Historians often portray the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) as a conservative force in debates over free enterprise, battles against unions and government regulation, and the rise of capitalism in the United States. In The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism (Princeton UP, 2020), Jennifer Delton (Professor of History at Skidmore College) provides a comprehensive and nuanced political history. Delton focuses on the conservative policy goals of the organization but also its surprisingly progressive tactics and internal conflicts such as welcoming women and workers with disabilities, supporting the UN, embracing aspects of cosmopolitanism, and supporting the ERA, Civil Rights Act, and aspects of affirmative action. Delton deftly identifies the wider economic, ideological, and institutional concerns that drove NAM actors. As the book interrogates how the National Association of Manufacturing did – and did not – work, NAM emerges as a capitalist modernizer. She examines 125 years of massive change in American economic policy with the NAM at its center in order to interrogate manufacturing’s role in the development of capitalism at home and abroad – with implications for how we understand neoliberalism – especially liberal internationalist tendencies. Delton argues that liberal internationalism (associated often with Woodrow Wilson) can be seen as a crucial step toward the international institutions favored by post World War II European neoliberals.
The book is divided into three parts. Part one traces the ascent and reorganization of industrial manufacturing from the 1890s to 1940. Part two highlights manufacturing’s dominance in US society and the world (1941-1980) as the US lowered tariffs and pursued free trade. The share of GDP peaked in 1953 when manufacturing represented 25.8% of domestic production. Part three treats the decline in manufacturing (beginning in 1960) and emphasizes deindustrialization, globalization, and the disintegration of the large multidivisional corporations in the 1990s.
The book investigates how the globalizing impulse of neoliberalism played out historically in 20th century US politics – more specifically, how liberal internationalist ideas that were promoted by Democrats and antithetical to traditional political conservativism came to be espoused by the Republican party. Delton writes that “this is especially relevant now, as the current head of the Republican party [President Donald Trump, Republican] seems to be undoing the work of neoliberalism and liberal internationalists alike.” NAM’s history helps explain the bipartisan support for economic internationalism, freer trade, and what would later be called neoliberalism, even before the Cold War and Reagan, and even as voters (and Congress) remain extremely divided about these issues. The story of the NAM is full of contradictions, but The Industrialists deftly tracks them all, contextualizing the impacts on the national and global economy.
In the podcast, Dr. Delton describes how the NAM archive was shaped by professional staff members – particularly one woman – whose views departed from NAM leaders. The referenced article, “Who Tells Your Story: Contested History at the NAM” is here.
Benjamin Warren assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at email@example.com or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.