Illusions of Progress
Business, Poverty, and Liberalism in the American CenturyUniversity of Pennsylvania Press Politics and Culture in Modern America
Today, the word “neoliberal” is used to describe an epochal shift toward market-oriented governance begun in the 1970s. Yet the roots of many of neoliberalism’s policy tools can be traced to the ideas and practices of mid-twentieth-century liberalism.
In Illusions of Progress, Brent Cebul chronicles the rise of what he terms “supply-side liberalism,” a powerful and enduring orientation toward politics and the economy, race and poverty, that united local chambers of commerce, liberal policymakers and economists, and urban and rural economic planners. Beginning in the late 1930s, New Dealers tied expansive aspirations for social and, later, racial progress to a variety of economic development initiatives. In communities across the country, otherwise conservative business elites administered liberal public works, urban redevelopment, and housing programs. But by binding national visions of progress to the local interests of capital, liberals often entrenched the very inequalities of power and opportunity they imagined their programs solving.
When President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty—which prioritized direct partnerships with poor and racially marginalized citizens—businesspeople, Republicans, and soon, a rising generation of New Democrats sought to rein in its seeming excesses by reinventing and redeploying many of the policy tools and commitments pioneered on liberalism’s supply side: public-private partnerships, market-oriented solutions, fiscal “realism,” and, above all, subsidies for business-led growth now promised to blunt, and perhaps ultimately replace, programs for poor and marginalized Americans.
In this wide-ranging book, Brent Cebul illuminates the often-overlooked structures of governance, markets, and public debt through which America’s warring political ideologies have been expressed and transformed. From Washington, D.C. to the declining Rustbelt and emerging Sunbelt and back again, Illusions of Progress reveals the centrality of public and private forms of profit that have defined the enduring boundaries of American politics, opportunity, and inequality— in an era of liberal ascendance and an age of neoliberal retrenchment.
"Countering the scholarly and popular tendency to sharply segment American political economy between New Deal and neoliberalized 'orders,' Cebul makes the case that, with certain modifications, supply-side progressivism was the throughline that bridged the policies, strategies, and ultimate convictions of most New Deal liberals and their New Democrat heirs."—Phenomenal World
"An immeasurably valuable resource for understanding both the historical achievements and the profound historical failures of American liberalism—an understanding that is needed if liberalism is to be reinvented in the present day."—Public Seminar
"Illusions of Progress offers a new and incisive view of the enormous transformations in American liberalism from the New Deal to the New Democrats of the late 1990s and beyond. Cutting through old assumptions about liberal largesse as well as new theories that neoliberalism has supplanted all pretense of the welfare state, Brent Cebul introduces the notion of “supply-side liberalism” to examine the United States’ peculiar approach to pressing social issues by wedding public policy to private enterprise. Cebul’s book provides crucial insights and analysis into contemporary debates over the role of the state in the provision of social goods and services."—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
"Illusions of Progress is a remarkable book—wide-ranging, theoretically powerful, and a striking intervention in historical thinking about the twentieth-century United States. Brent Cebul's interpretation and his emphasis on the role of local business elites in making postwar liberalism what it was offers a new way of thinking about liberalism, conservatism, and neoliberalism, and much else besides."—Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
"In Illusions of Progress, Brent Cebul provides a deeply researched, revisionist history of Democratic policymaking from the New Dealers to the New Democrats of the 1990s. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the origins of neoliberalism in the United States."—Joseph Crespino, author of Strom Thurmond’s America: A History