Politics: In the Halls of Powerand Out of Doors

Historical scholarship about the United States has been transformed in the past forty years. The new history, partly prompted by the politics of the 1960s, dismissed earlier ones that, in important ...

Historical scholarship about the United States has been transformed in the past forty years. The new history, partly prompted by the politics of the 1960s, dismissed earlier ones that, in important ways, represent the golden era of academic history in public life, despite their limitations. These were political histories or, more precisely, histories of political culture. Innovative historians of that generation combined analytical and theoretical insight with literary grace. As beneficiaries of the quality paperback revolution and the rapid increase in the numbers of the college-educated, their works were widely read, often in college courses. Their politics, too, accounted for their prominent position in public culture. They were critical, but not radical. The most widely read and admired—Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., C. Vann Woodward, Oscar Handlin, and David Potter, among others—were liberal anti-Communists.

They played down class. Finding little evidence of “struggle between the propertied and unpropertied classes,” Hofstadter pointed out the narrow spectrum of the American political tradition. There was a consensus on “the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition.” The culture of American politics, he added, “accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.” He did not admire these qualities. Indeed, he regretted a “democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.”1 But he wrote in an ironic voice, not as a radical. Schlesinger, it is true, published a radical book in 1945, The Age of Jackson, but a few years later he authored the urtext of liberal anti-Communism, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949), freedom being the American project in the Cold War.

Yet in 1968 Hofstadter would tell Schlesinger that for any history written today, “we have to go back to conflict at the center of our story.”2 A decade earlier, John Higham, writing in Commentary, had urged historians to get beyond consensus, and by 1968 a new generation of historians published Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History.3 The contributors to this volume continued the focus on political culture, but the concern with economic interests and a focus on politics in the streets, from the bottom up, marked their work as different from their predecessors.

Rather quickly, however, the new history became social history, and then, in the 1990s, sociocultural history. E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) inspired this shift in the methods and radical politics of history; this book, like the similar work being done in the United States by Herbert G. Gutman, gave both voice and agency to social groups heretofore absent from historiography.4 In the following decades, social historians took history out of the halls of state power and away from elite institutions. They looked instead at social movements and politics in the street—the picket lines, immigrant working class neighborhoods, and the slave quarters of the South. These historians increasingly focused on social life and work, domestic life, and gender relations. The state and economic structures melted away.

This politically engaged scholarship vastly expanded the domain of historical scholarship. Social change and political agency came to be identified with populations that, previously, had been seen only as those acted upon, when noticed at all. In the new history, the focus was on groups—ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and more. The social relations of worker communities were studied and their aspirations were elaborated, although the tendency to focus on workers when not at work limited inquiry into the economic institutions in which they worked. Each community, often ethnically defined, tended to be treated as self-contained, which circumscribed consideration of politics in the public realm. Overlooking Thompson’s crucial emphasis on relations of power, this history of groups studied individually—increasingly as “identity” groups—undermined causal explanation and the notion of a national history.5 This localized history of politics out of doors, as I will call it, came to be the central focus of historical scholarship, with new actors endowed with agency and the implied power to manage their own lives. This new history was important; yet its shunning of elite and formal political and economic power seriously limited the scope of historical inquiry.

This history of historiographical change serves as a framework for discussing two new books that together highlight the importance of bringing together in a single narrative both the indoor politics of formal political and economic institutions and politics out of doors. Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s heavily focuses on politics out of doors, and not enough on politics indoors. Ira Katznelson’s focus in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Own Time is mainly on politics indoors—the presidency and Congress. His book transforms our understanding of political power in the Washington of the New Deal and early Cold War era, and it is so compelling, in part, because he links the local politics of Southern town squares with the politics taking place in the Capitol Building in Washington.

With almost a quarter of the states now establishing the right to gay marriage and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will allow the states to do so, we May be seeing the goals of this round of sexual reform politics realized.

