U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Postwar Liberal Consensus: History and Historiography

I’ve been invited to give a talk at the US Embassy in London on November 15, as part of a colloquium put on by the American Politics Group (APG) UK. With the event happening a week before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, the overarching theme of the day will be “Beyond the Liberal Consensus.” One of the reasons I was invited is because my work on the culture wars seems suited to such a theme. In fact, one of the arguments I make in my book, as regular readers of this blog must know by now, is that the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s were one of the chief legacies of the sixties, when the postwar liberal consensus died an ignominious death. I title my forthcoming talk: “The End of Consensus and the Origins of the Culture Wars.”

Before making the case that the postwar liberal consensus died, I obviously need to briefly demonstrate the existence of a postwar liberal consensus. This post, then, poses questions about history and historiography. Was there a postwar liberal consensus? If so, what held it together? Did the consensus fall apart? When? Why? What’s the best and most recent historiography on the postwar liberal consensus and its collapse?

Last week, while discussing the liberal consensus with my graduate students, I emphasized five areas of broad agreement that held it together. I also qualified the list by showing how every area had its discontents.

  1. Anticommunist foreign policy. The respectable spectrum ran from George Kennan to John Foster Dulles but did not include Henry Wallace or pre-war conservative isolationism.
  2. Anticommunist domestic policy. The respectable spectrum ran from Truman to McCarthy, but their differences were always more about style than substance.
  3. New Deal. Both major political parties agreed that a modest welfare state was necessary, if not good. This aspect of the consensus extended into labor relations, as workers were allowed to collectively bargain for wages but not for control of the workplace.
  4. Gender relations. This might have been one of the most powerful forms of consensus, as the traditional nuclear family, and all that it entailed, had about 20 years of unprecedented stability.
  5. Race relations. There was only a consensus on race relations insofar as African Americans were not taken into consideration, which they weren’t by the vast majority of white Americans north and south.

This list is far from exhaustive, so please add to it, or register your disagreements. For example, I might have added something about consumer culture, or about liberal intellectual life (which registered in the historical discipline as “consensus history.”) What would you add? What do you make of the history and historiography of the postwar liberal consensus?

35 Thoughts on this Post

  1. That’s a very comprehensive list, but I might also add something about the political economic significance and the prestige–intellectual and social–of applied scientific research, the mostly unquestioned principle underlying the military-industrial complex and the expansion of the research university (which were, of course, related).

  2. As either a subset or separate category of “New Deal,” I’d add Modernization Theory. David Ekbladh’s The Great American Mission wonderfully ties together the New Deal (especially the TVA) and 1950s developmental efforts.

    • Sorry, that should be “a subset of or separate category from” the New Deal. Personally, I’d lean toward subset, as it reinforces the interdependency of domestic and foreign policy.

    • Sorryx2: Let me add that, after reading Ekbladh, I don’t think you can define liberal apart from modernization theory.

    • As a subset of the New Deal and the destruction of WWII, I’d add *prosperity* as a necessary condition of the consensus. That prosperity is amply covered by James T. Patterson in his *Grand Expectations* text.

  3. I do not agree that there was a consensus on race relations, even among whites. It seems that lines were drawn pretty clearly on what was widely perceived as the central racial issue of the time: the viability of Jim Crow in the south. It’s hard to envision a consensus that would include, say, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Russell, two figures both firmly rooted in the establishment. Certainly Southern segregationist Democrats had an unbreakable hold on the Senate, which made progress on the issue impossible for a long period of time. But I would not go so far as to characterize that state of affairs as a consensus.

    • Mike O’Connor on September 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm said:
      I do not agree that there was a consensus on race relations, even among whites.

      Sir, if I may, a democratic republican consensus for the ages.

      “It is said on the night he died, Victor Hugo made this closing entry in his diary: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

      Later it was put in more dramatic form: “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose hour has come.”

      This is the issue with which we have been wrestling for months. There will be continued resistance for one reason or another. There will in some quarters be a steadfast refusal to come to grips with what seems an inevitable challenge which must be met. The idea of equal opportunity to vote, to secure schooling, to have public funds equitably spent, to have public parks and playgrounds equally accessible, to have an equal opportunity for a livelihood without discrimination, to be equal before the law—the hour for this idea has come and it will not be denied or resisted.”

      With that the Senate minority leader broke the back of the Dixiecrat filibuster of 1964. Forever. We should not despair.

