Alan Brinkley's book The End of Reform is clearly written, well organized, and very informative. In fact, the book contains so much information that, in spite of Brinkley's laudable efforts to make sound scholarship accessible, the text is sometimes a bit overwhelming. If there is a virtue in an over-abundance of information, it manifests itself in suitably emphasizing the complexity of The New Deal, its variety of sometimes conflicting ideas, and the disparate nature of the characters among its major players.
While The End of Reform represents the kind of scholarship that is unlikely to be read for entertainment, it contains more than its share of drama and surprises. FDR is, of course, a central figure, but only one of many. Moreover, though The New Deal has long been characterized a uniquely his, he turns out to be surprisingly ambivalent about its sharpest departures from government as usual, and for long periods he was indecisive and uncertain, leaving lesser officials to fend for themselves in making New Deal programs work. At heart, it seems, FDR may have been an aristocratic conservative masquerading as a liberal when it was politically expedient. FDR's peculiar political nature has been acknowledged by other authors, notably David Rolf in The Hopkins Touch. Brinkley's account of FDR's governmental stewardship, however, makes one wonder just what FDR really thought.
The programmatic character of The New Deal was not something formulated and fostered by Roosevelt himself. Instead, it was due largely to governmental officials who worked for him, especially members of the variegated group known as liberals. By today's standards New Deal liberals were far-left lunatics, the sort of political actors who are often misrepresented as socialists, communists, and left-wing fascists. The New Deal reformers were sometimes angrily dismissed in the same terms, but the sort of knee-jerk response to programs for governmental intervention was less common and much less likely to be politically lethal in the context provided by the Great Depression.
Brinkley's book, moreover, is exemplary in making the case that the political differences among New Deal liberals were common, substantial, and sometimes troublesome. He also makes clear that in some instances the least likely people -- bankers, business executives, corporate lawyers, and other representatives of big capital -- were favorably disposed toward The New Deal and even worked productively in New Deal programs and agencies fostered by liberal consociates. Though Brinkley does not develop this theme, there was a widespread feeling among people at large that something had to be done to relieve the economic hardships that characterized the 1930's, thus the sometimes trans-ideological appeal of The New Deal.
Brinkley's distinction between liberals who championed structural changes in the American economy and those who emphasized individual freedom, including freedom from economic hardship, is persuasively made and quite instructive. Members of the former group sought to make an issue of the organization of ownership and control of enterprises of production, arguing that economic concentration artificially constrained output thereby increasing prices and contributing to the material destitution of a growing percentage of the population. Among the most useful contributions of de-centralization, as they saw it, was redistribution of wealth and income, yielding a more productive and equitable society where no one fell through the cracks. In time, however, it became clear that the reorganization of productive power was too often construed as an attack on capitalism itself, an interpretation that liberals did not effectively counter and that was too radical for most Americans.
As a result, liberal reformers gradually changed their approach, focusing on opportunities for consumption rather than production. Increased consumption, even if it required governmental spending on job creation and safety net ventures, worked to everyone's best interests, as these later liberals saw it. After all, as consumption increased demand for a broad range of goods and services increased, and producers were encouraged to increase their output with the assurance that such action would be profitable. In a sense, increased consumption achieved by full employment, with or without help from the federal government's fiscal policy and commitment to freedom from want, came to be the bedrock of what some thought of as an economic bill of rights that covered all individuals in the United States.
Later still, individual rights through elimination of artificial barriers to unfettered social participation by Blacks, Women, Gays, and others who faced invidious distinctions that thwarted their full development also became intrinsic to liberal reform efforts. These are the manifestations of liberalism with which we are most familiar today.
Until I read Brinkley's book, it did not occur to me that contemporary liberalism represents a retreat from the efforts toward structural change that once were the basis of the fundamental liberal program. While the author doesn't give this programmatic shift excessive attention, he makes it unmistakably clear that the two forms of liberalism are fundamentally different, and the most promising liberal agenda was the one that sought structural change rather than piecemeal adjustments in the lives of specific groups. As an example, it's all well and good to eliminate de jure segregation, but as Martin Luther King acknowledged, it's quite another matter to enable Blacks and other minorities to improve their economic prospects when the economy is organized in a way that artificially constrains its bounty. in an era of thoroughgoing globalization when economic opportunity is being undercut by the internationalization of capital, fundamental structural change may be the only effective response. Such ambitious and intensely controversial measures, however, are no long part of the liberal agenda.
When Democrats deride their party for shifting far to the right, they do so because of the programmatic timidity of its objectives. There are those, and Brinkley may be among them, who have concluded that Democrat's failure to hold their constituents reflects the fact that they have abandoned truly effective reform, thereby becoming a center-right party, offering no legitimate alternative to increasingly reactionary Republicans. Brinkley traces this development to the latter years of The New Deal.
Whatever the reader's political inclination -- far right, somewhere in the center, or far left -- The End of Reform is a good book. Even for those who regard liberals as disciples of Satan, Brinkley's work provides an insightful analysis of a crucial period in our political history and its consequences for the present. If you're interested in politics, The End of Reform will hold your attention, and its even-handedness is one of its many virtues.
- Hardcover: 371 pages
- Publisher: Alfred a Knopf Inc; 1 edition (1 February 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394535731
- ISBN-13: 978-0394535739
- Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 3.8 x 24.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 703 g
- Customer Reviews: 12 customer ratings