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Culture et société

Marginalization and American Politics

Marginalité et politique américaine
Frances Fox Piven


En septembre 2005, un ouragan dévastateur de catégorie 4 a touché les côtes du Golfe du Mexique aux Etats-Unis. Les digues qui protégeaient la ville de La Nouvelle-Orléans, située au-dessous du niveau de la mer, se sont rompues, et une gigantesque inondation a suivi, laissant 80 % de la ville sous l’eau. Dans les jours qui ont suivi, la presse nationale montrait des images de nombreux Afro-Américains désemparés, des habitants de la Nouvelle-Orléans regroupés, dans l’attente et parfois hurlant à l’aide. Derrière cette image se dessinait une image complexe de marginalité aux Etats-Unis que cet article propose d’aborder.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

culture, États-Unis, société, society, United States
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Texte intégral

1In September of 2005, a devastating “category four” hurricane hit the Gulf coast of the United States The levees that protected the city of New Orleans, which is below sea level, were breached, and massive flooding followed, leaving 80 percent of the city under water. In the days that followed, the national press featured images of masses of impoverished African Americans, residents of New Orleans, huddled and waiting, and sometimes screaming, for help.

2Behind those images was an intricate story of marginalization in the United States. New Orleans was a city of 500,000, an important port for the grains produced in the heartland and shipped down the Mississippi, and something of a tourist mecca, reknowned for its history and as the cultural home of the blues and jazz. But the population of the city was overwhelming black, and poor. The median income was only 70 percent of the national average, and poverty rates were twice the national average. The main jobs were low wage jobs in the hotels, casinos, restaurants and bars that catered to the tourist industry. Government income support programs, including welfare and food stamps and subsidized housing, that sometimes supplemented the earnings of some poor people, had been whittled away for several decades, and especially under the presidency of George W. Bush. The schools were bad, with high dropout and suspension rates, and the illiteracy rate of the city hovered at about 40 percent. Homicide rates were extraordinarily high, roughly ten times those of New York City.

3Many of the victims of Katrina had been marginalized before the hurricane and the floods overwhelmed them, which is surely part of the reason that the danger of hurricane and the ensuing floods was ignored. As is amply evident, this was not simply a natural disaster. For years the Army Corps of Engineers managed the Mississippi River more in the interest of land developers than in the interest of ecology. The mighty river’s flood plain was pushed backward to allow agriculture and development, with the consequence that the rush of river water during the spring floods eroded the wetlands and barrier islands that had protected New Orleans in the past. Only the aging levees stood between the city and disaster, but funds to maintain the weakening levees were regularly struck from the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, no matter that scientists warned that the levees could not withstand even a category three hurricane. The economies realized by not protecting New Orleans were made necessary as a consequence of the successive tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration, and by the escalating costs of the war in Iraq.

  • 1 Jordan Flaherty, “Notes From Inside New Orleans,” <>, September 2, 2005.

4The marginalized were again ignored even as the storm approached and evacuation orders were issued. The Governor of Louisiana urged the citizens to “Pray the hurricane down” to a level two.1 Meanwhile, no buses or trucks were provided to evacuate those without automobiles, and the shelters where they sought refuge quickly became fetid and overcrowded and without adequate power, water or food. Three days after the storm struck, after the nation had been watching the images of mass misery on CNN for days, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told a television audience that he had only just heard of the horrendous conditions that prevailed at the New Orleans superdome where many had sought refuge. Significant federal aid did not arrive for five days.

5As events unfolded, a contest of sorts emerged over how the public should view the victims. Right-wing bloggers and some of the press tried to demonize the victims, portraying the crowds of evacuees as a riotous mob, stressing incidents of violence, theft, and rape. And when it became evident that the victims were those too poor to leave, some pundits on the right rushed to blame high rates of poverty in New Orleans on the liberalization of welfare that had occurred in the 1960s because, it was argued, the more liberal assistance provided then, decades earlier, had sapped these people of the initiative to improve their condition. As it happens, thankfully and perhaps because of the vivid television footage of the disaster, the effort to deepen the marginalization of the victims failed. The public sympathized, and the Bush regime suffered a remarkable loss of public confidence. So, marginalization matters, and it is not only about the marginals.


  • 2 See James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: The Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven, CT: Y (...)

