In Defense of ‘The Myth’

G. William Domhoff

Melvyn Dubofsky’s generally snarky comparison of my narrowly focused and matter-of-fact The Myth of Li​beral Ascendancy with Ira Katznelson’s expansive and colorful Fear Itself distorts my work in several egregious ways.
First, I did not claim that historians “created” a myth of a liberal-labor ascendancy during the postwar years. Instead, I wrote that the myth grew due to its usefulness to liberals, ultraconservatives, and corporate executives for their different reasons. I identified political scientists Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, and David Vogel as the current purveyors of an incorrect notion of why and when a “right turn” occurred in American politics. Kim Phillips-Fein is criticized as well, but she lauds Vogel’s work as the best starting point on these issues, so doesn’t represent most historians. As for historians in general, I drew upon their many excellent studies in coming to my conclusions, with Kevin Boyle, Robert M. Collins, and Alan Matusow earning pride of place. Second, I called the plantation-linked Democrats “pivotal” in Congress for the 1930s through the 1980s, so I hardly named “big business” as “the culprit.” In fact, my analysis of the power structure is similar to Katznelson’s for the shorter span of years covered by his book, except that I identify the corporate origins of many New Deal programs. Third, I used the highly visible Committee for Economic Development (CED) as a window into the mindset of the moderate conservatives in general, not as the “hidden hand” that dominates policymaking. Starting with the CED’s published policy statements, along with individual trustees’ criticisms of them, made it possible to determine in what ways these business leaders were actually moderate conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s (they crafted a “commercial Keynesianism” to help ensure adequate demand), why they became somewhat more liberal on social spending in the 1960s (civil rights, inner-city, and anti-war disruption), and why they became increasingly conservative in the 1970s (to defeat unions as the alleged source of cost-push inflation, eliminate any government inclination to develop wage-price controls, and make sure inflation was controlled only by using higher Fed interest rates). Fourth, I did not claim that the “corporate liberals” (a concept I never have used) eventually “allied” with the “reactionary executives of the later CED cabal, the Business Roundtable, to promote neo-liberalism.” Instead, I said that the previously moderate conservatives were the key figures in creating the Business Roundtable and inviting a few ultraconservatives to join them, while at the same time pushing the CED to the sidelines. Nor did I talk of “neo-liberalism,” a concept I do not find useful. Fifth, I gave the liberal-labor alliance its due for helping pass the National Labor Relations Act and for trying to defend gains made possible by the New Deal and World War II. But the lib-lab alliance was on the winning side in postwar legislative conflicts only in terms of occasionally raising the minimum wage, increasing the size of Social Security benefits (including Medicare), or expanding other welfare-type benefits. Corporate owners, with a big assist from plantation owners and other agri-businesses, won an unrelenting class war, in part because many white workers, union and non-union, began to vote Republican in the late 1960s.
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G. William Domhoff is the author of Who Rules America? and The Power Elite and the State. He lives in Santa Cruz, where he is a sociology professor at the University of California.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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