Assistant Professor Scott Kamen’s new book, From Union Halls to the Suburbs: Americans for Democratic Action and the Transformation of Postwar Liberalism examines what we call “liberalism” in the United States and the shift from its working-class roots to the interests of the suburban professional class. Kamen teaches history at The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus.

Scott Kamen book

For decades, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) exerted an outsized pull on the political stage. Formed in 1947 by anticommunist liberals such as economist John Kenneth Galbraith and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the ADA established itself as the most prominent liberal organization in the United States for more than a quarter century. Shaped by the ADA, the New Politics movement 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, Kamen reveals how 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. By the 1980s, many Democratic politicians, activists, and voters had embraced a neoliberal ideology that coupled socially liberal attitudes with market-based solutions, eschewing an older progressive politics steeped in labor issues.

From Union Halls to the Suburbs is essential reading for understanding the state of American liberalism in the 21st century, Kamen said in a recent Current interview. He looks at the media fixation on Bernie Sanders’s age, accent, and embrace of the “democratic socialist” label and its effect on the Democratic Party and his campaign’s challenge to his opponent Hillary Clinton. 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 weren’t new though, Kamen observed. When the 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, he said. The books is a volume in the series Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond and is available from University of Massachusetts Press.

Kamen is a 20th-century U.S. political and intellectual historian with a Ph.D. from Trinity College Dublin. His research examines the tensions in and transformation of American liberalism during the civil rights and Vietnam War era. 

Image: Economist John Kenneth Galbraith and U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, key figures in the book