Liberal Politics and Inequality After 1968

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Race; Urban and Suburban


In the last decade, a growing number of historians have explored the connections between racial and class inequality in the United States and a new liberal politics that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. These scholars responded to what they saw as an important omission in the large number of works on capitalism, mass incarceration, and conservatism. They alleged that historians of the New Right have often treated conservatives as the central, exclusive architects of a neoliberal order marked by high rights of poverty, joblessness, and imprisonment in the late twentieth century. If liberals appeared in these accounts, they frequently were portrayed as figures who merely borrowed ideas and language pioneered by the political right. Scholars of the new liberalism, however, have argued that activists, officials, and institutions on the center left developed their own distinct ideology in the late twenty-first century, and they too helped create the nation’s staggering wealth gap and mass incarceration. Beginning in the late 1960s, a coalition of primarily white, middle-class activists, elected officials, and institutions moved away from the more statist ideals of the labor movement and Old Left. Instead, they developed common assumptions about the value of deregulated markets, the high-tech economy, and community policing that distinguished them from both the New Dealers of the 1930s and the New Right of the 1960s. The presenters on this panel share this interest in the connections between inequality in the late twentieth century and the ideology of post-1960s liberals. Sam Collings-Wells’s paper, for example, will explore the evolution of the Ford Foundation after the collapse of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Worried about a conservative backlash and declining federal funding, the foundation pivoted to new decentralized development and “order maintenance” policing programs. Although these initiatives began as reactions to the changing politics of the 1970s, Collings-Wells explains that they helped forge a new belief system at Ford that influenced a new generation of thinkers on the center-left in the 1980s and 1990s. Claire Dunning, similarly, will present her research on the Taconic Foundation, a philanthropic foundation which tried to dismantle housing segregation in the urban north in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like many scholars in this subfield, Dunning argues that most recent political history has emphasized the importance of conservative think tanks, institutes, and wealthy donors. By contrast, she argues that Taconic’s ill-fated attempts to promote metropolitan integration implicates white liberal philanthropy in the wider history of inequality in the United States. Finally, Clayton Howard’s paper will explore suburban gun control advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s. He argues that activists in places like Oak Park, IL saw their efforts to restrict firearms as a part of a larger middle-class tendency in this era to combine improvements to public health with improvements to the local quality of life. Similar to environmental campaigns that focused on nearby bike paths, suburban liberals saw municipal gun laws as both steps towards combating violence and celebrations of the progressive politics of their own communities.

Papers Presented

Beyond the War on Poverty: Philanthropy and the Transformation of American Lib-eralism, 1966-1992

This paper will examine how the Ford Foundation—then the largest philanthropic organiza-tion in the United States—attempted to reinvent liberalism in the aftermath of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. As numerous historians have shown, the Ford Foundation played a critical role in the formulation of the “community action” program of the War on Poverty. Yet considerably less attention has been paid to their grant-making activity during the 1970s and 80s. By the late-1960s, the Ford Foundation had grown uneasy about the conservative “backlash” that appeared to have arisen in response to their liberal initiatives. In response, they set about reinventing liberalism for a more conservative age. This reinvented liberalism had two primary components: firstly, a commit-ment to decentralized, community-based approach to urban development, which the Ford Founda-tion helped foster through its support of Community Development Corporations (CDCs). Second-ly, an emphasis on ‘order-maintenance’ policing, which Ford helped pioneer by establishing the Police Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank which conducted research on new policing tactics. These various threads—community-based economic development, bootstrap voluntarism, and order-maintenance policing—would eventually be incorporated into the ‘communitarian’ phi-losophy of the 1980s and 90s. Put forward like the likes of Robert Putnam and Amitai Etzioni, this had a deep influence on Bill Clinton and his ‘Third Way’ brand of liberal politics.

