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  • Taking Exception
  • Christopher Phelps (bio) and Jefferson Cowie (bio)

Jefferson Cowie's new book The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (2016) follows his award-winning contributions Capital Moves: RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (2000) and Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010).

The Great Exception's argument should be broadly familiar to labor historians, since a trial balloon coauthored with Nick Salvatore appeared as "The Long Exception" in International Labor and Working-Class History 74 (2008), generating debate with a number of prominent scholars.

The new book extends the argument, holding that the New Deal was brought about only by the contingency of a colossal Great Depression and the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sealed by war. Weighing such variables as race, immigration, individualism, and the state, Cowie argues that convergences unlikely to repeat themselves laid the foundation for a more equitable form of political economy than existed before or since.

The following dialogue between Cowie and historian Christopher Phelps puts those propositions to the test.

Christopher Phelps:

The Great Exception argues that we should put the New Deal paradigm behind us as an aspiration for our political objectives. At the same time, the bulk of the book is a cogent exposition of the New Deal's success in establishing a high degree of economic citizenship—at least for the white, male working class—producing much greater income and wealth equality in the ensuing forty years than before or since. Why shouldn't we advocate a restoration of the Wagner Act to its full glory?

Jefferson Cowie:

If ever there was bedrock evidence of my argument, it is the Wagner Act. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was part of the one big bang in the advancement of private-sector collective bargaining in the United States. For the entire postwar era and beyond, labor's efforts to reform labor law have largely come up empty despite untold millions in lobbying efforts. Attempts to repeal parts of Taft-Hartley, eliminate striker replacement, or do a complete overhaul in the form [End Page 95] of the Employee Choice Act failed under every Democratic administration between Truman and Obama.

So there are few things more futile in American politics than reforming labor law or more unique in American history than its creation. Because of this, the NLRA—along with Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)—need to be militantly defended in all of their glorious dysfunction whenever possible. Witness, for instance, the overtime rules under the Obama administration, which make important gestures toward restoring key aspects of the FLSA.

While we need to preserve what is great about the old system, this book serves as an intellectual and political challenge to overthrow tired, golden-age thinking so that we may begin anew.


But isn't the very concept of "the great exception" a case of golden-age thinking? That is, to cast the New Deal order as a special, privileged island in American history is itself an idealization, isn't it?


It was a privileged island for working-class Americans, but let's not idealize it. It may have been an island, but waters were creeping up all around it. An era in which workers' interests were embedded in the state stands in contrast to the rough seas they faced since the dawn of the industrial era—and have been returned to today.

The question is not a simple binary of good or bad, idealized or pathologized, golden or tarnished. In the postwar era, inequality went down and prospects for regular people went up. But it was also very exclusive demographically, and, while it had the illusion of permanence, very unstable as well. Let's embrace complexity here.


You treat the New Deal order as a true exception, a time when the laws of gravity of American political culture were momentarily suspended, with the two Gilded Ages bracketing it being more in line with core American values. In fact, you write of the United States as a "complex and conservative place" and speak of "the individualist ethos so deeply embedded in . . . America...


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pp. 95-99
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