Scott Kamen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, Valencia. This interview is based on his new book, From Union Halls to the Suburbs: Americans for Democratic Action and the Transformation of Postwar Liberalism (University of Massachusetts Press, 2023).
JF: What led you to write From Union Halls to the Suburbs?
SK: From Union Halls to the Suburbs emerged out of my long endeavor to try to understand this thing we call “liberalism” in the United States. Earlier in my career, I explored and wrote about an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) that during the early years of the Cold War sought to sway the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from its lingering fascination with communism and establish American-style liberalism as a necessary foundation for the Western cultural and intellectual tradition. My work on the CCF led to me spending time with the variety of diverse and often conflicting meanings attached to the label of “liberalism.” It also made more acutely aware of how liberalism—in its many different forms—has changed substantially between the early post-World War II period and the present. I quickly realized that analyzing and the telling the story of the transformation of American liberalism during the latter half of the twentieth century would require me to examine the contributions of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and its leading intellectuals to that transformation. With a firm belief in the far-reaching potential for social progress to be found in a reformed capitalism, ADA liberals played a leading role in defining and redefining American liberalism in the decades after World War II. On this basis, they established the ADA as the quintessential representative of postwar American liberalism.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of From Union Halls to the Suburbs?
SK: From Union Halls to the Suburbs argues that the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) helped to shape an insurgent liberal movement that came to be known as the New Politics movement and upended Democratic Party politics with its challenge to the Vietnam War, demands for redistributive economic policies, and development of a far-reaching politics of race, gender, and sexuality. By bringing the ADA and its influential public intellectuals into the story of the New Politics movement, this book reveals how and why American liberalism shifted away from the working-class concerns of the New Deal era and began to cater to the interests of a new, suburban professional class.
JF: Why do we need to read From Union Halls to the Suburbs?
SK: From Union Halls to the Suburbs is essential reading for understanding the state of American liberalism in the twenty-first century. During the 2016 Democratic primaries, the media often fixated on Bernie Sanders’s age, his accent, and his embrace of the “democratic socialist” label. This fixation on the more superficial aspects of Sanders’s campaign rendered his politics and the divide in the Democratic Party produced by his campaign’s challenge to Hillary Clinton inexplicable and seemingly unprecedented in liberal politics. With the unexpectedly strong showing of Sanders during the primaries, political commentators began to report on the tensions in liberal politics between economic progressivism and what many termed neoliberal “identity politics.” These tensions did not, however, begin with the contest between Sanders and Clinton in 2016. When the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) helped launch the New Politics movement that emerged alongside Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign and later coalesced around the presidential campaign of George McGovern in 1972, those tensions were already palpable. The politics of the ADA—the most prominent liberal organization in the United States for more than a quarter century after World War II—and the New Politics movement it helped to shape contained the seeds for both the economic progressivism associated with the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and the so-called neoliberal “identity politics” that previously had a near total grip on liberal and Democratic politics. From Union Halls to the Suburbs helps us to see the New Politics as a vital link between the liberalism of the postwar era and the liberalism of our present day.
JF: Why and when did you become an American historian?
SK: I started college in 2004 as a computer science major, but soon became disillusioned by the prospect of sitting in front of a computer and punching out code for the rest of my life. I wanted to understand how the country and world I lived in came to be. My desire to study the past as a means of understanding the present and how we got to where we are led to me becoming a history major and, eventually, earning a PhD in U.S. History. My desire to share what I’ve learned and the skills I’ve developed led to me taking a faculty position at the University of New Mexico-Valencia, a teaching-focused institution where I have been teaching since 2019.
JF: What is your next project?
SK: The ADA liberals that I examined in this book—along with a wide variety of intellectuals from different political orientations during the 1960s and 1970s—conceived of the growing ranks of college students and middle-class white-collar professionals as a “new class” that was different from the old middle class of the petty bourgeoisie. While neoconservatives were very critical of this “new class,” ADA liberals saw this new middle class or the “new class” as the future social base for American liberalism. With my next project, I’m planning on further examining the ideas that surrounded the new class during the late twentieth century and comparing that to how the politics of the new class played out in practice. I’m looking to do that by probing the political history of Los Alamos, New Mexico; a city established by the Manhattan Project during World War II and still the site of a large federal nuclear research laboratory. Los Alamos isn’t very big in terms of population. It only has about 13,000 people. However, the Los Alamos national laboratory employs over 90% of the people who live there, and it has the highest per capita number of PhDs in the United Sates. That means that there are few places in the country that are as thoroughly a New Class city as Los Alamos. I’m aiming to use Los Alamos as a case study to dig into how the ideas, theories, and assumptions of the New Class and their politics played out in the real world.
JF: Thanks, Scott!