All in the Family describes the emergence and historical course of the movement for sexual freedom and gender equality—including a woman’s right to abortion and contraception, gay and lesbian rights, and same-sex marriage—as well as the reactive “family values” politics that emerged in opposition to that movement. Self’s aim in this clearly written book is to explain the late 20th-century realignment of politics, a politics divided by cultural issues, particularly those relating to sexuality, rather than by class or region. The movement for sexual freedom and gender equality has achieved remarkable change in attitudes and law—and the change has continued since his book went to press. But it also played, as Self makes clear, an unintended and unwanted role in mobilizing the radical right in the Republican Party. Yet one wonders if it is too soon to tell whether a new political alignment has been solidified, or whether it seems more solid than it actually is. With almost a quarter of the states now establishing the right to gay marriage and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will allow the states to do so, we may be seeing the goals of this round of sexual reform politics realized. However, the latest iteration of capitalism, which is the underlying cause of much of the political dynamic Self describes yet narrowly analyzes, remains and may continue to undermine democratic politics.

Self’s impressively researched book gathers a wide range of newspapers from different parts of the country and a vast number of manuscript collections. These materials enable him to evoke the nationwide energy and passion of the liberation movements he tracks. He is less successful, however, in capturing those qualities in the countermovement. Perhaps the reason is less the result of his writing and research strategies than an artifact of the funding and organization of the conservative movement. This right-wing “populism” is largely directed by a fairly centralized strategic leadership and a few large funders, which results in less density of debate and levels of leadership.

Self’s study begins with Betty Friedan and the quest for gender equality, and then expands to sexual rights by examining the Stonewall police clash in 1969 and its continuing aftereffects. Here, to a degree not achieved elsewhere in the book, he effectively brings together formal politics—of the New York City mayoral administrations of John Lindsay and Ed Koch—and the politics of the street. As he extends the story to the national stage, the link between movement and formal politics thins.

This is a prime demonstration that economic interest does not always control political choice, even when the case for it may seem obvious.

While Self grounds sexual reform politics in very local sites, like Stonewall, the opposition, by contrast, seems to be less locally grounded, and national leaders and organizations seem to play a larger role. His account of the opponents of homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, and contraception is driven by leaders, but without a great deal of detailed examination he repeatedly recurs to its political base, which he defines in very broad strokes as the working-class white male “breadwinner” and his family. These families suffer from economic and social policies advanced by the Republican Right, yet they are in the electoral column of just that political movement. This is a prime demonstration that economic interest does not always control political choice, even when the case for it may seem obvious. Why do working-class males and their families support the cultural Right?

In Self’s account of this well-worn question, the answer seems to be the politics of emotion. The economic troubles suffered by the breadwinner families are apparently experienced as an emotional hit, a loss of self-respect. With some guidance from the Right, they overcome their sense of lost respect by demonizing the dissolute, who are pressing for a clutch of immoral sexual freedoms and rights that make breadwinners uneasy.6 Economic grievances are thus deflected. The victims of the Right’s economic policies adopt the Right’s cultural agenda.

This political logic originated in the 1960s, as white workers disparaged the government’s commitment to the extension of civil rights to African Americans, to the promotion of school integration, and to providing support for black mothers, whom the Right subsequently labeled “welfare queens.” This contempt soon incorporated their disapproval of the antiwar movement, hippies, and Woodstock Nation. White male breadwinners, who lost so much economically and emotionally, found a sense of moral superiority in the Right’s critique of the provocative sexual practices of better-educated and wealthier liberal types.

