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From New Deal to New Liberalism

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 23, Number 4, December 1995
pp. 710-715 | 10.1353/rah.1997.0092

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Reviews in American History 23.4 (1995) 710-715

Alan Brinkley. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Knopf, 1995. x 271 pp. Archival sources, notes, and index. $27.50.

This is an important addition to New Deal historiography, but, as with many other academic monographs, the subtitle tells more than the title. The book's primary purpose is not to examine the end of reform but to explain how and why American liberalism was transformed. In that it brings together much that is already known and advances no startling new interpretations, it can be described as a synthesis; but it is synthesis of a high order. No other book covers the ground with such mastery and at numerous points a new insight or citation illuminates what has hitherto been obscure. Seventy-two archival sources and eighty-one pages of notes (several of them condensed historiographical essays) demonstrate the width and depth of his learning. Even more telling is the good judgment with which the material is handled.

The New Deal gave birth to a new species of liberalism. In Roosevelt's words, quoted by Brinkley, its leading characteristic was "a changed concept of the duty and responsibility of government toward economic life." Progressive moralism slipped into the background, city bosses were flattered rather than challenged, all forms of populism were distrusted as antiintellectual and irrational, racial questions were avoided, gender was not yet an issue, and so far as the New Dealers were concerned anyone could imbibe as much alcohol as they wished. What the New Deal liberals did have in overflowing measure was intellectual energy harnessed to the conviction that society could be reconstructed on just, rational, and efficient lines, and that the intelligent use of political power would make general welfare more than an empty phrase. To these liberals of the New Deal everything seemed possible after the election of 1936; then came recession to show that it was not. Worse followed with the ill-fated attempt to reform the Supreme Court, the loss of the Executive Reorganization Bill, and the resurgence of conservative and frequently virulent opposition. In the next five years appropriations for the Works Progress Administration were cut and cut again until it expired, other New Deal innovations were dropped or rendered ineffective, and the National Resources Planning Board -- repository for so many liberal hopes -- was killed. During the war industrialists won praise but mismanagement in the wartime agencies discredited government direction of the economy. Faced by these setbacks and operating in a cold climate liberals so modified their own attitudes and aims that Brinkley can write with authority of a "new liberalism" emerging during the years of disillusion and war, and maintain that it rather than the New Deal was the parent of liberalism as it is known today.

The new liberalism was less adventurous than the old and not merely because intellects grew weary. In the heady days of the early New Deal, liberals had assumed that capitalism would remain but could be transformed; new liberals recognized that in all essentials it would remain the same. Despite a few attempts at resuscitation the ideas that had inspired the NRA were dead. Big business might still be unpopular, but political antimonopoly faded away. Facing a future in which corporate power would survive and probably grow stronger, liberals shifted their emphasis from regulation to fiscal management, from disciplining producers to protecting consumers, from emergency measures of relief to a permanent and expanding welfare system. They dropped the idea that the economy was mature and looked for growth, putting profits into private pockets with the proviso that it must also provide full employment. Victory of a sort came with Truman's triumph in 1948 but the Fair Deal was separated by an intellectual gulf from the New Deal.

Brinkley's introduction and epilogue provide a stimulating overview of this decisive stage in the history of American liberalism. The ten chapters that make up the body of the book provide massive substance to support his generalizations, but close argument and much detail should not deter readers. His style is fluent, lucid, readable, and devoid of pretentious jargon. Also the text...