Left Alone

The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America) BY Jefferson Cowie. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 288 pages. $27.
Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism BY Randall B. Woods. Basic Books. Hardcover, 480 pages. $32.

A warning to American leftists: These two fine works of history will probably depress you. They may also nudge you to think hard about what your forerunners did to change the country and why they failed to accomplish more.

Both books mention “limits” in their subtitles, and the authors define the term essentially the same way: Individualist values and the fear of a leviathan welfare state conspired to produce a polity in which conservatism is the default ideology and victories for bottom-up reform are the exception. Each book represents a distinct approach to this subject and to the writing of political history: Jefferson Cowie offers a grand interpretation of the roadblocks to change, while Randall B. Woods delivers a thickly detailed narrative about a presidential administration that struggled, with some success, to push them aside.

Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, thinks big and long. In The Great Exception, he presents a rich survey, studded with insights culled from a generation of scholarship by fellow left-wing academics, that traces the knotty challenges of Left reform going back to the Gilded Age. Millions of wage earners and small farmers railed against the power and wealth of industrialists like Leland Stanford and Andrew Carnegie—and condemned the help such men got from regulation-hating judges and union-busting politicians. However, the antimonopolists shared little beyond sharp critique, often sweetened with nostalgia for a bygone age of social harmony; ethnic and religious animosities kept them huddled in separate camps. As Cowie observes, “When Robber Baron Jay Gould boasted that he could ‘Pay one half the working class to kill the other,’ he might have added that he didn’t really have to do so.” Disunity among the common folk endured through the early decades of the twentieth century.

Middle-class white Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson did manage to regulate some of the greediest and most dangerous aspects of the political economy. They instituted the income tax (which, at first, only the very rich had to pay) and established the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Reserve. Women finally won the constitutional right to vote. But in enacting Prohibition and acquiescing to Jim Crow laws, Progressives also made it clear that white Protestants like themselves would define the meaning of “progress”—and it did not include support for working-class insurgencies.

Then came FDR. Cowie heralds Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition for beginning to push the United States along the path to what Europeans call “social democracy.” During a single congressional term in the mid-1930s, the federal government broke with antistatist tradition by creating jobs for some of the unemployed and guaranteeing a pension, via Social Security, to most elderly Americans. After waging mass strikes, organized labor gained clout in the private sector and in politics far beyond anything it had known before. Unsurprisingly, FDR remains Bernie Sanders’s favorite president.

But this “great exception,” Cowie stresses, was also “a devil’s pact.” In Congress, Democrats from the Solid South voted to create jobs and bring electric power to the agrarian hinterland, where most of their white constituents lived, but stood firmly arrayed against any law that might have given black people the same rights and opportunities. Sadly, few northern Democrats dared challenge the Dixiecrats, who chaired many of the committees in the House and Senate. “So entrenched was Jim Crow politics,” writes Cowie, “that had the New Deal . . . actually made any efforts to shatter the white consensus on black racial inferiority, it is most likely that the New Deal would not have happened.”

The black-freedom movement of the ’60s tore a huge hole in that egregious accord. But it also played an unwitting part in ending organized labor’s brief rise to influence. First in the South and then nearly everywhere, white working people began to resent what they viewed as an alliance between angry black protesters and the liberal politicians who sought to placate them. A rising conservative movement, fueled by corporate largesse, stoked the discontents of the “silent majority.” Then an expanding population of dark-skinned newcomers, aided by the 1965 immigration-reform law, divided working people and weakened unions even further. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 only accelerated the retreat from an egalitarian era that had always been more fragile than most of its champions realized. The “Reagan revolution,” Cowie notes, was more like a “restoration” of individualist norms of law and governance that were the rule before FDR swept to power.

Cowie’s arguments are unfailingly intelligent, and his wry prose makes the book as pleasurable to read as its conclusions are sobering to contemplate. Still, he is a labor historian, and his focus on matters of class and economics leads him to underrate the significance of the changes liberals, goaded by radicals, made in the ’60s. He devotes just four pages to LBJ’s Great Society and mostly confines himself to pointing out the failures of the oversold and underfinanced War on Poverty.

