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The End Of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War Paperback – January 30, 1996
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About the Author
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University. His books include The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, which won the National Book Award for History, and The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. His essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The American Historical Review, The Journal of American History, the New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, and other publications. He lives in New York City.
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While The End of Reform represents the kind of scholarship that is unlikely to be read for entertainment, it contains more than its share of drama and surprises. FDR is, of course, a central figure, but only one of many. Moreover, though The New Deal has long been characterized a uniquely his, he turns out to be surprisingly ambivalent about its sharpest departures from government as usual, and for long periods he was indecisive and uncertain, leaving lesser officials to fend for themselves in making New Deal programs work. At heart, it seems, FDR may have been an aristocratic conservative masquerading as a liberal when it was politically expedient. FDR's peculiar political nature has been acknowledged by other authors, notably David Rolf in The Hopkins Touch. Brinkley's account of FDR's governmental stewardship, however, makes one wonder just what FDR really thought.
The programmatic character of The New Deal was not something formulated and fostered by Roosevelt himself. Instead, it was due largely to governmental officials who worked for him, especially members of the variegated group known as liberals. By today's standards New Deal liberals were far-left lunatics, the sort of political actors who are often misrepresented as socialists, communists, and left-wing fascists. The New Deal reformers were sometimes angrily dismissed in the same terms, but the sort of knee-jerk response to programs for governmental intervention was less common and much less likely to be politically lethal in the context provided by the Great Depression.
Brinkley's book, moreover, is exemplary in making the case that the political differences among New Deal liberals were common, substantial, and sometimes troublesome. He also makes clear that in some instances the least likely people -- bankers, business executives, corporate lawyers, and other representatives of big capital -- were favorably disposed toward The New Deal and even worked productively in New Deal programs and agencies fostered by liberal consociates. Though Brinkley does not develop this theme, there was a widespread feeling among people at large that something had to be done to relieve the economic hardships that characterized the 1930's, thus the sometimes trans-ideological appeal of The New Deal.
Brinkley's distinction between liberals who championed structural changes in the American economy and those who emphasized individual freedom, including freedom from economic hardship, is persuasively made and quite instructive. Members of the former group sought to make an issue of the organization of ownership and control of enterprises of production, arguing that economic concentration artificially constrained output thereby increasing prices and contributing to the material destitution of a growing percentage of the population. Among the most useful contributions of de-centralization, as they saw it, was redistribution of wealth and income, yielding a more productive and equitable society where no one fell through the cracks. In time, however, it became clear that the reorganization of productive power was too often construed as an attack on capitalism itself, an interpretation that liberals did not effectively counter and that was too radical for most Americans.
As a result, liberal reformers gradually changed their approach, focusing on opportunities for consumption rather than production. Increased consumption, even if it required governmental spending on job creation and safety net ventures, worked to everyone's best interests, as these later liberals saw it. After all, as consumption increased demand for a broad range of goods and services increased, and producers were encouraged to increase their output with the assurance that such action would be profitable. In a sense, increased consumption achieved by full employment, with or without help from the federal government's fiscal policy and commitment to freedom from want, came to be the bedrock of what some thought of as an economic bill of rights that covered all individuals in the United States.
Later still, individual rights through elimination of artificial barriers to unfettered social participation by Blacks, Women, Gays, and others who faced invidious distinctions that thwarted their full development also became intrinsic to liberal reform efforts. These are the manifestations of liberalism with which we are most familiar today.
Until I read Brinkley's book, it did not occur to me that contemporary liberalism represents a retreat from the efforts toward structural change that once were the basis of the fundamental liberal program. While the author doesn't give this programmatic shift excessive attention, he makes it unmistakably clear that the two forms of liberalism are fundamentally different, and the most promising liberal agenda was the one that sought structural change rather than piecemeal adjustments in the lives of specific groups. As an example, it's all well and good to eliminate de jure segregation, but as Martin Luther King acknowledged, it's quite another matter to enable Blacks and other minorities to improve their economic prospects when the economy is organized in a way that artificially constrains its bounty. in an era of thoroughgoing globalization when economic opportunity is being undercut by the internationalization of capital, fundamental structural change may be the only effective response. Such ambitious and intensely controversial measures, however, are no long part of the liberal agenda.
When Democrats deride their party for shifting far to the right, they do so because of the programmatic timidity of its objectives. There are those, and Brinkley may be among them, who have concluded that Democrat's failure to hold their constituents reflects the fact that they have abandoned truly effective reform, thereby becoming a center-right party, offering no legitimate alternative to increasingly reactionary Republicans. Brinkley traces this development to the latter years of The New Deal.
Whatever the reader's political inclination -- far right, somewhere in the center, or far left -- The End of Reform is a good book. Even for those who regard liberals as disciples of Satan, Brinkley's work provides an insightful analysis of a crucial period in our political history and its consequences for the present. If you're interested in politics, The End of Reform will hold your attention, and its even-handedness is one of its many virtues.
