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The Great Exception:
The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics
Jefferson Cowie

Paperback | April 2017 | $19.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691175737
288 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
Hardcover | 2016 | $27.95 | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691143804
288 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 10 halftones.
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The New Deal: where does it fit in the big picture of American history? What does it mean for us today? What happened to the economic equality it once engendered? In The Great Exception, Jefferson Cowie provides new answers to these big questions. Beginning in the Great Depression and through to the 1970s, he argues, the United States built a uniquely equitable period that contrasts with the deeper historical patterns of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.

During those exceptional decades, which Cowie situates in the long arc of American history, the government used its considerable resources on behalf of working Americans in ways that it had not before and has not since. The crises of the Depression and World War II forced realignments of American politics and class relations, but these changes were less a permanent triumph of the welfare state than the product of a temporary cessation of enduring tensions involving race, immigration, culture, class, and individualism. Against this backdrop, Cowie shows how any renewed American battle for collective economic rights needs to build on an understanding of how the New Deal was won—and how it ultimately succumbed to contrasting patterns ingrained in U.S. history. As positive as the era of Roosevelt was in creating a more equitable society, Cowie suggests that the New Deal may necessarily belong more to the past than the future of American politics.

Anyone who wants to come to terms with the politics of inequality in U.S. history will need to read The Great Exception.

Jefferson Cowieis the James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor and Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. His work has also appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.


"Cowie--like the best work of the mid-century historian Richard Hofstadter, whom he frequently cites--has written not so much a work of American history as a brilliant meditation about a central dilemma of American history."--In These Times

"Jefferson Cowie offers a grand interpretation of the road blocks to change. . . . [He] thinks big and long. . . . [A] rich survey, studded with insights culled from a generation of scholarship."--Michael Kazin, Bookforum

"Cowie sings the achievements of the New Deal in a tragic register, emphasizing its transformative power while lingering on its compromises. . . . Cowie's vision is coherent and arresting, and helps to make sense of recurring puzzles in American political experience. As a literary-intellectual posture, moreover, his fatalism is downright infectious."--Democracy

"Important."--Harold Meyerson, American Prospect

"One of the year's most important political books."--E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post

"Engaging and highly readable, Cowie’s book provides an excellent , thought-provoking introduction to American economic and political history."--Choice


"Jefferson Cowie’s The Great Exception is a brilliant contribution to the understanding of American politics. Cowie makes the case that the halcyon era of liberalism, from Roosevelt to Kennedy, was an outlier--and that the victories of Reagan and Gingrich were not revolutions but restorations. A must-read."--Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times political columnist

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Table of Contents:

PROLOGUE Philadelphia, 1936 1
INTRODUCTION Rethinking the New Deal in American History 9
CHAPTER 1 The Question of Democracy in the Age of Incorporation 35
CHAPTER 2 Kaleidoscope of Reform 63
CHAPTER 3 Working-Class Interregnum 91
CHAPTER 4 Constraints and Fractures in the New Liberalism 123
CHAPTER 5 The Great Exception in Action 153
CHAPTER 6 Toward a New Gilded Age 179
CHAPTER 7 The Era of Big Government Is Not Over (But the New Deal Probably Is) 209


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