A peculiar feature of New Dealism and postwar liberalism's success is that it has turned on the sponsoring political party, and the further, unfolding paradox within is that the prime beneficiaries of FDR's bedrock progressivism -- the white working class -- have morphed into today's illiberal voters. While both phenomena have conformed to the seemingly inescapable, intangible law of unintended consequences, American racism and selfish resentments are, perhaps, their more concrete explanation.
As, for instance, historian Lizabeth Cohen broadly illustrates in her brilliant, 1990 microcosmic work, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, the Great Depression's ravages were those which transfigured the American Everyman from a supporter of small government to seeker of central-government relief. Coolidge-Hooverism's wholesale economic collapse soon exhausted the electorate's once-preferred, traditional sources of aid: local churches, state and municipal funds, community chests, benevolent fraternal societies and the like. The depression's relentlessness, its bankruptcy of conventional charities and ensuing national despair compelled a change in the electorate's political consciousness, inspiring it to look to Washington for assistance. Hence Middle America's almost overnight longing for a new direction: the federal government as humanitarian benefactor. It can be reasonably argued that FDR was less the supplier of alternative aid than a meeter of mass demand.
Although the Great Depression afflicted Americans of every color, Roosevelt's New Deal program -- made legislatively possible only by placating the ethnic prejudices of Southern congressional Democrats -- was essentially a program of white relief. And relief they got, from government jobs to assorted transfer payments, which, however conservatively circumscribed they actually were, were indeed revolutionary against America's political tradition of self-help. Ideological conservatives freaked out, of course, proclaiming the end of Americans' self-reliance and condemning the New Deal's culture of "dependency"; the electorate, however, by and large rather liked the fresh nets of various social securities, made necessary only by modernity's often brutal, impersonal forces. In the postwar era FDR's liberalism expanded, among many other wholesome programs, to Truman's GI Bill and Johnson's Medicare. In sheer numbers, white working-class Americans benefited more than any others.
They still do. And yet this societal stratum now takes for granted the magnificently successful understructures of 20th-century American liberalism. It has turned on the very party that laid the foundations of a more civilized society and vastly bettered their lives -- the party the white working class has come to see as the anti-Everyman patron of the lazy, the shiftless, the undeserving, the mere takers. Blue-colored white resentments prevail over the more useful perspective of class-based political solidarity; thus America's divisiveness, manifested in Trumpism's ugliness, is more antagonistically cultural than socioeconomically grounded. That working-class whites continue to profit from FDR's material virtues and his Democratic successors' amplifications of them seems not to occur to this resentment-obsessed class.
As the Post's Catherine Rampell like-mindedly observes this morning, today's "Democratic policies" -- far more than Republicans', and I wouldn't say probably -- "probably would help the white working class. But the white working class doesn’t seem to buy that they’re the ones who’d really benefit. Across rural America, the Rust Belt, Coal Country and other hotbeds of Trumpism, voters have repeatedly expressed frustration that the lazy and less deserving are getting a bigger chunk of government cheese.... [A] recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey found that Trump voters are five times more likely to believe that 'average Americans' have gotten less than they deserve in recent years than to believe that 'blacks' have gotten less than they deserve." And so there you have it: white, Trumpian illiberalism as the product of racist resentments -- and an unmindful betrayal of the party that historically lifted the white condition.
When one contemplates that white racism has unexceptionally dogged four centuries of American existence, one is rather reluctant to anticipate any primal screams of sudden reformation. Indeed, one is more justified in the easy presupposition that white-American racism will likely endure as a multigenerational cultural plague. And yet, therein would lie true despair -- the hopeless writing off of unbigoted advancement. Thus the best that unappreciated American liberalism can do is to remind the resentful, with newfound resolution, of its many virtuous accomplishments -- as well as those ready for the taking.