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Alan Brinkley

Alan Brinkley, professor of American History at Columbia University, stands as one of my favorite progressive historians of the New Deal. And his two major works, Voices of Protest and The End of Reform, are both excellent and thought-provoking tomes.

Voices of Protest recounts the story of two insurgent populists -- Charlie Coughlin, the radio priest and Huey Long, the Louisiana Kingfisher -- and their influence on the flurry of legislation historically known as the "Second New Deal." Brinkley expertly recounts the shrewd appeal and bizarre failings of these two men, and how their populist programs were eventually subsumed by the master politican of the age, old FDR himself. Throughout, there is much interesting detail on the origins and character of populist movements in the United States.

The End of Reform discusses the erosion of the New Deal after the 1937 recession and the experience of World War II. Brinkley notes how FDR, a consummate pragmatist, had held no design for recovery but rather relied on "bold experimentalism" to carry the day. Under this rubric of experimentalism, many different ideologies got their time in the sun, including budget-balancers, "New Freedom" decentralization, "New Nationalist" federalism, and Hoover-style associationalism. When the 1937 recession hit, destroying what little recovery had occurred since the Great Slump, FDR finally began to rely on what we now consider the New Deal's prime legacy - Keynesian fiscal spending. This emphasis on pump-priming [a.k.a. throwing money at problems, with no underlying civic mission] was set in stone by the financial necessities of the war effort.

By the time the dust had settled in 1945, all other strands of progressivism had been discarded and forgotten, leaving only the convenient yet strangely disempowering monolith of "postwar liberalism" on the political landscape. Step by unfolding step, Brinkley relates the men of various philosophies who crafted the New Deal, and how they all ultimately came to embrace the tenets of the liberalism now floundering in our nation's capital.

Brinkley is not only an expert historian but an able commentator on current events. He holds forth regularly in magazines such as Newsweek and The New Republic and is a strong advocate for progressive issues.

Full disclosure: Professor Brinkley is currently my graduate advisor. This was written before I came to Columbia, but the sentiments expressed here stand.

To read more by Brinkley, click on.

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