African Americans and the New Deal model

Walter Russell Mead, continuing his series on what the next iteration of liberalism could look like, takes a look at why African Americans support the New Deal model of government: a government that tries to manage the economy to provide stability and managed development. Mead has been calling this the “blue social model” created by “Liberalism 4.0,” and he writes that African Americans are the single most important group that support the New Deal model and thus encourage the Democrats to continue their support of it. Mead considers racial equality to be one of the greatest achievements of 20th-century progressivism (4.0 liberalism). At the same time, Mead believes that the blue model’s time has passed in these times where the global economy requires and technology enables more flexibility.

Two factors of course jump out: Democrats are more trusted as defenders of the rights of racial minorities and as supporters of the poor through the welfare state (more trusted, at least, by minority and poor voters). Since a disproportionate number of African Americans are poor, both of these factors are most likely important. Mead adds an important factor, though, that I think is important as well: government jobs at the federal, state, and municipal levels have been a key factor in the growth of a black middle class, and puts it in the context of American history:

Today, Blacks hold a larger share of government jobs (pdf) than their percentage of the population would alone account for – and government employment represents a significant percentage of Black middle income families.  Teachers, police, fire-fighters, sanitation workers, health workers: Blacks are often strongly represented in state and municipal workforces, especially of course in urban areas with large Black populations….

The Black middle class isn’t based so largely on government jobs because Blacks aren’t entrepreneurial or because they have some natural affinity for bureaucratic paper-pushing. Historically, municipal government in particular has been a major avenue for the economic advance of different American ethnic groups.  The Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles and many others used their voting strength in urban centers to elect politicians sympathetic to the interests of their group, and over time that turned into municipal jobs for many voters, and contracts for others.  The urban ethnic political machines and their traditions of patronage, wholesale electoral fraud and influence peddling often led to bad governance, but historically that system did help millions of new immigrants bootstrap themselves into the American middle class.  Politicians like Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters aren’t evidence of some peculiar disease of Black urban politics; they are as American as Tammany Hall.

The rise of Black voting power in American cities led very naturally to improved access for Black workers to city jobs – just in the same way that Tammany Hall helped the Irish and other political organizations have helped other groups get that first toehold on the rung of success.  Blacks, whose Great Migration to the northern cities came as World War One and immigration restrictions closed the door to European immigrants early in the twentieth century, were (until the recent Hispanic influx) the last major group to colonize the great American cities; it is the misfortune of Black America to be just establishing its middle class on the basis of government work as the economic foundations of government are shifting.

As Mead notes, this parallels the fact that just as manufacturing jobs finally opened up fully to blacks in the 1970s, the American economy was beginning to deindustrialize. The jobs that drew African Americans to cities, that had helped make many white workers middle class, disappeared from the cities and have been disappearing from the nation.

The poverty that African Americans have disproportionately experienced since the end of Jim Crow has prompted many people to point out that this, that, or the other thing is “the problem with black culture” and to propose solutions. And it’s true that African American culture (along with every other human culture) needs to change, specifically under the lordship of Christ. But let’s not make our judgments about culture without reference to history and the bigger socioeconomic picture in which cultures exist.

I should also note that one thing that Mead doesn’t get into is the damage and dependency promoted by welfare state policies that came from the New Deal model.



  1. Great points.

    It strikes me that government jobs are a form of government dependence, even if it is not welfare (though it may have originated as political gifts), and when the Republicans or Tea Partiers advocate reducing the size of government, that would disproportionately affect blacks.

    So besides leading to the philosophy that politics is the way to solve problems, they are quite literally invested in the system and their vote probably reflects that.

    Despite Mead’s wishful thinking that “the economic foundations of government are shifting”, the gov has been the primary sector for growth in this down economy.

  2. Yeah, I found this column to be a game-changer and added some depth to understanding this issue.

    From reading lots of Mead’s stuff over the past 3 years I think that when he says that the foundations are shifting he’s thinking of the next few or several decades, as in we won’t be able to pay for a big, inefficient government forever. I think that he’s right there, while also agreeing with you about the current situation. Does that make sense or would you still disagree with him?

  3. I agree with Mead that the foundations *should* shift gradually to continuously reduce government (not just its growth), but I doubt they will. So far, we’ve actually doubled down on big government.

    Greece suggests that government jobs are the most secure jobs, even up to the point of collapse. While I don’t think the US will collapse like Greece, primarily because we still fill an integral role globally, I similarly don’t expect much US gov job shrinkage. The current US strategies, including the persistent fallacy that government spending helps the economy, only serves to reinforces this.

    I used to think that 2010 represented a sea change in public opinion on government size and spending, but now I think that if the limited-government crowd is successfully blamed for the depression, as threatened in the recent negotiations, an even bigger government will emerge, though its growth would necessarily still slow. Foundations would shift for the worse.

    But I think the most likely scenario is a sort of mushy middle where they laud minimally necessary cuts as big changes. I say “likely” simply because that is the kind of behavior I have come to expect from the government. All the big programs and agencies will remain. The US will economically decline but eek by on its global momentum. I wouldn’t call this shifting the foundations.

    So, I guess I do disagree with Mead about the decline of US government jobs, but ask me again in a couple of years. 🙂

  4. Good thoughts. I guess there would be two possibilities for stopping growth: 1) election of candidates with the will and support to do something about it or 2) the ability to finance it disappears (and no trillion-dollar coins are minted).

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