  4. #1 and #2 could be subsumed under the Cold War, and prosperity as well—enabled by post-WWII state capitalism subsidizing the defense industry (and related space program and STEM higher edu).

  5. 1. A general push toward ecumenical religion, in which denominational distinctions were minimized in favor of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition.
    2. A commitment to the notion that “abundance” had eliminated earlier sources of social conflict, and that labor, for instance, was fully committed to “the American Way” of increased affluence, homeownership, and consumer capitalism.
    3. Following on 2: a shift in critical social thought away from Marx and class conflict, and toward Freud and concerns with the psychic costs of modernity, abundance, and mass conformity.

    • I particularly agree with #2 and by extension this was a commitment to the notion of a growing middle class and the opportunity for advancement through education with the adoption of the GI bill.

  6. An excellent list here, although I think the section on race, as Mike O’Connor stated, was up for grabs from at least the Second World War. But I get what you’re saying; while there was considerable dissent on the issue of race, it’s debatable as to whether or not it was enough to bother the post-war consensus.

    Certainly, thinking about moments like the 1948 Democratic National Convention, when Harry Truman decided to pursue the African American vote and allowed the Dixiecrats to walk out shows, at the very least, some wiggle room within the Consensus narrative on race. However, by the time the Consensus is unraveling, race has gone from a moral issue (back?) towards a more complicated issue, featuring problems of law and order, economics, and affirmative action (which is certainly within the economics too).

    • However, by the time the Consensus is unraveling, race has gone from a moral issue (back?) towards a more complicated issue, featuring problems of law and order, economics, and affirmative action (which is certainly within the economics too).

      Perhaps less complicated, then?

  7. I wonder about the idea of consensus itself – ie, are there different forms or degrees of consensus? Is there a consensus about consensus? There could have been surface level consensus while deeper fractures existed below the surface, fractures that might have pre-figured the ’60s breakdown. I especially wonder about the more conservative leaning liberals. Some historians have said that the 1940s culture wars were fairly cold when compared to the ’80s, but there was no love lost between folks like Adler and Dewey.

    • I think the notion that there was a surface consensus with disagreement festering underneath is a good one. From the political side of things, the Eisenhower Republicans certainly bought in to most of the five points above, but the conservative, minority wing did not. LIke wise, the Northern Democrats made race relations a priority while their Southern colleagues took a different tack.

      I also do not know if saying the differences between Truman and McCarthy were style versus substance. More diversity of opinion was present, but it was also crowded out of the realm of public discourse by the two individuals mentioned above, as well as Schlesinger’s Vital Center. If there was consensus on anti-communism it was achieved through things like the Taft-Hartley Act and the chilling of free speech, rather than any sort of mutual understanding.

  8. If we are going to let point #1 stand on foreign policy then I think added to that should be something about a consensus regarding nuclear weapons. Like foreign policy, which had plenty of debates within it, there was an anti-nuclear movement but the build up and general public ambivalence about the militarization of American foreign policy should be included. Michael Sherry’s book continues to stand up well as does the more recent work on Andrew Bacevich.
    Second area might be a general consensus on those symbols that Americans believed represented the nation is an abstract sense, not just in a civil religious way, but in the way that Wendy Wall, John Bodnar, and other explain were manufactured by a combination of civic, religious, and corporate interests.

    • I think you make a great point on the idea of American symbols becoming part of the Consensus. As Wall and others have shown, these were all highly contested. I think it’s also a reminder of how fragile the consensus in the 50s and most of the 60s actually was.

  9. Reading this exchange, I think that just about every point of your consensus has been debated or adjusted except for number 4, on gender. If there was one thing that just about everyone could agree on–not just now, but then–that seems to be it.

    In terms of race relations, I think there was a liberal consensus on the need for mild reform on matters of public discrimination along with a commitment to racial equality in principle. Desegregation of the military, Jackie Robinson, Myrdal’s American Dilemma, and of course Brown v. Board–these all fit within the consensus. When reform turned to revolution–when control of events shifted from liberal elites to the marchers–that when the consensus started to crack.

    • “In terms of race relations, I think there was a liberal consensus on the need for mild reform on matters of public discrimination along with a commitment to racial equality in principle.”

