The traditional narrative of the New Deal runs as follows: while the 1930s witnessed a major move toward an American form of social democracy, unprecedented in the country’s history, it also came with several flaws. Most of those flaws involved race, specifically the de facto exclusion of African Americans from many of its programs.
And while it is a welcome complication of the historical narrative, it has also been an albatross around the neck of anyone extolling the accomplishments of the 1930s-era left.
But according to Eric Schickler, a political scientist at the University of California Berkeley, it is also a partial telling of the story. Racial Realignment argues that African Americans were, in fact, willing and able participants of the New Deal — and in the process, they made support of civil rights an integral part of the twentieth-century definition of American liberalism.
The racial realignment of American politics, in which African Americans became part of the Democratic Party and a loyal base of support, did not begin in the 1960s and culminate with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Instead, the shift was already underway by the mid-1940s, crucially aided by the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the mid-1930s as a reliable ally.
The converging interests of the CIO and African-American voters made for a fusion of class and race as major issues for American liberalism. It also meant a long-running conservative backlash, driven by a unification of Northern business conservatives and Southern white racial conservatives that began building during this same time period.
Schickler’s book firmly places African-American political power at the center of this story. While most African Americans still lived in the American South during the period he covers (as they still do today), Schickler highlights their new political power within Northern cities, a reality that had caught the attention of Democratic Party leaders in Northern states by 1932.
The state-level parties take center stage in Schickler’s book. He pushes against the notion that civil rights legislation was merely a top-down reform acquiesced to by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 in the face of that era’s protests.
Instead, over a thirty-year period, it was grassroots Northern liberals, African Americans, and CIO members who together pushed the party to support civil rights from the bottom up.
The fusion of economic liberalism with civil rights support took time, but by 1948 it not only galvanized Northern Democrats, Schickler argues, but also showed that Southern Democratic politicians had become an adversary for liberals in a way they had not been before.
Again, this bears consideration: Schickler makes clear that it was grassroots mobilization on a state-by-state level in the Northern Democratic parties that pushed the national party leftward on civil rights.
For African Americans, this could only have happened after the rise of the CIO, which provided an organization sufficiently left-wing to forcefully back civil rights, while also being sufficiently powerful to garner the attention of the Democratic Party.
Schickler’s use of polling data from the 1930s and 1940s — based on a meticulous re-analysis of raw Gallup poll data sets, whose statistical flaws had long led scholars to ignore them — along with content analysis of the New York Times, the Nation, and the New Republic, shows what this dramatic shift in the meaning of liberalism looked like on the ground.
In the early 1930s, “liberal” had an ambiguous meaning in American politics, but it clearly did not include concern over racial segregation. By the 1940s, the term increasingly signaled both support for greater equality and opposition to racial discrimination.
For these publications, the New Deal needed to do more for African Americans; but many liberal voters on a grassroots level understood this, too. And, conversely, in the same polling it becomes clear that economically conservative voters viewed civil rights as less of a priority — at best, a mild concern.
Modern American politics has its origins in the New Deal. But for Schickler, this story is not merely one of African Americans being left out by a reluctant Franklin Roosevelt.
Instead, the New Deal era was a moment when African Americans and labor joined forces to reshape the very idea of liberalism. That they did it state by state, party by party, has been largely forgotten until now.
The lessons offered here cannot be clearer. For the Left to make serious inroads today, it cannot merely organize every four years around the presidency. Hard work at the state level is going to have to be done in order for real change to happen.
Nor can the Left allow the various strands of social and economic justice to stand on their own. Racial Realignment teaches us that nothing less than that unity is required to win political power.