- Inventing the "American Way": The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement
The word "consensus" grates like few others in American Studies scholarship. The idea of a broadly accepted set of values seems inapposite to a discipline that defines itself largely through conflict and fracture. Yet some periods of American history are more united—or less disunited—than others. Wendy L. Wall's study of the two decades spanning the late New Deal, Second World War, and early Cold War shows how government officials, business leaders, advertising executives, unionists, interfaith activists and left-liberals coalesced around a vision of an "American Way" that enabled the nation to survive economic dislocation and global conflict.
The price of consensus, in Wall's opinion, was high. As war clouds gathered, it forced the issue of economic justice that had animated the labor movement in the early years of the New Deal beneath the surface of national debate; class-based resentments could not be permitted to overshadow the existential threat posed by totalitarianism. The looming military crisis produced strange bedfellows. It united businessmen determined to protect their managerial prerogatives from New Deal-inspired government regulation and liberals eager to include non-Protestant "ethnics" in the national polity. The agendas of both converged in an "American Way" ideology that emphasized class harmony in a growth-oriented capitalist economy and religious, ethnic, and racial tolerance in a pluralist culture and society. For one of the few times in the nation's history, a common creed united Americans on the left and right.
Wall views the "American Way" with thinly disguised distaste. Much of it is justified. Consensus implies conformity, and the parameters of national values between the late 1930s and early 1960s were cramped and narrow. Corporate elites, in partnership with the advertising industry, employed the "American Way" to marginalize critics of capitalism and promote a reflexive Cold War patriotism that fed the fires of anti-communist hysteria. The "American Way" ethos, Wall argues, "privileged civility over equality" (172), and perpetuated class-based injustice through the myth of interclass harmony. Indeed, the entire "American Way" project had the quality of myth, and Wall untangles the web of ideology, self-interest, and cynicism that produced it. But myths have their uses. The "American Way" offered the United States the unity it desperately needed to fight and win the most important war in human history. In addition, it helped popularize an ideal of tolerance and inclusion that would in time have a profound effect on American race relations, making possible the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. For these reasons alone, the consensus generated by the "American Way," artificial and contrived as it was, may have been worth the price. American history contains numerous examples of noble acts that spring from morally ambiguous roots. "Consensus" may not be the most popular word in the field of American Studies, but in the case of the "American Way," it may have offered us more than we realize.