Anyone seriously trying to understand American politics must reckon with what Charles Kesler has called “the three waves of liberalism,” beginning with Woodrow Wilson. As a Progressive academic steeped in the Hegelian dialectic, Wilson laid the intellectual groundwork for the assault on limited government. He hated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he frankly condemned as obsolete in his academic writings. Paul and I sketched an outline of Wilson’s intellectual assault on the Constitution in “From Hegel to Wilson and Breyer,” based on Ronald J. Pestritto’s ground-breaking 2005 book Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism.
Franklin Roosevelt gave us Kesler’s second wave of liberalism. He picked up the torch from Wilson and declared “a new order of things” in his second inaugural address. “We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fasioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.” Thus the New Deal and the new constitutional law that dissolved in the face of the onslaught. (You might detect that Hillary Clinton stands poised to deliver the fourth wave of liberalism.) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. celebrated Rooseveltian liberalism in the books that provide the standard history of the period.
LBJ’s Great Society gave us Kesler’s third wave of liberalism. Johnson’s expansion of administrative government and entitlement programs is the legacy that set the stage for Ronald Reagan. In The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, Steve Hayward consciously provides a counter to Schlesinger’s celebration of “the liberal order.”
If Pestritto and Hayward have filled in our understanding of the first and third waves of American liberalism, we have been awaiting the arrival of a historian with the audacity to confront the received understanding of the New Deal directly. That is what Amity Shlaes has now done in The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, published next Tuesday. It’s an important book that helps to revise our understanding of the New Deal. Along with Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln, it is this year’s must reading.
Shlaes frames the book around Roosevelt’s invocation of “the forgotten man” on behalf of his expansion of the government and government power. In an act of intellectual recovery that is itself a revelation, Shlaes shows that Roosevelt borrowed (and twisted) the phrase from the Yale philosopher William Graham Sumner. Here Shlaes quotes Sumner and elaborates on the passage:
“As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose tp get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law proposes to determine…what A, B, and C shall do for X.” But what about C? There was nothing wrong with A and B helping X. What was wrong was the law, and the indenturing of C to the cause. C was the forgotten man, the man who paid, “the man who is never thought of.”
In 1931, a member of Roosevelt’s brain trust, Ray Moley, recalled the phrase, although not its provenance. He inserted it into the candidate’s first great speech. If elected, Roosevelt promised, he would act in the name of “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Whereas C had been Sumner’s forgotten man, the New Deal made X the forgotten man — the poor man, the old man, labor, or any other recipient of government help.
I’ve been reading a bound galley of the book provided by the author and asked Amity to provide a brief account of it for Power Line readers. She has graciously responded:
Candidates from John Edwards to Mitt Romney are reluctant to address the central problem of domestic policy