What this country needs to get going again is another New Deal!”
That sentiment is not uncommon on the American Left, and is not confined to Deaniacs or Bernie bros. In his book, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics, Jefferson Cowie does old lefties and their progeny a great service by showing how unusual the conditions leading up to the New Deal were, and how unlikely the individualist electorate of the United States is to return to their dalliance with collectivism. He may be right, but the 2016 election season has already seen this thesis tested, with the Trump and Sanders campaigns straining the idea of a fundamentally individualistic America nearly to the breaking point.
Segregation Enables Collectivism
The first part of Cowie’s argument—that conditions in the United States in the 1930s were unusual—is undeniably true. By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, the Great Depression was in its third year, with no end in sight. Unemployment was over 20 percent and the nation’s gross domestic product was cut nearly in half. After President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to reverse the economic slide failed, many Americans trusted in Roosevelt. In doing so, many also showed that they were willing to exchange long-held beliefs in individualism for the collectivist ideas of a presidential candidate who promised, however vaguely, to do something. It was an unprecedented temporary shift in the American mindset, born out of an almost feudal allegiance to the president, whom many desperate Americans saw as their secular savior.
The author’s second point—that those unique conditions made the New Deal possible in a country that would ordinarily never embrace collectivism—is right only in part. The sudden and shocking decline of the American economy led some voters to change their minds, but that is not the end of the story.
In normal times, when many of the New Deal measures failed and the weak recovery of 1934-1937 sputtered into renewed recession, the collectivist changes would have been seen as failures. Even if those changes had not been abandoned, the increased collectivization and bureaucratization of the nation would have created a drag on the economy after the Second World War and would likely have been jettisoned, just as war economy measures were after the First World War.
The New Deal survived where progressive changes of the previous generations were rolled back for two reasons: segregation and nativism. As Cowie notes, Roosevelt united a once-fractious Democratic Party behind his New Deal plan by acquiescing in Jim Crow segregation. Cowie presents the South’s racial collectivism and the North’s economic collectivism as two unrelated issues, portraying the former as an idea of the Right, the latter of the Left, but both are collectivism, and both were essential components of the New Deal. The jobs most often performed by black Southerners—farm work and domestic service—were excluded from the new laws’ protection.
Hard times forced segregationist congressmen to acquiesce in collectivism, but only in whites-only collectivism. Accepting Jim Crow, the New Deal was born in sin. When Roosevelt tried to purge his coalition of segregationists, his congressional support began to crumble just as the country tipped back into recession.
Nativism And The New Deal
The second factor in the era’s uniqueness was the lack of immigrant labor. As Cowie notes, “[t]he whiteness of the New Deal was only part of the politics of racial purity; the other key element was immigration—or, more specifically, the cessation of nativism associated with immigration.” This reads history backwards, and treats nativism as an unexplained social disease that disappeared, creating the social cohesion that made collectivism possible.
It might be more accurate to say that nativism is an allergic reaction in the body politic. Sometimes it is caused by simple bigotry, other times by resentment at a labor supply that grows more quickly than a job supply. After the drastic restriction in immigration in effect since 1924 and the forcible repatriation of millions of Mexicans working in the United States, when jobs finally began to return to the economy, there were fewer workers to take them up. There was no nativism, because there were hardly any non-natives.
The situation was even more pronounced after the United States entered World War II, causing women to enter the workforce in numbers never seen before. Artificial restrictions on the supply of workers gave organized labor an advantage they never enjoyed before or since. Combined with a government more friendly to unionization, this made wages increase and helped workers—white, native-born workers—advance into the middle class. Unions had a powerful ally in the Roosevelt administration, and management had no alternate source of labor.
A Temporary Golden Age (for Some)
At the war’s end, the collectivized and bureaucratized nation tested its new ideas against a more normal backdrop, but the change was slow. Despite demobilization, the American economy easily absorbed the men returning from war, in part because many women returned to the home. The other part of the equation came from the condition of the American industrial sector compared to that of the rest of the world. Europe and Japan were destroyed, decimated, and exhausted by war.
The United States was the only nation to escape the years of bombing that left millions dead and factories in ruins. When they rebuilt, allies and former enemies had nowhere to turn but Uncle Sam. The Marshall Plan sped the process, but even without American aid, the other developed nations would have looked to the United States for leadership in the rebuilding process.
While Britain endured rationing for nearly another decade, American workers saw production and prosperity unheard of since the 1920s. It did not return because more heavily regulated businesses make more money—collectivism was more advanced in impoverished Europe, after all—but because American companies had more customers than they knew what to do with. Whether the permanent structural changes worked as well as the temporary New Deal programs that directly employed people was yet to be seen. In a national economy with such advantages, it hardly mattered; business was making enough money to smooth over the problems.
