The unraveling of America

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Allen J. Matusow. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. 1984. reprinted New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1986. 439p. $18.00

Summary

In the 1960s American Liberalism took a firm hold on the levers of power in the UNited States. Liberal politicians were finally able to take the actions necessary to turn their political theories into real programs. Then everything seemed to go wrong and liberalism began to loose favor with the electorate in this country. Allen Matsuow's book is a detailed history of this process as he seeks out the causes for the failure of liberalism. This is a sympathetic history, as would be expected from a self confessed liberal, but one that holds the success of liberalism itself at fault for its downfall.

Matusow's history of liberalism during the 1960s falls into three periods. The first is a period of ascendancy during the Kennedy administration. The author is ambivalent toward John Kennedy’s liberal credentials. He considers Kennedy a politician who adopted liberal positions for pragmatic reasons rather than a true believer in a liberal philosophy. There was a lot of talk but little action because as a politician Kennedy didn’t want to alienate any particular faction by taking to hard a line on a issue. As an example Kennedy would attempt to placate the civil rights movement by convincing them that executive orders rather than legislation were all that was needed to achieve equality. Championing legislation would put him at odds with southern Democrats who opposed civil rights. However, Kennedy having been involved even weakly with many liberal political policies allowed Johnson to begin to enact them in what would have been the last year of Kennedy’s first term.

Matusow’s second period falls between 1964 and 1967, the Great Society period. As the policies begin to go into effect thing do not work out the way the theorist had predicted. Where once full employment and inflation were seen as positive economic conditions, conditions that help get the country out of the Great Depression, they had become economic liabilities. The more the government did the worse the inflation got. Inflation drove up the cost of living and the cost of everything else including the government. This led to a spiral of increasing taxes and increasing prices that by 1967 seemed would go on without end.

Civil rights also turn out differently. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the middle of the decade raised expectations. When improvements, especially in the urban centers of the north did not improve immediately unrest developed. By the end of the decade inner-city ghettoes in several major cities had experienced riots that lasted days before order could be restored.

The final period of the book is the 1968 election when the country turned against the liberalism of the previous administration and elected Richard Nixon. As is the theme throughout the book Matusow sees Nixon’s election as a failure of liberalism rather than a victory of conservatism.

This is good synthetic history of the national politics of the 60s. It focuses on the liberal side but this is proper for what is in essence a history of liberalism during that period. Matusow has some primary sources but relies mostly on secondary sources. There are no new revelations just good solid history.

Commentary (leeannghajar, fall 2005)

Liberalism failed during the turbulent decade of the 1960s, according to Allen Matusow’s analysis in The Unraveling of America. In a three-part, synthetic history, Matusow traces the rise and fall of the American domestic agenda against racism and poverty. Parts One and Two are chronological narratives, the first covering the Kennedy administration, civil rights, and the origins of the War on Poverty; the second continues the civil rights and war on poverty narrative through the Johnson years. Part Three of the Unraveling departs from the chronology and focuses on the counterculture including hippies, the Black Power movement, the New Left, antiwar activists, and Weathermen. Matusow concludes his narrative of liberal failure with the 1968 election and their political defeat.

Unraveling raises two important questions: What was liberalism in the 1960s? And of course, Why did it fail? Matusow argues that in the post-World War II era, liberalism aligned with “regnant classes and institutions.” It was an alliance based upon guilt. During the Depression, liberals had flirted with Marxism, idealized common folk, joined popular front groups manipulated by Communists, and praised Russia as a progressive state. (4) Stalin demonstrated the evils of totalarianism, and in a backlash, liberals flocked to the crusade against Soviet communism. In the face of postwar prosperity, they no longer battled the corporation, but saw it as an element of progress. They eschewed political ideology and argument and focused any critique on the “organization man and mass consumerism,”—on values, not politics. (8)

Matusow believes that the Russian launch of Sputnik changed the liberal agenda—or in fact, gave them an agenda, but it was a program of piecemeal reforms, not ideology. “Their program contained no hint of radicalism, no disposition to revive the old crusade against concentrated economic power, no desire to stir up class passions, redistribute the wealth, or restructure existing institutions. Ideology was still dead, except in the struggle against world Communism.” (11) Instead, they demanded an increased rate of economic growth, a repair to the public sector, and more money and resources to win the Cold War. (11)

On the economic front, Matusow pins America’s unraveling on financial policies of the liberals that failed to take into account the public’s concern with a growing inflation and rate of unemployment. Instead, Matusow concludes, they aligned themselves with the Keynesians, “sharing abhorrence of unemployment and trust in government,” (179) The cost of the Vietnam war, however, hit the nation’s businesses in their pocketbooks, leading to rising costs and cutting profit margins, and as the Keynesians “hit the skids in the war years, the liberals did too.” (179)

According to Matusow, the War on Poverty was one of the great failures, not on of the sixties, but of twentieth-century liberalism. (220) It failed because “it sought to appease vested interests that had resisted reform or occasioned the need for it in the first place. …appeasing the haves and helping the have-nots were incompatible policy goals…” (221) Matusow’s analysis of Medicare, the Job Corps, the 1968 housing act and the Elementary and Secondary Act leads him to conclude that these programs benefited middle class doctors, teachers, social workers, builders and bankers who provided federally subsidized goods and services. He attributes gains in the fight against poverty—down to 12 percent from 20 percent of the population—to the war in Vietnam which “moved the poor up with everybody else.” (240)

Matusow bestows faint praise on the Community Action Programs for what they attempted—programs developed to incorporate low-income into the political and decision-making process. Community action funding was designed to coordinate local public service programs, provide new services, and develop institutional change. Matusow claims that the programs actually increased fragmentation, antagonized local authority, and threatened anarchy when radical individuals or dissenters entered their ranks—although he admits that some good came of the programs notably Head Start and Legal Services. Matusow points out that for the War on Poverty to have truly abolished poverty, radical measures were required—income redistribution and establishing strong economic bases. Liberal reforms were not the answer.

The decade ended in chaos. Racial violence pockmarked the cities and racial and left wing militancy gained strength. The voice of the counterculture grew louder. And liberals changed their agenda from support for the Cold War to position themselves in favor of accommodation with the Soviet Union and an end to the war in Vietnam.

It seems disingenuous to say that liberal reform failed. Matusow gives no voice to counterargument, and his statistical support is equally one-sided. Equally arguably, some programs failed, some legislation failed, but many programs and the effects of liberal reform did remain—despite the national backlash. Equally importantly and much more difficult to prove, liberal reforms did empower many whom they were supposed to effect--despite their brief programmatic tenure. Matusow's pessimism on the failure of the civil rights movement based on the slowness of the implementation of integration is just plain shallow. His time frame for analysis is too brief to assign a blanket evaluation of failure--or success. It's dangerous to paint such a tumultous era--an era marked by extremes, by new discursive threads, by social unrest rarely seen in America--starkly in black or white.

Matusow also waffles on liberalism. It isn’t sufficient to say that liberals of the sixties were a group of intellectuals without ideology, but with a program of social reform. In one sentence, he states,"Liberalism had experimented with so many programs and intellectual reformulations that it seemed less a creature of the past than of mere mood." But then he describes the movement as "...an intense subculture at the center of the nation's communication network [who] shared a worldview that profoundly influenced the political climate in this election year" (1960). Liberals and liberalism, the focus of his argument end up with amorphous identity, ambiguously defined by failed programs.

leeannghajar, fall 2005

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