The New Deal and American Liberalism

New Deal and American Liberalism Cover Page

Cover page of "The New Deal and American Liberalism" manuscript. Click here for full text (PDF).

This fascinating unpublished essay ties together many of the themes and ideas in the unpublished introduction to The American Political Tradition that is also featured in this exhibition. The document is undated, but references in the text suggest that it was written at the end of the 1940s.

"The New Deal and American Liberalism" clarifies the extent to which Richard Hofstadter viewed New Deal liberalism with a certain amount of skepticism in the decade between when he completed The American Political Tradition and the publication of his next book, The Age of Reform. The essay draws on historical analysis to shed light on the contemporary situation. As such, it reflects Hofstadter's continued interest in blending history with social criticism: while, for him, the present could only be understood through the past, the past was only worth examining in light of present-day dilemmas.

The essay, which is digitized in full for the first time as part of this exhibition, begins with a summary of the American liberal creed that expands on Hofstadter's description in The American Political Tradition. Here, he emphasizes the "humanism" of American liberalism -- not just its faith in economic individualism, but its democratic "belief in the rights and potentialities of the common man and in the diffusion of political power, subordination of vested interests to the common welfare, hostility to big capital and entrenched property rights, respect for civil liberties and dissenting opinion" [66].

New Deal liberals, he argues, rely on the same rhetoric as much earlier, say, Jeffersonian, liberals, but their actual goals are, he writes, so far apart as to suggest "an immense transformation of society" [67]. What are those changes? Since 1929, the country has seen "the decline of the market economy and the accelerated growth of the national state"; "the liberals of the New Deal era" presided over a mushrooming federal budget and a dramatic expansion of the powers and responsibilities of the federal government [68]. "The resulting situation," he writes, is "antithetical to that faced by liberals at the beginning of the nation's history" [69].

Hofstadter goes on to narrate the evolution of American liberalism in response to changes in political economy and society, particularly the rise of large-scale corporate enterprise and the need for federal intervention in the market. In the 1930s, the arguments that divided liberals during the Progressive Era suddenly became obsolete, as the New Deal created "a huge federal bureaucracy" and a large, concentrated labor movement [70]. In the process, FDR's administration "changed the social basis of American liberalism" [71]. A new discourse and a "new ideal of planning" has replaced the previous model of business competition [72]. (Meanwhile, as the interest of organized labor has become recognized as consonant with the public interest, the labor movement itself has become a player in directing policy, shifting toward "a kind of industrial statecraft" [73].)

No longer agnostic about bureaucracy, American liberals now accept its inevitability and even permanence. Their ideas, too, have undergone an altogether revolutionary change, best symbolized in the work of iconoclastic thinkers like the legal theorist Thurman Arnold, who stressed the irrationality of political behavior, and the economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated for state intervention in the market. The result is that a new set of ideals, such as planning and full employment, "have now taken their place in the official rhetoric of liberalism," thus marking a complete turnabout from the assumptions and vision of an earlier liberalism [74].

President Harry S. Truman Signing National Security Act Amendment of 1949

President Harry S. Truman, with military advisors, signing the National Security Act Amendment of 1949 (Courtesy Harry S. Truman Library & Museum).

But is this transformation a good thing? Hofstadter refers, with apparent neutrality, to the point of view "shared by some conservatives and some radicals, that continued planning and continued interpenetration of governmental, business, labor, and military bureaucracies will not lead to freedom and welfare but to military preparedness, restriction of political rights, and an enforced solidarity of interests in a garrison state... [and that] the reconciliation of powerful contending interests in American politics will be most easily attained in war or under a garrison state whose central goal is preparation for war" [75].

In the final few paragraphs, Hofstadter expands on this criticism of the new liberalism, in the process taking the side of the conservatives and radicals to which he alludes. Government expenditures, he explains, no longer apply to domestic policy: the US has entered an arena of global conflict, and the threat of Soviet power has intensified pressure on Congress for a bloated defense budget. He concludes with a sober warning for the atomic age: "The foreign situation is the Achilles heel of American liberalism. War, and preparation for war, convert all the slogans and techniques of liberalism -- planning, full employment, the defense of 'liberty,' social solidarity -- to non-liberal ends... [A]pathy toward politics has become more costly than ever" [76].

Hofstadter's analysis draws in part on the work of political scientist Harold Lasswell, particularly his influential 1941 article, "The Garrison State." But his prescient warning about the danger that military preparedness poses to democracy also anticipates later remarks from President Dwight D. Eisenhower regarding the military-industrial complex, as well as the arguments put forward by critics of American foreign policy in the 1960s. Closer to the moment when Hofstadter was writing, a number of libertarians, anarchists, and pacifists stood outside the emerging liberal consensus in favor of the US military buildup: critic Dwight Macdonald, for instance, and others, like Hofstadter's friend and colleague C. Wright Mills, who were affiliated with his journal, politics magazine.

The conclusion to "The New Deal and American Liberalism" neither heralds a revolutionary overthrow of the existing order, nor expresses hope for a return to a mythical past. Hofstadter, ever the realist, instead points to the slim possibility that liberalism can rescue itself from failure. Hope, he argues, "depends upon the viability of... the humanistic core of the liberal tradition," the set of values that he underscores at the beginning of the essay [77]. Sounding much like John Dewey, the American philosopher and tireless democrat, he writes: "So long as [liberalism's] humanistic and libertarian goals hold their grip upon the national imagination, the possibility of fruitful substantive experimentation is held open..." [78].