Jennifer Delton


On her book The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism

Cover Interview of April 15, 2020

In a nutshell

Manufacturing once drove the U.S. economy. Its factories and innovations defined American capitalism in the twentieth century. At its height in the 1950s, American-based manufacturing represented 25.8% of GDP and employed one in four American workers. When it declined in the 1980s, it took organized labor and the Democrats’ New Deal coalition down with it.

This book is a biography of “organized manufacturing” in the twentieth century, as represented by manufacturing’s main trade association and lobbyist, the National Association of Manufacturing, or NAM.

While historians and political scientists have written about NAM, they have done so from the perspective of its many enemies, namely labor, liberals, and environmentalists. What makes my approach unique is that I look at it from the perspective of manufacturing.

I ask, what did NAM do for manufacturing? How did it serve (or not) its members? What was its role in manufacturing’s rise? How did it contribute to its decline (in the U.S.) and how did it rework manufacturing in an age of finance and international supply chains?

In answering these questions, I end up telling a story about the rationalization and globalization of American industry, a story that touches on tariffs, trade expansion, labor, management, conservatives, liberals, lobbying, civil rights, immigration, mergers and acquisitions, automation, U.S. politics, and the rise of a finance-based economy.

Though nothing seems more boring than a trade association, I write about NAM as if it was a high-achieving dysfunctional family, riven by generations of divisions and conflicts between protectionists and globalists, small concerns and big corporations, liberal staff members and conservative leaders, with recurrent and public resignations, yet somehow maintaining itself as the singular “voice of industry.”