6Processes of marginalization in American society afford an extraordinarily illuminating window on American society as a whole, on its economy, its culture, and its politics. This, however, is not usually the way we examine marginalization. Instead of trying to understand the role of marginal populations in the larger society, and the large social processes through which marginalization is created and sustained, we focus on the marginals themselves. Thus we have endless studies of the “underclass,” and of diverse groups of “deviants,” such as school dropouts, or welfare recipients, or people called criminals. We examine the characteristics of each of these groups and the conditions under which they live. We scrutinize the interplay between their cultural orientations, and their economic and social condition in sustaining marginality. Some people behave differently, or we think they do, and they also live under different, and usually worse, conditions than are considered the norm for the community. They are economically marginalized, by which we mean they work erratically or for very low wages and are poorer than is considered “normal.” Or they are culturally marginalized, by which we mean that the language they speak, the customs they follow, the behaviors they engage in, are different than what is considered the community norm, and may also be to varying degrees suspect, or even criminal. Or they are politically marginalized, by which we mean they do not or cannot participate in the normal politics of the community, or participate only intermittently, resorting rather to stratagems of evasion or sabotage and occasionally to the physical threats of crowd actions.2

7By comparison with this endless scrutiny of the marginals, our efforts to trace the connections between the life circumstances and behaviors of marginal groups and larger social, economic and political processes of American society remain weak. In this article, I will argue first that marginality is a reflection of large social processes. It is both created by forces in the larger society, and it has effects on institutional arrangements in the larger society. And second, I will argue that the processes of marginalization, of the active effort by some groups to marginalize other groups, is in fact at the heart of a good deal of contemporary American politics.

  • 3 Emile Durkheim, Rules of the Sociological Method, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1938, 67.
  • 4 Kai Erikson, “Notes on the Sociology of Deviance,” in Howard S. Becker, ed., The Other Side: Perspe (...)
  • 5 Ibid., 19.

8That marginalization is an important social process, revealing much about the larger community, was a point that Durkheim made when he argued that crime, for example, was normal, closely connected with the conditions of all collective life, and indeed “an integral part of all healthy societies.” 3 What Durkheim meant was that the existence of crime provided the occasions for the identification and ritual punishment of the behaviors which violate collective norms, thus reinforcing those norms, a point later much elaborated by sociologists associated with the labeling school, as when Erikson argued that: “As a trespasser against the group norms, [the deviant] informs us, as it were, what evil looks like, what shapes the devil can assume…. It may well be that without this ongoing drama at the outer edges of group space, the community would have no inner sense of identity and cohesion….”4 Or elsewhere, Erikson wrote: “[E]ven the best organized collectivity needs to produce occasional episodes of deviation for the sake of its stability.”5

9But while both Durkheim and the labeling theorists understood processes of marginalization as serving functions for the larger community, they treated the community as a largely undifferentiated collectivity, as an organic whole. The process of marginalization somehow emanated from the dominant society. I think, however, that more insight can be gained into the politics of marginalization if we put aside this assumption. The politics and policies that marginalize some in the community may not be a reflection of the interests or instincts of the community as a whole, but rather of the interests and impulses of particular groups in the community, especially groups in a dominant position to muster the resources that go into the making of such politics and policies. There is a politics of the dominant that creates and sustains marginality, by making only the worst forms of employment, for example, available to the marginals, and then justifying these practices by pointing to the characteristics of the people who are the victims of them. Or by consigning them to social programs that offer inferior benefits. Or by crowding them into substandard housing, or into neighborhoods and schools that offer inferior services and segregate them from the larger community.

10To be sure, American society is very diverse, a circumstance that might seem to provide the fodder for marginalization. But differences of economic position, or cultural practice, or language and tradition, or biological characteristics, become the grounds for marginalization only when they are drawn upon by political campaigns that first call attention to what might otherwise be merely random characteristics attributed to particular populations, and then interpret those characteristics as the grounds for the ritual separation and degradation of that population. Over time, the animosities and anxieties that are thus nourished among the public come to justify the policies that institutionalize marginalization, but these animosities and anxieties are themselves a response to the campaigns and rituals that create marginalization, and that are then nourished by the facts of marginalization itself.

