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.
- 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.
- Anticommunist domestic policy. The respectable spectrum ran from Truman to McCarthy, but their differences were always more about style than substance.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?