Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929-1968
July 13, 2020
A timely work of groundbreaking history explains how the American middle class ballooned at mid-century until it dominated the nation, showing who benefited and what brought the expansion to an end.
To hear Americans debate it, expanding the middle class, even reinventing the middle class is a goal of major importance. But is anyone looking at what supporting and expanding the middle class really means? What happened the last time, in the middle of the 20th century, when the U.S. developed a big, vibrant middle class? How did we get there? What price did we pay to achieve that goal?
Ohio State University professor David Stebenne’s Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929 – 1968 tells the story of just how the Depression, the New Deal, the World War II draft and the GI Bill created a middle-class powerhouse driving our politics, our economy, and our culture in the middle of the 20th century. Everything from our eating habits to the movies we watched was shaped by this juggernaut, and by the 1960s this potent majority of the American population had more power over American politics and American dreams than ever before—or since.
By 1968, serious cracks in American society had begun to emerge, sparking cultural clashes and political protests as women, people of color, and other marginalized groups demanded a place at the table and turned a spotlight on the serious price the nation had paid for the vast middle-class prosperity the nation had achieved. The nation had now seen the spread of racially homogeneous suburbs; ever more pollution; steady, rising inflation that eroded everyone's savings; straitjacket religion and morality; the draft and an expanding war in Vietnam; and a one-size-fits-all lifestyle that led many groups of disillusioned citizens to stand up and strike back at a system that no longer seemed to work for anyone. As conflicts over these issues intensified, economic stagnation set in, and the huge, historic American middle class began to shrink, a trend that continues to the present day.
David Stebenne has written a detailed, effective, and powerful dissection of the policies that worked to build a strong middle class and those that didn't. Promised Land offers important fuel for the current, urgent national debate about class and the economy. Across presidencies, wars, and social upheaval, this history charting the rise of a powerful American middle class provides invaluable instruction as we look ahead to an uncertain future clouded by a worldwide pandemic and the high unemployment and social upheaval the pandemic has produced.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Stebenne is Professor of history and law at Ohio State University and a specialist in modern American political and legal history. He has published political commentary in The Conversation, the Huffington Post, The New Republic, The Observer, and Salon and has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered to discuss politics, the economy, and labor issues.
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