11Consistent with the theme of this collection, and also with my own experience, I want to explore these propositions by reference to United States history. Indeed, I think one can, with illuminating results, reconstruct American history as a history of the changing politics and policies of marginalization. In some ways, features of the American experience provided ample raw materials for such a politics, although the raw materials certainly did not make the resulting politics inevitable. One raw material was simply the fact of cultural and biological difference in the population of a settler country. Each successive wave of newcomers brought with them distinctive characteristics, unique language, dress and customs, and sometimes different physical characteristics as well. Then also, the land that these colonizers occupied was already occupied. The U.S. was in the first instance a land of indigenous peoples conquered over a period of hundreds of years by Europeans hungry for land. These native Americans resisted with what military force they could muster, and the conflict and bloodshed that resulted became the stuff of American folklore, fostering a culturally imprinted hatred for the “savages,” at least until Hollywood hit upon the possibilities of the tales that could be spun around “Indian” warrior heroes.

  • 6 See Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a Euro (...)

12The prominence in the American experience of Protestantism, and the endless division and sectarianism that characterizes an American Protestantism born in the dissenting sects of Europe, may also have made marginalization more central to American development. We often think of religion and belief in the transcendental as a source of comfort in human existence. Perhaps. But American Protestantism matched whatever comfort it offered with its anxiety-producing fixations, born of doctrines that left the individual naked and alone to confront God and God’s law, that offered no guarantees of salvation, and that shared the obsessions with sexual transgression and rigid gender roles that characterize the Abrahamic religions. Contemporary survey data show that more religious Americans, and especially Protestant Americans, are more likely, for example, to oppose increased spending on assistance to the poor, and Protestantism is also correlated with the belief that poverty reflects the failure of individual effort.6

13Then also, while the major European powers developed external colonies, dominating and exploiting the peoples and resources of Latin America, Asia and Africa, the main American colony for a long time was internal, the population of enslaved African Americans who were concentrated in the South, and who were essential to the labor-intensive agricultural economy of the South. The facts of dark skin and African origins were not what was crucial in establishing slavery and the cultural attitudes of contempt and hatred that justified it. Rather the politics first of the colonies and then of the states was a politics intent on establishing racial difference, and then elaborating a system of law and custom that separated the races, and stripped Africans of rights and circumscribed their behavior based on presumed racial difference. Slavery was institutionalized in law and custom by the leaders of the slavocracy, and it was also justified by the culture the slave society created. Africans were depicted as bestial, and that understanding was engraved by the violent rituals which characterized the treatment of African slaves before emancipation, and that was kept alive by a Jim Crow system of law, as well as by the lynch mob, long after emancipation.

  • 7 For an analysis, see Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial (...)

14During the tumultuous years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, economic crisis and popular protest combined to transform American politics and public policy. Under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a series of massive emergency relief programs were inaugurated that overrode the historic preeminence of the states, and in 1935, these initiatives were made permanent by the Social Security Act. That same year, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, putting federal authority behind the right of workers to organize. In 1938, a federal minimum wage and maximum hours law was passed. And soldiers who fought in World War II were rewarded with the G.I. Bill of Rights. But all of these programs were promoted by a national Democratic party that depended for control of the presidency on the votes of the white South, while Southern senators and congressmen presided over the legislative process in the Congress. As a consequence, African Americans were largely excluded from the protections and benefits of the fledgling American welfare state that the New Deal created.7 African Americans worked in the fields or as domestic workers, and agriculture and domestic labor was unprotected by the new labor laws, while those of the new programs that aided the poor were largely turned over to the states to administer.

  • 8 W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1899.

15This background helps explain why popular political conflicts in the United States continued in the contemporary period to form around the fault lines of religious, racial and ethnic identity instead of around the fault lines of class. And it helps explain why religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender also became the fault lines of marginalization, each often reinforcing the other. As W. E. B. DuBois pointed out many years ago, writing of the free African Americans who found a haven of sorts in Philadelphia, the fact that they were kept deeply impoverished and living in hovels only underlined the distaste that white Philadelphians felt for them. Had they been allowed to live in a manner considered respectable by the larger community, and to work at respectable jobs with decent earnings, DuBois argued, race hatred might have been tempered, and the course of race relations in Philadelphia might have been different.8

