WASHINGTON – The haunting U2 lyric, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” captures what many Americans seem to feel about politics in 2016. And a lot of us are looking backward.
Donald Trump’s pledge to make our country great again captures the longing of some of his supporters for a time when our country was less diverse – and when a less open global market created the circumstances for a large, well-paid working class.
Trump doesn’t talk about it, but incomes also rose because of a robust union movement. The era of labor power feeds nostalgia on the left for the glory days that ran from the 1940s through the 1960s when living wages underwrote strong families and upward mobility.
The postwar era “was an extraordinarily good time to be a worker,” says the historian Jefferson Cowie. “For the very first time in U.S. history, business, the government, and workers all accepted unions and collective bargaining as legitimate pillars of American working life.”
“As a result,” he writes in “The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics,” one of the year’s most important political books, “more income, more equality, more optimism, more leisure, more consumer goods, more travel, more entertainment, more expansive homes, and more education were all available … to regular people than at any other time in world history.”
But as Cowie’s title suggests, he sees the New Deal’s arrangements as the consequence of an exceptional pushback against our historical tendency to resist collective solutions. “Moral reform” and “corporate power,” he says, are more dominant in our story.
In addition, the New Deal’s dependence on the white South made FDR’s administration extremely timid on justice for African-Americans. When the logic of American liberalism led to civil rights, the old coalition shattered.
And then there were the effects of restrictive immigration laws passed before Roosevelt took office. “The unintended result of a conservative racial immigration policy,” Cowie writes, “was the cohesion necessary for the most liberal period in American history.”
It’s no wonder that those old animosities have come roaring back: In 1970, as the New Deal era began its decline, only 4.7 percent of Americans were foreign born; in 2013, the percentage was 13.1 percent, back up to levels at the turn of the last century.
Progressives, Cowie argues, should stop pretending that the New Deal era is easily replicable. They need to understand how many stars had to align to make its breakthroughs possible. “Our present politics,” he concludes, “ought not be misled by freewheeling historical analogies based on an extraordinarily unique period in American history.”
“The Great Exception” is a healthy splash of cold water in the face of a nostalgic liberalism. But as Sam Rosenfeld of Wesleyan University has noted, the constraints on policies of a New Deal sort are not uniquely American: Western European social democracy faces some of the same quandaries that confront pro-labor Democrats.
Moreover, if nostalgia can be problematic, two of the country’s shrewdest students of politics and social policy, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, argue that amnesia is a problem, too. “We are told that the United States got rich in spite of government,” they write, “when the truth is closer to the opposite: The United States got rich because it got government more or less right.”
In “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper,” they go back even before the New Deal to argue that a mixed economy involving both a strong government and a strong private sector “marked America’s long and extraordinary ascent.” It allowed us to be “the first middle-class nation, the runaway leader in high school and then college graduation rates, the unrivaled champion in medical innovation and basic scientific research.”
Too often, we discuss “gridlock” and “polarization” as if everybody and thus nobody is to blame for them. Hacker and Pierson rightly see Washington’s stalemate as the product of a right-wing ideology that has moved us away from the tradition of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln. This great triumvirate celebrated “a constructive and mutually beneficial tension between markets and government” rather than pitting them in a “jealous rivalry.”
It ought to be possible to fight both nostalgia and amnesia. New Dealism, as Cowie argues, is not the only model for progressives. And many who saw themselves as conservative once acknowledged the constructive power of government. You don’t have to long for some lost golden era to believe that we Americans can do better – again.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.