Jennifer Delton


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

Cover Interview of April 15, 2020

The wide angle

Historians and political scientists have long used NAM to represent “big business” or “industry.” In part, this was because NAM claimed to be the voice of organized industry and also because its archives have been some of the few available for business research. But there has never been a complete history about the organization itself from its founding in 1895 to the present (it is still a going concern). So filling in that gap is one “wider angle”— and the primary reason I took on this project.

Second, historians and political scientists have overwhelmingly focused on NAM’s conservative tendencies — its anti-union activity, its political lobbying, its opposition to the New Deal and government regulations, its relentless propaganda for “free markets” and capitalism. But because I am looking at the work NAM did to bolster and rationalize industry, I emphasize its more progressive tendencies, its work in standardization, workers’ compensation, and safety standards, its support for and development of affirmative action, its promotion of freer trade. Thus, despites its largely conservative Republican membership, it often supported liberal Democratic policies as represented by Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. This should spur us to rethink how we understand liberalism and conservatism in U.S. history.

Relatedly, I try to historicize the slippery concept of “neoliberalism.” This politicized term is largely used by the left to critique the rise of global capitalism, especially under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But recent scholarship has identified the neoliberal tendencies in earlier attempts to provide a global infrastructure for free trade beginning after World War I. See, for instance, Quinn Solobodian’s The Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018). In the U.S., the search for international cooperation and an integrated world market was pursued by progressive liberals in the Democratic Party, such as Wilson, FDR, JFK, and Bill Clinton. While critics see neoliberalism as conservative, I am interested in the way that liberal internationalist New Dealers and proponents of diversity (as opposed to protectionists, isolationists, and nativists) pursued these neoliberal policies in the U.S., arguably the most powerful influence in creating global capitalism. Here again, I think we need to rethink the overlap and confusion between liberalism and conservatism, especially around ideas of antiracism, diversity, and open borders. I think we need to account for the reasons that neoliberalism, a word that highlights liberalism, is seen in practice as conservative.