16The politics of marginalization, reflecting as it does an ever-changing society, is always in flux, and it was very much in flux in the 20th century. In particular, the politics and policies governing the ostracism and degradation of racial minorities—especially African Americans— immigrants, and women, changed, in ways that softened marginalization. These changes were the result of the convulsive movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, which might be called the movements of the marginalized. The mother movement of them all was the civil rights movement which arose in the South, and raised the issues of civil rights for Blacks, particularly the right to integrated public and commercial facilities, and the right to vote. The drama of the movement, and the disruption it caused in Southern life and in electoral politics, made these issues for a time the central domestic issues of American politics. The images of marching Blacks confronting lunging police dogs and high pressure hoses galvanized public opinion across the nation, and the civil rights movement made the large gains in civil and political rights that effectively overturned the Southern apartheid system. As more and more Blacks displaced from a mechanizing Southern agriculture which no longer needed them migrated to the cities of the North, so the movement migrated north, transforming itself as it did into a poverty rights movement. As demonstrations and riots spread in Northern cities, the ruling Democratic party responded by liberalizing the heretofore modest social welfare programs of the country. All in all, the movement won stunning victories, forcing the legislation which made a reality of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution passed a century earlier, amendments that had been vitiated by the laws and practices of the Southern states after the period of Reconstruction, and overcoming the racial exclusions written into the New Deal programs.

17Moreover, the civil rights movement succeeded in forcing cultural racism at least partially underground. The old racial epithets were no longer acceptable, and disappeared from political discourse and from consumer culture, at least in their blunt forms. Indeed, images of racial diversity became the props of the advertising industry: Black, Hispanic and South Asian faces were enlisted to sell everything from laundry detergent to vacation getaways.

  • 9 However, the earnings gap between African Americans and Whites narrowed only modestly, and the over (...)

18The economic gains of the movement were notable as well. Income support programs expanded, especially the means-tested programs that had been crucial to minorities, and state discretion over the administration of these programs was reduced. Poverty rates began to fall, and extreme poverty was greatly reduced. At least some racial minorities were moving upward in the class structure. Affirmative action opened up jobs, especially in public employment, and the African American and Hispanic middle class grew. As it did, and as the provisions of the Voting Rights Act took effect, minority political representation in national and subnational legislatures also increased.9

19The roots of the movement that made these inroads on racial marginalization were complex. The forced removal of Blacks from the feudal plantation system caused enormous hardship, but it was also a kind of liberation from the near-total social control exerted by the planter, the lynch mob, and the sheriff. Moreover, the subsequent concentration of Blacks in the ghettoes of the cities, along with their movement into wage labor, afforded them the protection of sheer concentrated numbers, and in some cases, the political resources of unionization. In the cities, particularly in the Northern cities, Blacks were not disenfranchised by law and custom, at least not to the extent that they were in the South. This turned out to be important because when civil rights protests arose in the South, Black voters in the Northern cities helped to determine Democratic party responses.

20As had happened before in the 19th century, the Black movement helped to stimulate a protest movement among women. Both movements were rising up against the culture of marginalization, and in both these cases that culture was embedded in a doctrine of biological determinism. Otherwise, of course, the issues were quite different. Women, especially women already prepared by their educational advantages for a measure of independence from traditional family roles, asserted their liberation from a destiny circumscribed by child bearing and the family, and demanded control of their reproductive functions and equal rights in public life, especially in employment and politics. This movement also made large gains. “Reproductive rights,” especially the right to abortion, were enshrined in a Supreme Court decision, and constituted a direct assault on the doctrine of biological determinism that had circumscribed women’s lives. Moreover, a good many women moved upward in the professions and business, and more women were represented in politics as well.

21And finally, a protest movement emerged among gays, who in the very act of publicly asserting their sexual preferences challenged and transformed sexual and family mores. Over time, out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians were elected to Congress and became accepted figures in entertainment and business. Many gays and lesbians not only publicly asserted their sexual identity, but the existence of same-sex sexual identities became familiar and even acceptable as gays and lesbians became the main characters in television serials, and won some political rights as well.

22In sum, the movements of the marginalized scored historic victories. But even as the dust was settling and the gains assessed, other very large changes were at work in the American economy that were to transform the politics that had permitted challenges to these forms of marginalization. We often refer to these changes as the rise of a “new economy,” meaning the broad shift from manufacturing to services, the increasing reliance on computer technology, and the rise of international trade and investment. All of these changes came to matter in politics. But the translation of new economic imperatives into politics and policy was mediated by the intense politicization of American business that began in the early 1970s.

