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Published by EH.NET (June 2003)

Roger Biles, Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. vii + 259 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87580-304-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alice O’Connor, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

For anyone who wants to understand the odyssey of twentieth-century U.S. liberalism, Paul H. Douglas (1892-1976) is an essential figure. Having spent his early career engaged in late progressive-era/early New Deal academic and policy circles, the economist-turned-politician was in the vanguard of reform in the U.S. Senate as post World War II liberalism first struggled for its identity and then reached its Great Society heights, only to see glimmers of backlash in his 1966 electoral defeat. As told by Roger Biles (Professor of History, East Carolina University) in this first full-scale biography, Douglas’ story is less one of liberalism’s “rise and fall” than of ongoing struggle, considerable frustration, and partial achievement. Above all, it is a story of one man’s persistence in the face of opposition, a persistence fueled by an enduring faith in the possibilities of using activist governance, regulation, and economic knowledge in the name of a more just, equitable society.

Biles develops this theme in a straightforward narrative that spans Douglas’ lifetime but pays most attention to his Senate career. Nevertheless, there is much to learn about the roots of his postwar liberalism in his earlier life and career. Raised on the edge of poverty in rural Maine, Douglas worked his way through Bowdoin College and from there went on to Columbia University, eventually earning his Ph.D. in economics in 1921. In what would become a lifelong pattern of joining research with social action, Douglas cultivated his growing interest in labor economics in the heady atmosphere of New York’s pre-World War I labor activism as well as in classrooms with the likes of Charles Beard, John Dewey, Henry R. Seager, and, on the theoretical end, John Bates Clark. He went on to spend most of his academic career in the interwar University of Chicago economics department. While there, he published extensively, establishing himself as a leading labor economist and policy intellectual with articles and books that included Wages and the Family (1925), Real Wages in the United States (1930), Standards of Unemployment Insurance (1933), and The Theory of Wages (1934). He also became prominent in Chicago’s progressive intellectual and reform circles in the 1920s and 30s, and, running as a reform Democrat, won election to the notoriously machine-dominated city council in 1939. Meanwhile, having earlier aligned himself with third party and socialist politics in national elections, he had come to endorse the New Deal during FDR’s second term. Equally important in his growing identification with the Democratic Party mainstream, Douglas was increasingly convinced of the need for American intervention to aid the Allies against Nazi expansionism, and eager to defend FDR against isolationist attacks.

It was not until after World War II, during which the 50-year-old Douglas cajoled his way into active service in the U.S. Marine Corps, that he emerged as a force in national politics. As a three-term senator from Illinois beginning in 1948, he established himself as a standard-bearer for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, advocating far-reaching civil rights, anti-poverty, consumer rights, and tax reform legislation well before their time. If not immediately successful in his reform vision, Biles argues, Douglas played a key role in chipping away the formidable sources of opposition and in thus setting the stage for successes to come. This comes through especially in Biles’ detailed discussion of the fights over the relatively weak Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, and of concomitant efforts to thwart the ever-present filibuster threat. Refusing to cave in to pressure from then-Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, Douglas continued to push for more aggressive legislation and federal enforcement rather than appease Southern Democrats with watered-down measures. Portrayed at the time as obstinate and quixotic, Douglas staked out a position that would eventually be incorporated in later legislation — a sign, according to Biles, not of political zealotry or naivete, but of a principled, ultimately effective stance against reactionary forces.

While similarly persistent in long-gestating truth-in-lending, tax reform, area redevelopment and other domestic legislation (including measures passed after his Senate tenure) Douglas departed from many of his counterparts in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in his staunch anti-communism and unyielding support for the Cold War. By the mid-to-late 1960s, his continuing support for ever-escalating American involvement in Vietnam was beginning to alienate younger, New Left, and anti-war voters. Ultimately, however, it was as much his Great Society as his Cold War liberalism that proved decisive in his bid for a fourth term. He was defeated for reelection by the much younger, politically inexperienced Republican Charles Percy in 1966, in a campaign that played on the internal fragmentation, and especially the deep racial fissures undermining the Democratic coalition as the civil rights struggle hit the streets of Chicago. By then out of sync with an economics department that had since became a bastion of free-market thinking, Douglas made no attempt to return to the University of Chicago. He finished his career as something of a public intellectual, teaching at the New School for Social Research, hosting a television series on public affairs, and chairing the volatile Commission on Urban Problems while working on his autobiography and other writings.

Illuminating as a chronicle of Douglas’ Senate career, this book provides an important vantage point for viewing the legislative issues and struggles that both shaped and constrained liberalism as a reform ideology in the postwar decades. In adhering so closely to the legislative record, however, Biles sometimes misses the forest for the trees.

Thus, we learn about Douglas’ repeated efforts to provide aid to “depressed areas,” to go after the oil depletion allowance, and to protect consumers from monopolistic or misleading corporate practices, but little about the broader vision of political economy from which he worked. This is pertinent not just in light of Douglas’ background as an economist, but for what it can tell us about debates over such issues as the relative importance of growth and redistribution, as well as the appropriate mix of policy interventions, within the emerging liberal “Keynesian consensus” of the time. Along those lines, it would also be of interest to learn whether Douglas attempted to use his position as chair of the Joint Economic Committee to inject his own ideas, or to assert a more prominent role for Congress in economic policymaking.

Nor do we get much feel for whether and how Douglas was connected to the broader currents of racial thought, extra-congressional political mobilization, and movement building that galvanized the civil rights agenda. That Douglas was an integrationist and egalitarian in his thinking seems clear from his own statements and actions. What is less clear is why and how civil rights became a defining issue for him when it did, especially since there is little in his pre-Senate activism to suggest this direction. Here again, the question goes beyond Douglas himself to the course of postwar liberalism — within which, as the complacency of many a more “moderate” politician indicates, racial equality was hardly a universally shared priority.

Biles also might have done more to explain the sources and nature of Douglas’ anti-communism, which was coming through even as Douglas was visiting the Soviet Union and endorsing Social Party candidate Norman Thomas in the 1928 and 1932 presidential elections, and which seems if anything to have grown more rigid over time. Whether and how this is connected to what later critics considered “overwrought” patriotism during the Cold War and “bellicosity” with regard to Vietnam (p. 213) is largely unexplored.

More generally, Biles does not do enough to connect Douglas the economist and reform intellectual with Douglas the Senator, treating the first half of his life and career as more prelude than foundational to his political record and offering little analysis of his economic ideas. And although extensively researched in archival sources, Biles’ narrative comes very much from the inside, relying on autobiographical and staff analyses for its take on various issues without sufficiently leavening them with outside, independent, or alternative perspectives.

Still, Biles has provided us with an able and welcome, if not definitive, biography of a figure too long neglected in the annals of American liberalism. He makes an important contribution to recent political history.

Alice O’Connor is author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, 2001).