Randall Woods’s vividly detailed narrative makes up for that neglect. The author of a massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, Woods, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, threads juicy quotations from the tirelessly wheedling Texan into his accounts of bill after liberal bill—from civil rights to Medicare to federal aid to education to the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts—that made the Great Society seem pretty unstoppable at the time. Most of that legislation flew through Congress from mid-1964, when LBJ began to exert the powers of his office after John Kennedy’s assassination, until the midterm elections of 1966, when big gains by Republicans essentially ended Johnson’s hope of creating a welfare state larger than what FDR had built—and one that would no longer be dependent on racist politicians.

Yet as he pursued this ambitious agenda, LBJ was seldom a happy man. He knew that the fires of state-directed change would not burn for long, and he despised the op-ed mandarins of the Washington press who still mourned JFK. “No man knew less about Congress than John Kennedy,” he complained to an interviewer in 1965. “We treat those columnists as whores. Anytime an editor wants to screw ’em, they’ll get down on the floor and do it for three dollars.”

To explain why Johnson failed to stave off his conservative opposition, Woods focuses on the usual suspects: the racial crisis and the war in Vietnam. Besides Medicare, the Great Society programs that garnered the most media attention and touched off the most furious debates were ones designed to help “disadvantaged” minorities: black people and poor people—groups that many, incorrectly, equated with one another. Middle-class whites were willing to see some portion of their taxes go to help those who could not help themselves. But most still drew a traditional line between the so-called moral and immoral poor and thought black people crossed it when some took their anger to the streets in cities from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. And Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Indochina alienated his liberal supporters even before it drove his popularity ratings down so low that, in the spring of 1968, he announced he would not run for a second term.

Woods concludes with a mixed verdict. “The reforms of the 1960s,” he writes, “unquestionably advanced the cause of social and economic justice in America, but many achievements were limited and ambiguous.” Part of the problem, he notes, was that, except in the case of civil rights, there was no mass movement clamoring to pass the landmark bills of the Great Society. In coming years, the lack of any concerted grassroots pressure to move the Great Society forward made it easier for the Right to chip away at the legitimacy and the funding of the ’60s liberal consensus.

For all their virtues, both Cowie and Woods are gloomier in their estimations of the American Left’s legacy than what the fuller history of the Left merits. The heyday of the New Deal and Great Society was, indeed, ephemeral, and the partisans of each do remind one of Sisyphus, straining to push the boulder of reform to an apex where it will remain for only a brief, thrilling moment. But LBJ, in the mid-’60s, could still count on the coalition FDR had assembled. And many of his achievements—Medicare, cultural subsidies, Head Start, civil rights, the Clean Air Act—are intact, if occasionally under siege.

Of course, individualism remains central to the ideology of American politics. But the classic paradox highlighted by the political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril back in 1967 remains as true now as it was in their day: Most Americans are “ideological conservatives” but “operational liberals.” Americans hate big government but they love federal spending—as long as it benefits them and anyone else they regard as deserving, particularly the elderly, children, and veterans.

Despite their rhetoric, the three conservative Republicans elected president since 1980 understood these political realities. Reagan and both Bushes bore in mind what Dwight Eisenhower wrote to his brother Edgar in 1954: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” Just after winning reelection in 2004, George W. Bush announced a plan to privatize Social Security, promising that no one’s existing benefits would be reduced. But leaders of both parties quickly deflated that trial balloon.

Neither should one underestimate the positive impact the cultural rebellion that began in the ’60s has had on American society. Most ordinary Americans today enjoy a degree of personal freedom that was considered ultraradical when LBJ was president. Women can pursue a variety of occupations, gays and lesbians can get married, racial identity poses no legal barrier to full participation in civil society, and we largely take the urgency of protecting the environment for granted.

Right-wing control of the entire federal government might endanger some of these gains, although even most conservatives now condemn racism and have given up fighting same-sex marriage in fact, if not in rhetoric. But these victories of humane, left-wing ideals affect the lives of all Americans—even if the United States will not become a decent society as long as the rich still wield so much power over our economy and our politics. Perhaps Sisyphus should take a break and enjoy the view, before he has to get back to work.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is coeditor of Dissent. His next book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918, will be published by Simon & Schuster in January.