Down to Earth
The end of the New Deal came not because conservatism mysteriously returned to the United States. It came because the consequences of progressivism, hidden by the singular strength of the American economy, became obvious as the rest of the industrialized world finally rebuilt itself and the nation’s labor force, freed of immigration restrictions, expanded back to a level that decreased labor’s leverage.
These changes began in the 1950s, but hit their full stride in the 1960s. The Marshall Plan ended in 1951, by which time the German economic miracle was beginning. At the end of that decade, Germany was recruiting guest workers to keep pace with their growing industry. Western Europe and Japan similarly revived. By the end of the 1960s, the United States’ advantage was disappearing.
At the same time, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, adding to the strict national origin quota a family unification system that increased the number of immigrants to the United States to numbers not seen since the 1920s. Industry faced greater competition abroad and labor faced greater competition at home. Now, New Deal programs and the unionization they inspired would be tested as American voters saw the true costs of collectivization.
Many of the same forces that caused voters to abandon New Deal programs also led union membership to decline to pre-Depression levels. Increased wages and benefits coupled with decreased hours had been the cost of doing business in the 1950s, but now the bill came due. Increased competition abroad made these concessions unsustainable. A labor force increased by immigration, desegregation, and women in the workforce meant that management had more options. The labor unions of mostly white, mostly male, mostly native-born workers saw their bargaining power begin to disappear.
Even before these changes were apparent, unions were on the decline. Union membership peaked at nearly 35 percent in 1954, and has declined ever since. Unions had succeeded in their alliance with the federal government in the 1930s, and had done so well that many people thought they were no longer needed. Unions had arisen in the nineteenth century in response to nineteenth-century problems of long hours, low pay, and unsafe working conditions. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 remedied the first two, setting a minimum wage and a forty-hour work week. Various state and federal laws banned unsafe working conditions, culminating in the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970.
With wage, hours, and safety gains guaranteed by the government, union membership became less necessary. As global competition forced retrenchment, businesses moved to right-to-work states where unionism was less established. New ventures often avoided labor unions altogether. Even where they hung on, concessions by workers were the price of continued employment in a world of ever-strengthening competition.
Return to Normalcy
By the 1980s, American collectivism was in full retreat. Cowie blames its demise on the increased religiosity of the Fourth Great Awakening, a revived nativism, and white working-class resentment of the welfare state, among other things. He believes all of these are facets of America’s abiding individualist temperament.
As New Deal collectivization failed, he writes, Democrats returned to their own version of individualism, expanding individual rights for once-neglected groups. “Liberals,” he writes “built upon the success of the 1960s in expanding individual rights, even as they were reduced to defending rather than advancing the political and economic gains of the 1930s and 1940s.”
This is a twenty-first-century twist on the old Marxist cry of false consciousness, the idea that all of these religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and regional concerns distract from the class struggle and the advancement of the proletariat. Democrats have largely abandoned the class struggle (Republicans never embraced the divisive Marxist idea). That, added to the government co-opting of unions’ issues, the equal rights of women, minorities, and immigrants to enter the labor force, and the ever-increasing industrial competition from abroad spelled the end of mass unionization and the end of the fleeting New Deal spirit of collectivism.
New Deal Redux
Cowie portrays the spirit of the New Deal as noble, if flawed in its restriction to a narrow group of workers. But even its limited success was rooted in its inequity. Wages rose and working hours fell only because Europe was destroyed, Jim Crow was in effect, and the nation was nearly closed to immigration for two generations. The New Deal’s collectivization was a collective of, by, and for white native-born men presiding over a world ravaged by war. Without those moral flaws and unique circumstances, it would never have succeeded in the first place. Cowie may be wrong about the New Deal’s beneficence, but he is correct about its uniqueness.
Americans who wish a return to those times are not just the eighty- and ninety-year-olds who tour Roosevelt’s home with the reverence due a cathedral. Even their ideological descendants among the Sanders supporters and Occupy Wall Streeters only grasp half the picture; they want the rewards, but would not dream of recreating the conditions that made them possible in the first place. In 2016, the only real would-be New Dealers are the supporters of Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s people complain about welfare, but would not be opposed to accepting more “respectable” government handouts. They want guaranteed jobs at high wages, with tariffs taking the place of world war in keeping out foreign competition. How they seek to replicate our trade surpluses of the 1950s and 1960s is left unsaid, but Trumpites are not shy about embracing the dark side of the New Deal, too. They would gladly deport even more Mexicans than the Roosevelt administration, and the “alt-right” forces in Trump’s ranks would likely not shy away from New Deal-era unions’ racially restrictive membership policies.
Here, Cowie’s book should serve as a warning to Left and Right. The New Deal was a unique reaction to a unique era of American history. Replicating it, whether in the Panglossian version preached by Sanders supporters or the malevolent version preferred by Trump’s people, is unwise and unworkable. It is, at best, a nostalgic fantasy and will not survive first contact with the real world economy of the twenty-first century.