New book by G. William Domhoff traces control of country by corporate elite since 1930’s

Here is an abridged version of my review of G. William Domhoff’s new book, The Myth of Liberal Acendancy: Corporate Domination from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, which appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish CurrentsCheck out the longer version online and buy the issue, which has a lot of other interesting articles in it!

Many contemporary progressives look back at the 1960s and early ’70s as a golden age when the United States was supposedly a much more politically liberal land. Sometime in the mid-’70s, the commonly believed story goes, corporations started working together to move our nation. After thirty years of union-busting, elimination or privatization of government functions, and lower taxes on the wealthy, we have devolved into a society of rich and poor with a shrunken middle class, inadequate tax revenues, a frayed social safety net, and the most inequitable distribution of wealth since the Gilded Age.

Many progressive writers and pundits, including myself, have recently taken to reciting this brief history of class warfare in America with some frequency. But as G. William Domhoff reminds us in his latest masterpiece, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, the class war perpetrated by corporations and their owners against the rest of America predates the Reagan Era and, in fact runs all the way back to the New Deal and earlier. In his new book, Domhoff establishes the peak of liberal-progressive influence in the United States not in the 1960s and early ’70s, but during the last two years of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, 1935-1937.

Domhoff, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Santa Barbara, is one of the most important sociologists and progressive thinkers of the past hundred years. His specialty is the sociology of power: who has it in America, how they got it, how they keep it and how they use it. His seminal Who Rules America Now?, now in its seventh edition, builds on and broadens the scope of C. Wright Mill’s classic, The Power Elite, in its analysis of the power structure in America. Domhoff and his collaborators keep the world updated on new research on who has power and wealth in America on his website, WhorulesAmerica.net.

In The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, Domhoff tells a stirring tale of class struggle between four power groups:

  1. The liberal-labor coalition of lefties and labor unions, formed during the early part of the New Deal years.
  2. Corporate moderates, from the New Deal to the oil shocks of the 1970s, believed in using Keynesian techniques to combat recessions, and recognized the value of full employment.
  3. Ultraconservatives comprised two groups that always planned and voted together: the rightwing ultra free-marketers, and the Southern, primarily agrarian, racists who were opposed to any kind of desegregation or granting of voting or workplace rights to African-Americans.

In Domhoff’s telling, these three groups have been the major power players on the national level since the mid-1930s. On the local level, however, he points to a fourth group, real estate and development interests, which dominated regional policy decisions and often made deals on a national level with any and all of the three primarily national power players.

Domhoff’s history runs through the formation and passage or failure of major legislation from Roosevelt’s second term until the Reagan years and beyond. He inspects how these three and sometimes four power centers viewed each piece of legislation, and how the legislation developed or stalled based on their push-and-pull.

In the end, the corporate moderates win — every battle, all the time. Gradually and inexorably, the power of unions is weakened, taxes on the wealthy decrease, the purchasing power of the minimum wage declines, and the wealthy control a greater share of income, wealth and power. The story of each policy decision comes down to the policy groups, experts and lobbyists who define and discuss the issues, promulgate the solutions and help create the laws. Corporate moderates spend far and away the most money forming these groups and supporting economists and other scholars who formulate the policy and advise the various presidents.

Domhoff makes a very convincing case that the liberal-labor coalition reached a pinnacle of power in the mid-1930s and has been losing ground ever since. The high-water mark came in 1935, after Democrats had swept the midterm elections. After about 1937, even when the liberal-labor coalition got an occasional win, it was incomplete or tainted. Take Medicare: Despite the protests of labor unions, private insurers were allowed to have a large role administering the program. This led to rampant medical-cost inflation, as predicted beforehand by labor experts. If the corporate moderates were going to let taxes pay for medical care for senior citizens, however, they insisted that the private sector be able to enrich itself in the process.

Two dynamics seem to predict and direct the move rightward that corporate moderates took in the 1970s: First, they have always hated unions as much as the ultraconservatives have, and always have had curtailing the power of unions high on the policy agenda. Second, unions were too often unsupportive of the efforts of minorities to gain civil and workplace rights, and, in fact feared and distrusted minorities and the organizations representing them. Anti-unionism thus drove conservative moderates into the arms of the ultraconservatives, while racism fractured the liberal-labor coalition.  Tragically, the left contributed to its own demise.

After chewing my way lately through the annoying personal anecdotes and trivializing analogies that clutter many other recent books of social science and science, I found The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy refreshing for its sustained focus on the subject, and its breezy and direct but non-patronizing style. I found no jargon and little if any academic circumlocution.

As an electorate, we currently stand at the dawn of what progressives hope is a new day for the United States. Voters seem sick of Tea Party nihilism and understand that the government must get involved to jump-start our economy, provide medical care to all, educate our young and protect our environment. Domhoff’s book is a prescient reminder, however, not to become too enthusiastic about a Democratic sweep in 2014 and 2016 if the Democrats elected are centrists and look to the corporate moderates for legislative direction.

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