Presented By
Samuel Collings-Wells, University of Cambridge

Funding the Urban North: Liberal philanthropy “after” civil rights

Following the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964, 1965, and 1968, a small cohort of private foundations turned their attention—and dollars—to address what they saw as the next great hurdle for equality in the United States: housing segregation in the urban north. One of these, the Taconic Foundation, is perhaps most famous for funding the Voter Education Project in the rural south, but beginning in the mid-1960s began a new era of philanthropic liberalism. Over five decades it established think tanks, underwrote Architectural Forum, funded litigation including the Mount Laurel and Gautreaux decisions, and supported voucher experiments, making a permanent, if largely invisible, mark on U.S. policy and in the lives of everyday Americans. From the Taconic Foundation’s specific story unfolds a much larger one about race, giving, and inequality in urban America that provides evidence of liberal philanthropic support for institution building and policy work—activities considered characteristic of giving on the right and not the left— yet also reveals the limitations of liberalism to deliver a more equitable future. This paper spatially grounds a history of philanthropy and race in the “post” civil rights metropolis, analyzing the manifold ways white wealth has defined racial equity and how liberal ideologies and the subsequent movement of dollars shaped built, social, and policy environments.

Presented By
Claire Dunning, University of Maryland, College Park

"Think Globally, Act Locally:" Suburban Liberals and Gun Control in the 1970s and 1980s

During the 1970s and 1980s, many suburban activists worked to stop the sale of handguns in their communities. These campaigns reveal a wider middle-class liberal tendency in the era to marry a dedication to the wider good with a specific desire to improve one’s own quality of life. To be sure, gun control advocates in in the 1970s and 1980s sincerely hoped to end violence and wanted federal bans on firearms. Nevertheless, suburban activists often tried to improve public safety by restricting guns in their own municipalities and used gun bans to highlight the differences between their relatively affluent communities and poorer cities. This impulse was common to many kinds of middle-class liberal activism in the 1970s, including environmental campaigns devoted to local bike paths or health advocacy dedicated to stopping smoking in restaurants. Suburban liberals more broadly tended to see their work as a public good even as it also improved their individual quality of life. When gun control advocates boycotted sporting goods stores, used zoning laws to restrict shooting ranges, and passed municipal handgun restrictions, they believed that they were reducing gun violence at large and promoting their own communities. Campaigns to restrict firearms in places like Oak Park, IL or Montgomery County, MD often included critiques of nearby cities and celebrated affluent suburbs as exceptionally open-minded places with progressive politics. A history of suburban gun control activism, therefore, illustrates the complex interplay of doing good and self-interest in a new middle-class liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Presented By
Clayton Charles Howard, The Ohio State University

Session Participants

Chair: Lily D. Geismer, Claremont McKenna College
Lily Geismer is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of Don't Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2015) and Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempts to Solve Inequality (2022). She is also the co-editor of the anthology Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History in the Twentieth Century (2019).

Commentator: Marisa Ann Chappell, Oregon State University
Marisa Chappell is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. Her book The War on Welfare: Family, Policy, and Politics in Modern America was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2009. She is also the co-editor of Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents. She has also published numerous articles on the histories of feminist politics, poverty, and public policy.

Presenter: Samuel Collings-Wells, University of Cambridge
Sam Collings-Wells is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he also received both his BA (Double Starred First Class) and MPhil (Distinction). His research explores the trans-formation of liberalism after the 1960s, with a particular focus on urban policy, philanthropy, and community development. His work has been featured in The Journal of Urban History, The Jour-nal of Global History and The International History Review, as well as History Today and The Washington Post.

Presenter: Claire Dunning, University of Maryland, College Park
Claire Dunning earned her PhD at Harvard University in 2016 is currently an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before starting her position at Maryland, Dunning was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. She is the author of Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State (2022). In January 2022, the journal Nonprofit and Volunteer Vector Quarterly published her article "No Strings Attached: Philanthropy, Race, and Donor Control From Black Power to Black Lives Matter." She has also published several articles in the Journal of Urban History.

Presenter: Clayton Charles Howard, The Ohio State University
Clayton Howard is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California (2019). He also contributed an essay entitled "Gay and Conservative: A Short History of the Log Cabin Republicans" to an anthology on sexuality and politics since the 1960s in 2019.