Brinkley spends much of the book examining the main reasons why the New Deal began to change in the years leading up to and during World War II. According to Brinkley, the Recession of 1937-38 caught nearly everyone by surprise, especially New Deal leaders. This was “Roosevelt’s depression,” and now Americans who formerly had faith in New Deal policies began to question them. “The more disturbing similarity to 1929 was that the collapse of the financial markets in 1937 was only the most dramatic sign of a much broader economic decline. Just as eight years before, there had been clear, if largely ignored, signs of erosion in key economic indicators over the summer. And just as in 1929, the decline of production and employment accelerated dramatically in the fall.” (Brinkley, Loc 618) Additionally, Franklin Roosevelt’s popularity took a hit when he took measures to apparently tackle obstacles to his New Deal policies. “When the administration introduced its Court-packing scheme only a few weeks after sending the Brownlow report to Congress, conservatives began to see the two measures as part of a single plan; together, they constituted a program to strengthen the presidency by emasculating the other branches of government.” (Brinkley, Loc 474) Brinkley also claims the actions of fascist dictators abroad did not help the New Dealer’s call for collectivism and statism. “In the spring of 1938….events in Europe–Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria most prominently–had added a new element to the debate: the supposed parallels between the designs of Roosevelt and those of totalitarian leaders.” (Brinkley, Loc 475) Finally, Brinkley claims the war itself dramatically altered, if not ended entirely, New Deal liberalism. “The wartime experience muted liberal hostility to capitalism and the corporate world. It challenged the commitment of liberals to a powerful, centralized state and turned their efforts into less direct, less confrontational channels.” (Brinkley, Loc 179)
One of Brinkley’s key revelations in the book is the transition of the “reform liberalism” that emerged during the Progressive Era into “rights-based liberalism.” He claims reform liberalism focused on protecting individuals, communities, and the government from massive corporate power. It generally ignored issues of specific minority groups. Brinkley claims rights-based liberalism was more state-centered, yet more focused on empowering individuals, particularly those who were oppressed. It also was more about stimulating consumerism as opposed to production. Corporations became less of a target. “They were no longer much concerned about controlling or punishing “plutocrats” and “economic royalists,” an impulse central to New Deal rhetoric in the mid-1930s.” (Brinkley, Loc 166)
Brinkley argues that when the New Deal lost credibility due to the recession, new, more realistic, calls for reform changed the New Deal. Believing it would build business confidence and provide economic stability, several New Dealers turned to “associationalism,” which opponents called “corporatism.” “The most serious problems facing modern economies, advocates of this approach contended, were the conflict and instability of a chaotic marketplace: destructive rivalries within industries, destabilizing clashes between capital and labor, disastrous swings in the business cycle prompted in part by the desperate gambles capitalists took to gain advantages in precarious markets.” (Brinkley, Loc 740) Associationalism would provide a safety net for industries.
While conservatives criticized the New Deal for causing or prolonging the crisis, some liberals (many of them anti-monopolists) were arguing the New Deal did not go far enough to stimulate the economy. John Maynard Keynes, who was somewhat ignored by FDR throughout the early New Deal, was now being taken more seriously. His ideas of stimulating consumption, rather than production, began to influence FDR’s advisers, albeit modestly initially. Additionally, Brinkley claims that the economists William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings were ahead of their time when they advocated Keynes’ idea that consumption regulates production, not that consumption was just a simple and automatic consequence of production. Little by little, the idea that increased consumption would bring back economic prosperity began to gain traction, and Brinkley claims Keynes’ devoted attention to the American economy is partially responsible for that. “He made periodic visits to Washington, visits that became occasions for dinner-party gatherings of liberals, eager for the presence of the man who was becoming so central to their thinking. In the process, Keynes reinforced his allies and won new converts.” (Brinkley, Loc 4944) Today, Keynes’ economic theories dominate the mainstream, but they originally had a difficult time escaping obscurity. While the government was slow to catch on to his ideas, Brinkley claims that in popular culture, consumerism made great strides beginning in the 1920s. “In the 1920s, as in all eras, everyone was both a producer and a consumer. But while in the past the individual’s role as a producer had generally seemed the more important, now the way men and women functioned as consumers was gaining in relative significance.” (Brinkley, Loc 1496)
According to Brinkley, New Deal liberalism was on the decline before World War II, but it’s safe to say the war caused everyone in the country to focus less on domestic issues. Winning the war took precedence over everything else, and most of the time New Deal liberalism didn’t mesh perfectly with that objective. However, with FDR particularly forgetting his New Deal past more and more, this was certainly a blow. “Roosevelt’s apparent loss of interest in domestic issues was alarming to liberals because he had been so central to their hopes for nearly a decade.” (Brinkley, Loc 3109) In addition, those who prematurely believed that the American economy had matured were discredited thanks to a booming wartime economy. With the war, unemployment dropped dramatically, and entirely new industries were created. “Economic expansion could achieve, in fact had achieved, dimensions beyond the wildest dreams of the 1930s.” (Brinkley, Loc 3687) Americans were not as open to jumping on the liberal bandwagon anymore when an extremely poor economy was the whole reason why they jumped on the bandwagon in the first place.
However, just because the New Deal seem to fade quickly with the war, one of Brinkley’s main arguments is that its legacy is still fresh in the United States today. In fact, its legacy seems inescapable. Throughout the book, Brinkley seems to imply that it did not matter that New Deal liberalism did not ultimately achieve its goals- perhaps the country was far from ready for that. However, even with the rise of the conservative coalition and influence of the Ronald Reagan administration, Brinkley provides enough evidence to prove Americans have yet to go back to before the New Deal. The rise of statism, collectivism, rights-based reform, Keynesian economics, and the welfare state are now seemingly permanent pillars of American society, and even many conservative Americans today would not so easily give up what New Deal liberalism achieved. Brinkley’s provocative title of the book, The End of Reform, is misleading. Liberal reform has been constantly evolving and inconstant since the New Deal, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always prominently been there.