23Business opposition to the movements of the 1960s had been muted, at least so long as the protest movements remained vigorous, and in some instances threatening. Moreover concessions to the movements were easily affordable for a time. After all, the United States had emerged from World War II as the world’s uncontested leading industrial power, and American business enjoyed extraordinary prosperity and profits. But as Europe and Japan recovered, so did international competition for American markets, and this at a time when U.S. businesses were bearing the costs of the wage, social benefit and regulatory victories associated with the movements. The result was visible in the narrowing corporate profit margins of the early 1970s. It would take some time before American business retooled to confront the challenges of international competition.

  • 10 The targets of the campaign, in other words, were what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the left hand of the (...)

24The immediate solution was to roll back rising domestic costs, by shifting the burden of taxation from capital to wages, from business and the affluent to working people; by cutting back social welfare programs, and especially income support programs, so as to drive more people into the labor force and the scramble for work, and also to keep them anxious and vulnerable about their jobs and their wages; by weakening unions, essentially to reduce worker power, and for the same reasons, to lower worker earnings and erode workplace protections; by “reforming” tort law so as to limit consumer liability suits against corporations; by rolling back environmental and workplace regulations that so irritated business and also cost them money; by introducing “school vouchers” that allowed public money to be spent on schools sponsored by private companies, in the process also weakening teachers’ unions; by the long term effort to privatize social security and Medicare; and by the build-up of the military-industrial complex.10

25These initiatives as they unfolded reversed some of the gains that had been won by the movements in the 1960s, especially the economic gains won by the Black movement. But the agenda of business was far more ambitious than merely rolling back public protections for minorities and the poor, and the marginalized were not really the main targets. Rather marginalized groups became important because they were used as a foil in a campaign to roll back the entire spectrum of business regulations and welfare state supports that had been achieved over the course of the twentieth century. This was an attack not only or even mainly on the Great Society, but on the American New Deal.

26The agenda was ambitious, and to implement it, business strategists and the allies they cultivated on the political and religious right went into campaign mode. Beginning in the early 1970s, with a handful of small right-wing foundations in the lead, a propaganda apparatus took shape. New think tanks were funded, while a handful of older conservative think tanks were enlarged. The think tanks hired the intellectuals who made the arguments for the rollback agenda, and spread the arguments widely, on talk shows, in op-ed columns, in new conservative publications. They sponsored books by right-wing intellectuals, and paid to publicize them, including Freedom to Choose by Milton Friedman, Losing Ground by Charles Murray, and The Tragedy of Compassion by Marvin Olasky. Soon the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Manhattan Institute and the intellectuals who worked for them became familiar voices in American politics. The right also developed a formidable media presence, introducing new radio talk shows and TV channels which in turn were the launching pads for a campaign of intimidation against more mainstream networks and journalists who were brought into line out of fear of being labeled as “liberal” or (more recently) unpatriotic.

  • 11 See for example on business lobbying Elizabeth Drew, “He’s Back!,” New York Review, March 5, 2005.

27Meanwhile, the lobbying capacity of business was built up by the creation of new peak organizations, the revival of sleepier older organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, and the creation of a business war machine of corporate offices in Washington D.C. now known as K Street. These groups pressured government from the outside, and also invaded it from the inside, as key lobbyists were promoted to government posts and others sat with congressional committees to draft legislation.11

28Very importantly, the campaign also cultivated the populist right, much of it rooted in the fundamentalist churches. The emergence of this populist right was in a way fortuitous, and distinguished this period from earlier periods of business domination. The rise of a “pro-life” movement, the defence of marriage groups, the growth of evangelical churches, the rifle groups, and so on, were provoked by the anxieties resulting from the changes in American society that had occurred in response to the movements of the 1960s, including the liberalization of racial, sexual and family mores. But whatever the roots of this politics of resentment, it was the genius and good fortune of the business campaign strategists to succeed in bringing the populist right into the fold of the campaign.

29Still, the extraordinary success of the campaign in building a mass base for policies that dismantled labor protections, slashed taxes on the rich, eviscerated environmental and workplace regulations, and slashed income support and service programs that reached large portions of the population, needs a fuller explanation. And that fuller explanation requires that we attend to the politics of marginalization that was a crucial component of the campaign’s strategies.