While Self probes deeply into the culture of these liberal, radical, and counterculture movements, he spends less time on the organization and political strategies of the Right. Nor does he address the interest of the state in the issues being contested, a point about politics and reform made more generally by Theda Skocpol.7 By way of silence, he gives the impression that sexual politics at the level of the nation-state is novel to his period. In fact, it goes back at least to the first Republican Party Platform in 1856, which declared itself committed to ending the two present “barbarisms”: slavery and polygamy. Although he thanks Nancy Cott in his acknowledgments, he does not draw upon her important book that shows the abiding interest of the nation-state’s legislative and judicial branches in sex, marriage, and family.8

Dorothea Lange, The White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco, California (1933, National Archives)

Dorothea Lange, The White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco, California (1933, National Archives)

A very different sort of emotion is examined in Katznelson’s rich and important book. The emotion, as the title indicates, is fear itself; more specifically, it was a fear of democracy’s vulnerability, a fear that the crisis of the Great Depression might produce a turn toward authoritarian forms of government after the fashion of Communism and Fascism in Europe. The rise of interwar totalitarian and authoritarian governments in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Spain, and Portugal was a stark warning of what could happen. Economic and political failure in the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt worried, could turn the nation to a similar politics.

Indeed, in the weeks before FDR was inaugurated, a figure no less important than Walter Lippmann, the nation’s most respected political commentator, proposed in a newspaper column that Congress grant the new president “extraordinary powers.” He suggested that Roosevelt be given for a “period say of a year, the widest and fullest powers under the most liberal interpretation of the Constitution.” To FDR himself, Lippmann was blunter: “the situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”

Roosevelt was determined to maintain democratic practices, but that required getting legislation that was quite novel passed—and passed quickly. For that, he needed the votes of the southern wing of the Democratic Party. Acutely aware of the danger inherent in an inability to act on the challenges posed by the economic collapse, he was prepared to make some “rotten compromises” with Southern legislators of his own party, who demanded protection of “white supremacy” in the South as the price of their indispensable support for most of his New Deal programs.

The compromises the Founding Fathers made in the Constitutional Convention gave the South disproportionate power in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Electoral College, among other favors. It was a pro-slavery document, and well into the 20th century, the Constitution and the one-party South—the product and protector of the region’s commitment to white supremacy—possessed disproportionate power in Washington.9 FDR needed their votes, but to get them was often, too often, morally difficult: one of the worst cases was Roosevelt’s refusal to endorse an anti-lynching bill in 1938.

Katznelson shows that the social history of the South, particularly its racial policies, was central to the indoor politics—Committee Room and Roll Call—of the New Deal liberalism.

Since the Southern politicians came from a region of great poverty, they were sympathetic to many of the economic and welfare policies of the New Deal. But they often found it necessary to do a little tailoring in committee. Such work was readily handled. The one-party South continually reelected its Senators and Representatives, and that gave them key committee chairmanships. That power explains why Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act excluded domestic employment and farm labor. It is also why federal money poured into the South, and why one of the most ambitious New Deal economic development projects, the Tennessee Valley Authority, was located in the South. Later, as Katznelson explains, the same process sent massive military investment to the South, initially to acquire Southern votes needed to counter Midwest isolationist votes in the face of the rising Nazi threat and near certainty of war against the Axis Powers. From the beginning of the Cold War (and continuing to the present), the South has supported military build-ups and American global power. Indeed, it is fair to say that the South largely shaped the development of the military-industrial complex that made Dwight Eisenhower nervous as president. In these and other ways, Katznelson shows that the social history of the South, particularly its racial policies, was central to the indoor politics—Committee Room and Roll Call—of the New Deal liberalism.

Katznelson revises the historiography of the New Deal and mid-century American liberalism by linking the politics of local life in the South and its local customs, including lynching, to the politics inside the nation’s capital. If, in All in the Family, Self underplays the connection, his previous book provides an almost a perfect example of such a joining—in that case, at the level of metropolitan history. In American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2005), Self brings together histories of race, class, urban development, and suburbanization with a cast of actors both wide and inclusive: male and female black activists, center-city business leaders, corporate managers, suburban families and developers—and Byron Rumford, a remarkably effective black legislator. With great political skill and toughness, he pushed open housing legislation through the California State Legislature (The Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963), only to see California voters pass Proposition 14, which changed the California Constitution by declaring any fair housing law a constitutional violation. (This was later ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.) In short, American Babylon brilliantly weaves together these many kinds of indoor and outdoor politics, and I wish he had kept this accomplishment in mind as he designed All in the Family.

