Jefferson Cowie. The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Cowie asks us to rethink one of the most deeply studied eras in American history: the New Deal. Scholars have long argued that FDR’s domestic policies culminated decades of reform struggle in the U.S. and permanently transformed American liberalism, but Cowie rejects both arguments.
The New Deal, he contends, was a rhetorical and legislative ‘Big Bang’ which was distinct from earlier reform and policy traditions. For the first and only time in history, the federal government used its vast resources to ensure a measure of economic security for non-elite Americans. The government’s embrace of ‘collective economic rights’ lasted only from the 1930s until the 1970s, which Cowie considers the “great exception” – a sustained deviation from some of the main contours of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.
Americans had long subscribed to an ideology that rooted freedom and individual rights in the economic independence of yeoman farmers and skilled craftsmen. For decades, deep fractures within the working class, combined with Americans’ embrace of founding mythos of individualism, limited the ability of workers and their allies to address the economic woes of the masses.
But during the Great Depression, draconian immigration restrictions created an illusion of homogeneity that surpassed any seen in generations while withdrawal of religious activists after the Scopes Trial temporarily muted ethnic and religious tensions that had long divided workers (as Cohen notes). By marginalizing racial minorities, New Dealers took race off the table and created a class-coalition that includeddd white southerners – creating a rare moment in American history when the working-class vote assembled en masse for one party and one candidate.
But the New Deal failed to permanently transform America’s political culture. The ‘Reagan revolution,’ Cowie argues, could be better understood as the ‘Reagan restoration.’ And although he considers his story an ‘American tragedy,’ the positive and negative factors which created the New Deal are unlikely ever to realign. Those who regard the New Deal as a guiding light should look elsewhere for inspiration – perhaps to fluid cross-class alliances and more localized politics of the Progressive Era that Meg Jacobs discusses.