The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960’s

By Allen J. Matusow 

In The Unraveling of America, Allen Matusow provides a description and analysis of the resurgence of domestic liberalism in the 1960’s and its hasty demise by the end of the decade.  Concerned primarily with federal policy, Matusow is interested in how liberals attained political power and attempted to implement social policy.  While his use of the term “liberalism,” maintains a nebulous quality throughout the book, he traces its historical antecedents to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism that preceded WWII, and identifies its 1960’s architects as intellectuals and academics from the northeast.   

Arguing that intrinsic to the liberalism of the 1930’s was an ideological dispute that promoted an overhauling of political and economic systems, Matusow contends that the new liberalism that arose in the late 1950’s had accepted the capitalist system, and with it, big business and big labor.  Liberals were now focused on tweaking the capitalist system to mitigate its destructive effects, including poverty, unemployment, and the dislocation of workers.  This new economic outlook, which would manifest itself in Keynesian economic policy, converged with the development of other social concerns, not least of which was racism.   The optimistic complacency of 1950’s liberals had also given way to a growing pessimism and alarm at the state of the country.  There was a feeling that the U.S. was being outpaced and outmaneuvered by Russia, and that Americans had lapsed into a materialistic apathy that emphasized self-interest over the good of the community and the nation. 


Liberals found their way into politics with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.  In the first section of his book, Matusow traces the emergence of liberal programs and the growing public enthusiasm for their enactment through Kennedy’s administration.  Central to his argument is that support for liberal reforms, particularly from Kennedy himself, was much weaker than is generally perceived.  Kennedy himself was conservative in regards to the economy and race issues.  He supported big business and was reluctant to support the Civil Rights movement.  In regards to the latter, he was much more interested in suppressing its destabilizing political and social effects.  But just prior to his assassination he had turned to support it, realizing that there was no way of regaining southern white support and alarmed that to not support the non-violent protests of greater part of the movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., risked it being eclipsed by the more radical sectors of the movement.   

But shortly before his death, Kennedy had supported the substantive Civil Rights Act and an anti-poverty legislation designated to wipeout unemployment based on Keynesian economics.  All Johnson had to do was implement Kennedy’s vision in order to remain popular.  But as detailed in the second section of Matusow’s book, rising inflation caused by Keynesian economics and the Vietnam War trammeled support for liberal policy towards poverty.  Furthermore, specific policy failed to deal with the systematic causes of poverty and became reduced to the distribution of services for the poor rather than their political empowerment.  Civil rights legislation also failed to combat the barriers to racism on the local level and the assassination of King unleashed widespread rioting in the North promoting a white backlash against the movement for black equality.   

The last section of Matusow’s book argues that the radicalism of the era ultimately played a significant part in unraveling liberalism.  Liberals sought to improve American capitalism and democracy, while radicals condemned each as oppressive.  Hippies undermined the values that promoted capitalism, including hard work, self-denial, social discipline, and the postponement of gratification.  Matusow argues that the values of hippies, though their movement was short-lived became absorbed into dominant political culture.  The New Left undermined liberalism through their focus on reconstructing the social order.  Confronting stark realities of American poverty and racism, and condemning American imperialism, the New Left charged that liberals were fighting a phony war on poverty, and were uncommitted to real racial reform.  This effectively pushed mainstream liberalism to the left, weakening the capacity of corporate liberals and moderate liberals such as LBJ to shape liberal policy.  The last movement that Matusow analyzes is the Black Power movement.  Disillusioned with the pace of civil rights reform, blacks became increasingly radicalized, disrupting the more moderate platform of King who espoused participation in the capitalist system.     

Whether one agrees with all of Matusow’s arguments, he provides a lucid and engaging account of the social and political developments of the 1960’s.