      Southern whites were passionately opposed to anything along these lines, and did not even rhetorically accept racial equality. As was pointed out above, Strom Thurmond and his followers walked out of the Democratic convention over these issues, even though, most assumed, it would cost Truman the presidency. The southern response to “Brown v. Board” took the form of “massive resistance,” and they essentially did not follow the ruling. Many southerners founded “segregation academies” to avoid having their children go to school with blacks, and Eisenhower had to call in the military to desegregate Central High. In the Senate, southern Democrats would stop government government business for as long as it took to halt even the most moderate reforms.

      Among whites, there were racial liberals and there were segregationists. These were two well-defined sides with little room for compromise: the very antithesis of consensus.

      • The Democratic Party was not synonymous with liberalism, and no where was the line between the two more clear than on matters of race.

        As you note, there were racial liberals and there were segregationists; the former were part of the consensus the latter were outside it.

      • Unless Republican support of civil rights legislation counts, “Democratic Party” still seems a necessary component of “liberal” consensus here.

        However, there was little difference between the candidates in the 1960 election–in fact, Jackie Robinson endorsed Nixon because he believed he had a deeper commitment to civil rights; JFK ran on a [questionable] “missile gap.”

        Further, 1964 and 1972 saw two of the great landslides of American history, one for each party. Landslides suggest consensus, and indeed one existed per AH’s list [although the gender angle seems the most problematic].

        As Jonathan Hagel points out above

        When reform turned to revolution–when control of events shifted from liberal elites to the marchers–that when the consensus started to crack./blockquote>

        the radicalization of the liberal-left circa 1968 may be the outlier in the American consensus as reflected in the elections of 1964 and 1972, as galling as the thought of Nixon’s place in the “liberal consensus” might be.

  10. One of the things that I take from Hofstadter is that an era’s partisans will define their period with reference to conflict, while a later view might reveal that even these opponents share some deeper commitments that they don’t even realize. I think that’s fairly well generalized to just about any era, even if Hofstadter himself wouldn’t want to go that far (as far as I know).

    In that sense, what’s unique about the postwar period is not necessarily that the people who lived in it shared overlapping commitments. That dynamic is likely true of any era. (I know of more communists in the fifties than I do supporters of Islamic fundamentalism in American public life today.) What seemed particularly interesting about the postwar consensus, on my understanding, is not merely that it existed, but that its adherents believed so strongly in the virtues of consensus itself. Though many voiced concerns about the stultifying effects of conformity, these complaints arose against the background of a strong presumption of the (perceived) lack of conflict in the United States. To me, the belief in the value of consensus itself (motivated powerfully by the fear of communism and nuclear war) is as important as the particularly contents of that consensus.

  11. I think Mike O’Connor makes a good point about the liberal consensus—the urge to believe in it, to assert its validity ideologically and its success politically, economically, socially—seems peculiar to the post-WWII era. The consciousness of consensus is perhaps what distinguishes it from other moments of consolidated politics and ideology in the US.

    I think what’s most striking about the liberal consensus in retrospect is the devil’s bargain between anti-communist foreign policy and New Deal welfare politics on the home front. This was at once what made the liberal consensus possible, it seems to me, providing a broad enough coalition for it to seem like common sense to enough Americans and it was what would, of course, prove to be its fatal flaw, since eventually the center could not hold.

    The conjoining of anticommunist foreign policy and domestic welfare state politics in the postwar liberal consensus has sparked what to be has been one of the most intriguing and contentious debates in recent American historiography: was anti-communism a blockade to postwar reform efforts such as the civil rights movement because it excised radicals from their key roles as activists (Manning Marable, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Ellen Schrecker, and others) or did anticommunism actually provide a political opening for activists to demand the realization of democratic equality that the US claimed made its system better than the USSR’s communism (Mary Dudziak, Jeremi Suri, and others)? Was anticommunism the downfall of the push for social reform coming out of the New Deal and WWII or was it the key opportunity?

    Your answer to this question may have most to do with your position on radicalism in the US during the 20th century. (Meanwhile, of course, the conservative movement was gathering steam during this time, perhaps because it was not as beholden to the tensions between liberalism and radicalism? Conservative political historians, how would you address the rise of the right in relation to the liberal consensus? Did it extend certain aspects of the consensus or was it its own kind of radical break—the weird ways in which American conservatism is, in its Orwellian way, in fact radical?)