30At first glance, the alliance between business and the populist right seemed to be held together by what was called a war of ideas. The main ideas were a hybrid of market fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. Market fundamentalism is, of course, simply old-fashioned laissez faire, a doctrine in which the individual stands naked and alone before market forces and market “law.” It bears certain similarities to Christian fundamentalism which also strips the individual of communal and political supports, although here the individual stands naked and alone before God and God’s law.

31These ideas have deep roots in American culture, but so do other ideas, about democracy, and community, and collective responsibility, for example. Business and the organized right did not, however, rely on the power of their abstract ideas alone. Instead, they deployed their propaganda machine to associate opposition to their ideas, to the reign of God and the market that they trumpeted, and opposition to the battery of government policies that that these ideas presumably justified, with the marginalized groups in American society that had risen up in the 1960s. The abstractions of God and the free market were not nearly as important as the code words for African Americans, including crime, welfare, the Great Society, liberals, and in response to the feminist and gay movements, the culture of “life” (meaning opposition to abortion, not capital punishment), and the defence of the family.

  • 12 Dan Carter, “George Wallace and the Rightward Turn in Today's Politics”, The Public Eye Magazine, n (...)
  • 13 Ibid.

32The political campaign against welfare that began in the 1970s is especially instructive. Welfare was a program that reached only the very poor, people who were already marginalized, and politically vulnerable. Paupers have always been a despised caste in western societies. Add to this longstanding distaste the fact that, in the wake of the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and the protests that ensued in the 1960s, welfare had become a disproportionately Black (and Hispanic) program. The presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace registered this fact and made evident the political uses to which it could be put. Dan Carter says of Wallace, for example, that “he discovered what journalists eventually came to call ‘the social issues’: a vague conglomeration of fears and apprehensions revolving around the notion that traditional standards of morality were crumbling.”12 His campaign benefited from “white backlash to the urban race riots of the 1960s, new challenges to de facto housing, employment and educational discrimination in the North and the linkage of blackness with rising criminality and welfare costs in the minds of many white Americans.”13 “Welfare” in particular became a code word to evoke and mobilize rising white racial hatreds.

33At the same time, changing sexual and family mores were also stirring a backlash of popular anxieties, anxieties that were fueled even more by the rise of the feminist movement. Since most welfare recipients were single mothers, and black or brown, they were easily made into the symbol that captured all of this agitated hate politics. Ronald Reagan made the image of the “welfare queen” a staple of American popular culture. This was the politics of spectacle, a spectacle designed to evoke and intensify popular antipathies against Blacks, against licentious women, and to direct those antipathies against liberals and against government, or at least those parts of government that provided support to poor and working people. In the background and out of the spotlight was the longer-term campaign to defeat and dismantle the reforms of the New Deal and Great Society periods.

  • 14 The quotation is from a speech to the Commonwealth Club in 1932. See Aaron Singer, ed., Campaign Sp (...)
  • 15 This is from Stanley B. Greenberg’s reminiscence, “How We Found—and Lost—a Majority,” The American (...)
  • 16 See Jonathan Schell’s review of two Morris books, The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twent (...)

34The definitive measure of the political success of the campaign was its influence on the Democratic party. For all its internal conflicts, and however reluctantly, the Democrats had championed the New Deal and Great Society policies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had talked of “strong central government as a haven of refuge to the individual.”14 By the 1990s, this tenet of the New Deal was jettisoned by the Democrats. And welfare politics played a key role. The decades-long campaign that turned welfare into a metaphor for African Americans, sexual license, and liberalism had done its political work. In 1992, Bill Clinton made his bid for the presidency on the slogan of “ending welfare as we know it.” As the 1996 election approached, the Republicans held his feet to the fire with their proposal for rolling back welfare called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. He turned for advice to his pollsters and consultants. Dick Morris told him to “fast-forward the Gingrich agenda.” “Progressives,” argued Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, “needed to transcend welfare politics.”15 Clinton signed the measure. The Democratic strategy, in a nutshell, was to beat the Republicans by adopting their positions.16

  • 17 This article was written in 2005 (editor’s note).