Woven into the historical narrative of Fear Itself is a work of practical moral philosophy that sets the book apart. There is a tone of regret running through the book, and the reader cannot but share that feeling. The cost of success for the New Deal was paid by the black population of the South. Was that a necessary price of escaping the fate of Europe, where the crisis paved the way for authoritarian regimes? How does one weigh such a proposition? Katznelson, a highly accomplished scholar of political philosophy as well as history, directly addresses the ethical question that runs through FDR’s political choices and this book.10 Here we see the historian as moral critic—in a hard case.

Roosevelt and the New Deal were confronted with a fundamental moral challenge. How far can liberal democracy compromise with evil? Should politics be held to a moral absolute? If not, is it a slippery slope? This is a challenge for political leaders, but it is also a challenge to the historian. Where does one stand? We cannot stand aside. Historians are too embedded in their own narratives to escape responsibility for that aspect of historical scholarship that is moral inquiry. Both obliviousness and righteousness are easy. Katznelson works from a more complex and principled position. He cites Reinhold Niebuhr, the notable theologian and liberal Democrat, who in 1932 addressed this question from a neoorthodox perspective. Writing about the moral difficulty, even pain, that such questions sometimes force on political leaders and citizens, Niebuhr explained, “Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.” Katznelson’s understanding of this human position gives his book an impressive moral depth. Toward the end of the book, he writes:

The most deeply inscribed compromise, one that qualifies in [Avishai] Margalit’s definition of a “rotten compromise,” which he identifies as “an agreement to establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation”—was the one the New Deal made with America’s then-white supremacist South … Yet with it, the New Deal became possible. Only with a Faustian terrible compromise could lawmaking have stayed at center stage.

In a longer view, Katznelson observes, the modernizing of the state and society under the New Deal contributed to the eventual undermining of Jim Crow. New Deal liberalism opened important space in the 1940s and 1950s for the beginning of local and national equal rights movements by African Americans—a legacy that also created important pathways for many movements for justice. icon

  1. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It (Vintage Books, 1948), viii. Although not all would agree, Hofstadter did not fit the category of “consensus” history. He was critically ironic about what he saw as consensus. The most extreme consensus historian was Daniel Boorstin, in The Genius of American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1953) and his trilogy, The Americans (Vintage Books, 1958–1974). Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955) narrated a “Lockean consensus,” but like Hofstadter wrote at a distance from it.
  2. Richard Hofstadter Papers, 1944–1970, Columbia University Library. He also discussed the limits of “consensus” history in The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (Knopf, 1969), pp. 450–63. We have no idea what that history from his pen might have been like; two years later he died of leukemia, just having begun a history of the United States.
  3. John Higham, “The Culture of ‘American Consensus’: Homogenizing Our History,” Commentary, vol. 27 (1959), pp. 93–100; Barton J. Bernstein, ed. Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (Pantheon, 1968). See also John Higham, “Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic,” American Historical Review, vol. 67 (1962), pp. 609–25.
  4. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; Vintage, 1966); Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society (Knopf, 1976), a collection his essays, the earliest of which dated from 1959.
  5. See Thomas Bender, “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History,” The Journal of American History, vol. 73 (1986), pp. 120–36.
  6. He does not mention her work, but this emotion-based working-class politics has been impressively examined by the sociologist Arlie Hochchild. See, for example, “Let Them Eat War,” TomDispatch.com, October 2, 2003.
  7. Theda Skocpol, Peter B. Evans, and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge University Press, 1985); Theda Skocpol and Kenneth Feingold, State and Party in America’s New Deal (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).
  8. Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000).
  9. See Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780–1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 2000); Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant With Death,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, edited by Richard Beeman, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II (University of North Carolina Press, 1987), pp. 188–225.
  10. For his work in political philosophy, see Katznelson’s book, Liberalism’s Crooked Circle (Princeton University Press, 1996).
Featured image: Dorothea Lange, Rex Theatre in Leland, Mississippi (June 1937, Library of Congress)