Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

policy rising above special interests, even if it did not insure it. The national government emerged decisively as the protector of the unfortunate and the disadvantaged, and assumed as well the role of guarantor of general economic stability. The New Deal opened up access to political power for groups such as labor, farmers, Jews, and blacks -- effectively destroying the one-interest government of the 1920s under which large business and the WASP elite had dominated public policy almost without opposition. In these changes Leuchtenburg finds a "halfway revolution," offsetting the economic defeats suffered by the New Deal.

Notice that the reforms Leuchtenburg in this final chapter of his book are chiefly political reforms. The New Deal's immediate economic impact may have been small, but Leuchtenburg thinks that the political changes it made had far-reaching social effects, many of them economic. In other words, if the political system had become more democratic, more responsive to numbers than to property, one could expect economic changes to follow. In this perspective, the New Deal's political achievements made nearly inevitable the dramatic economic changes it aimed at but did not quite achieve in the 1930s.

Some younger scholars, among them Barton J. Bernstein (the author of the third essay in this part), make a number of criticisms of the theory that the New Deal brought substantial changes to American society. They argue that there has been no significant redistribution of income or wealth since the New Deal, only a gradual rise in the overall standard of living which is attributable to economic expansion. These scholars therefore question whether the national government, even after the changes it underwent in the 1930s, has actually exerted a progressive, redistributive force in modern America. The federal tax system, they correctly point out, is not now and never has been strongly progressive, New Deal or no New Deal. And the bulk of federal spending, despite the label "Welfare State," has gone toward warfare. Given this view of post-World War II public policy, they can claim that Leuchtenburg has exaggerated the importance of the political changes brought by the New Deal. As Bernstein puts it in his essay, the New Deal admitted additional groups to political power, but they were the well-organized, middle-class farmers and workers who wanted only a larger slice of the benefits of capitalism, not a new game where profits and decision-making in the economy were democratically shared. The really disadvantaged groups -- such as the unemployed, the unskilled workers, the ethnic minorities -- were still excluded from the political system even after the New Deal. Further, Bernstein argues, the New Deal did nothing to alter the structure or the rules of the Congress, and it had almost no effect on politics at the state and local levels. Thus the political changes described by Leuchtenburg, such as the opening of the political system to more organized groups and the greater vigor of the federal government, played into the hands of industrial and financial elites, who not only absorbed these changes readily but found that they actually contributed to the stability of the existing system.

Can Leuchtenburg's interpretation stand up against such criticisms? One might argue that the political changes Leuchtenburg describes were real enough and structurally significant and that critics such as Bernstein misread the history of the United States since the New Deal, refusing to see that public policy has been essentially liberal and that economic gains have in fact been steadily made by the lower classes. Or, conceding that the political

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