35I return to the story of hurricane Katrina and the handling of a national disaster. The far-right Republicans who now 17 control the Presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court, were brought to power in large part by a popular backlash against movements of the marginalized, and the strategic cultivation of the antipathies and anxieties that spurred the backlash by a Republican political machine. One of the policy results of this uncontested domination of national politics by the right has been to deepen marginalization by rolling back the modest gains of the movements of the marginalized, and by pursuing national economic policies that increase inequality overall, and especially increase the numbers of poor and the depth of poverty. When the Katrina galvanized the attention of the nation’s media, the country saw some of the consequences in the circumstances of the victims of the hurricane. The good news is that the President’s approval ratings plunged.

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1 Jordan Flaherty, “Notes From Inside New Orleans,” <>, September 2, 2005.

2 See James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: The Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985; Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

3 Emile Durkheim, Rules of the Sociological Method, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1938, 67.

4 Kai Erikson, “Notes on the Sociology of Deviance,” in Howard S. Becker, ed., The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance, New York: The Free Press, 1964, 14-15.

5 Ibid., 19.

6 See Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?,” in Brooking Papers on Economic Activity, Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2: 2001, 56.

7 For an analysis, see Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

8 W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1899.

9 However, the earnings gap between African Americans and Whites narrowed only modestly, and the overall gaps in earnings, wealth, and unemployment levels between Whites and minorities persisted. See Sydney S. Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy, “Race, Ethnicity, and the American Labor Market: What’s at Work?,” Washington D.C.: American Sociological Association, June 2005. < >

10 The targets of the campaign, in other words, were what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the left hand of the state, the set of agents of the so-called spending ministries which are the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past.” See Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time, New York: The New Press, 1998, 2.

11 See for example on business lobbying Elizabeth Drew, “He’s Back!,” New York Review, March 5, 2005.

12 Dan Carter, “George Wallace and the Rightward Turn in Today's Politics”, The Public Eye Magazine, no. 3, vol. 19, Winter 2005. <>

13 Ibid.

14 The quotation is from a speech to the Commonwealth Club in 1932. See Aaron Singer, ed., Campaign Speeches of American Presidential Candidates, New York, Unger, 1976, cited in Ronald Schurin, “A Party Form of Government,” Ph.D. dissertation completed at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, 1996. Schurin argues that this definition of the role of government was a strong and consistent theme in Roosevelt’s public addresses.

15 This is from Stanley B. Greenberg’s reminiscence, “How We Found—and Lost—a Majority,” The American Prospect, June, 2005. Greenberg was considered a key advisor to the Clinton 1992 presidential campaign.

16 See Jonathan Schell’s review of two Morris books, The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-first Century, and Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected Against All Odds. Schell’s review is “Master of All He Surveys,” The Nation, June 21, 1999.

17 This article was written in 2005 (editor’s note).

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Frances Fox Piven, « Marginalization and American Politics », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Media, culture, histoire, Culture et société, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2008, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL :

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Frances Fox Piven

Professor, (New York, United States)
Frances Fox Piven is a political scientist, activist and educator. After a brief stint in New York as a city planner, she became a research associate at one of the country’s first anti-poverty agencies, Mobilization for Youth – a comprehensive, community-based service organization on New York City’s Lower East Side. At its height, the organization coordinated more than fifty experimental programs designed to reduce poverty and crime. A 1965 paper entitled “Mobilizing the Poor: How It Can Be Done,” launched Piven and her co-author, Columbia University professor Richard Cloward, into an ongoing national conversation on the welfare state. Their early work together provided a theoretical base for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), the first in a long line of grass-roots organizations in which Piven acted as founder, advisor, and/or planner. Piven taught in the Columbia University School of Social Work from 1966 to 1972. From 1972 to 1982, she was a professor of political science at Boston University. In 1982, she joined the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Piven’s study of voter registration and participation patterns found fruition in the 1983 launching of the HumanSERVE (Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education) Campaign. The Campaign’s registration reform effort culminated in the 1994 passage of the National Voter Registration Act, or the “Motor-Voter” bill, designed to increase voter registration, especially among low-income groups. She has co-authored with Richard Cloward Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (1971); The Politics of Turmoil: Essays on Poverty, Race and the Urban Crisis (1974); Poor People’s Movements (1977); The New Class War (1982); The Mean Season (1987); Why Americans Don’t Vote (1988); and The Breaking of the American Social Compact (1997), as well as dozens of articles, both with Cloward and independently, in scholarly and popular publications.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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