    Another odd quality of the liberal consensus, building on Mike’s observation, is that it was always shadowed by what we might call its “evil twin”: conformity, which was an equally obsessive concern during this period. The very same intellectual milieu producing works on the value of consensus was also quite anxious about conformity. For every Arthur Schlesinger Jr. there was a David Riesman, for every Hofstader or Daniel Boorstin a C. Wright Mills, right alongside a John Kenneth Galbraith was, er, John Kenneth Galbraith. So the irony might be that the liberal consensus was not only affirmatively conscious of its asserted values but also quite consciously ambivalent and concerned about the very values espoused. The liberal consensus was in agreement at some level about its uncertainty concerning itself. That’s what perhaps made it so entrancing but also so doomed.

    Everything in this post I learned from Phil Ochs,
    Love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLqKXrlD1TU),

    • MichaelK, thx for the Phil Ochs as a lesson in cultural literacy. Hehheh. Delightful, esp coming from “liberalism’s” left—a sharper sting than if from [the estimable but mugwumpish] Tom Lehrer.

      My apologies to those here gathered for previous comments on the American consensus via the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Sen. Dirksen’s historic “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” speech—the topic is the subset of “liberal” consensus, which as used here seems to be synonymous with “Democratic Party.” The discussion isn’t theology, it’s ecclesiology.

    • @Michael Kramer:
      A thought-provoking comment. I’m not up on the specifics of the historiographical debate you refer to re postwar anticommunism and its relation to social reform. With that caveat, my two cents would be: the Manning Marable et al position (anticommunism impeded or at least didn’t help domestic social reform efforts b.c it removed or diminished radicals’ roles) probably has some validity, at least it sounds reasonable; at the same time, the fact of the Cold War did allow proponents of social reform to argue that the existence of legalized segregation gave the USSR a weapon in the propaganda wars and that civil rights legislation would deprive the USSR of that ‘weapon’. So I think the lines of the question needn’t be drawn as starkly as you have, but as I say I don’t really know the historiography here.

      I think Mark Edwards, upthread, is right to mention modernization theory and foreign aid/development, and I’d add not only in its connection to the New Deal but also to anticommunism. I haven’t read Ekbladh’s book, mentioned by M. Edwards, nor other recent work on modernization theory (e.g. by Nils Gilman or Robert Latham), but Robert Packenham’s older book Liberal America and the Third World I think is still valuable.

  12. Excellent list, with good correctives in the comments. Somewhere in there is the observation of a consensus that materialism was at the core of “the American Dream,” and that endless material progress and economic growth were possible, politically necessary, and morally good.

    I would propose two additional related components of the mid-20th century liberal consensus: 1) that the natural environment was to be conquered and turned to human use, with no need for concern about the environmental consequences; and 2) that oil would be the main source of energy indefinitely.

  13. Following on Mike O’Connor and Michael Kramer’s comments above that the liberal consensus is a less an accurate description of the boundaries of postwar thought and more an artifact of thought from the period itself–i.e. that there was no more agreement than at any other time in American history, but there was a concerted effort by social and political thinkers to imagine an agreement–I wonder about the ambiguity of the colloquium’s theme “Beyond the Liberal Consensus.” Does it point to the standard narrative of the breakdown of consensus in the 1960s, or does it point to an historiographical shift in seeing the period as an era marked by consensus, and an attempt by historians to remake it as a period of conflict? Historians, of course, have been “beyond consensus” since John Higham created the category of “consensus history,” but there remains a kind of muddiness in the interpretation of the period precisely because of the confusion between the dominance of an idea of consensus during the period and the existence of actual agreement during the period. Andrew, you seem to have interpreted the colloquium theme in terms of the historical breakdown of an actually existing consensus, rather than a historiographical shift away from taking the idea of consensus as a serious descriptor of the era. But that historiographical shift was itself prompted by the emergence of new forms of conflict in the 1960s and after. Perhaps it’s time to flip this on its head: we can imagine the 1950s as a period of latent conflict or culture war, and the 1960s and its aftermath as a period in which the all too apparent surface conflicts were belied by a deep underlying consensus across the political spectrum. Just a thought!

  14. My main goal in this post was to kickstart a conversation that would allow me to think more about the historical and historiographical problems of the “postwar liberal consensus.” You all did a wonderful job, so thank you.

    The most contested of my five points is the one on race, as I expected. I almost didn’t include it because there was such an obvious and irreconcilable difference between racial liberals and Dixiecrats, as Mike so astutely points out. But I think it’s worth considering because: 1) of the deal struck in Congress that didn’t allow for reform; and 2) mainstream liberal thought was mostly silent on the issue until at least Brown and even later, aside from a few notable exceptions (i.e., Gunnar Myrdal). In any case, a good debate.

    I also expected somebody to seriously challenge the very idea that a postwar liberal consensus existed, and by saying that such a consensus was more historiographical than historical (even though, as Dan shows above, the historiographical consensus was dead on arrival). As far as I know, the organizers of the colloquium take the idea of a political consensus seriously. They’re mostly political scientists–known to take the idea of the postwar consensus more seriously than historians. I expected it to be Dan or one of our other esteemed historians of sensibility to call me out on this, i.e., the shift from postwar liberalism to the “age of fracture” was a shift from one consensus, or from one shared set of sensibilities, to another.

    But I would push back on this idea, as usual (this is an ongoing debate I seem to be having with our esteemed historians of sensibility). I am more interested in the political and cultural differences in any given era than in the shared sensibilities. It’s the differences that help me come to an understanding about historical change. This is one way to say that I think there was a postwar liberal consensus, at least compared to what came after it, and that the culture wars are one of the effects of its breakdown.

    • I am struck that Dan is on to something here. The liberal consensus was as an assertion of political normativity during the 1950 and early 60, but there were very real differences roiling in the US about what constituted the good life and how to achieve it: hence the almost neurotic quality of the vital center rhetoric. By contrast, the rancorous atmosphere of the mid 60s and thereafter marked a settling into hegemonic sameness below the noisy surface: as Rodgers argues, a powerful agreement among a wide range of participants about personal choice and free markets seemed to undergird (undermine?) the divisive engagements. Hofstadter might not approve of the content of this argument, but he would like the ironic modality! Michael

  15. I’m actually hammering out the chapter on this for my book right now, so I’ve been watching the list for a day (and stealing with citation) before commenting.

    One thing I’ve found interesting is that the categories you mention, while I’d say are all accurate (including most of the additional categories mentioned in the comments), they are a bit on the surface. I guess I’m still in the model of idealizing Henry May, thinking that intellectual historians should look for the deeper commitments that underlie the social and political ones you mention.

    If we do this (and I reserve the right to be wrong about this–I’m still thinking this through), we might get a list (tripartite!) that, say, starts with a stern belief in human rationality to solve all problems, which then subsumes technology and modernization theory and JFK’s administrators and technocrats, and the Eisenhower Interstate’s broad mapping of America with east-west highways that end in 0s and north-south ones that end in 5). Both the Right and the Left react to this in the 1950s and especially in the 1960s (Jane Jacobs is a great example from the Left, but all the “authenticity” stuff fits too, and the return of the Gospel from the Right and the rejection of, say, Dewey’s progressive education can be examples on the right). Importantly, I’m hard pressed to find a time in US intellectual history when a belief in rationality isn’t vital, from Tom Paine on, but in the postwar period it was an important way in which most Americans understood their life and culture, and took it for granted, and it became a key component that people later (and even then) protested against. There are other aspects too (Judeo-Christian moral order [with gender roles fitting here], belief in corporate capitalism [Keynesian New Deal stuff here, but also Ike’s warning at the end of his presidency), and I’m always struck hard by Schlesinger’s NYT review of WF Buckley’s _Up From Liberalism_, where Schlesinger says, “no liberal I know believes that stuff.” So there’s that.

    Tying it all together (as I see it) is the Cold War. None of this is to say the list is wrong, but I’m eager to locate the deeper commitments, if any exist. And if we can see those as being disrupted by what we think of as “the sixties,” well, then we can understand better why that particular era was so volatile.

    • Excellent thoughts here, Kevin, that point in Andrew Jewett’s direction of a “consensus liberalism” in social science.

  16. I’m trying to keep my powder dry for the S-USIH conference, when I expect that Andrew and I might express slightly different views on the practice and purpose of doing recent history.

    However, since the esteemed historians of sensibility have already shown up, I guess it’s okay for the riff-raff to have a go at this problem. So here I am.

    What I wonder is this: when you (Andrew) “push back” on the idea of underlying commonalities, because you are “more interested” in differences, is this because you find the historical judgment of those who see commonalities unsound, or simply unsatisfying? In other words, do you think these insights are wrong, or do you just not like where they lead?


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