The Magazine

Come Home, America

The siren song of contemporary liberalism.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By FRED SIEGEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Liberals' Moment

The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party

by Bruce Miroff

Kansas, 355 pp., $29.95

The Bulldozer and the Big Tent

Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals

by Todd Gitlin

Wiley, 336 pp., $25.95

The 2006 election put a spring in the step of many on the left who saw in its outcome the herald of a liberal revival. Still, reflective liberals who came of political age in the 1960s tend to be thrice haunted. They carry with them not only the wounds inflicted by the collapse in quick succession of the New Left and then of the 1972 McGovern campaign, but also of the false springs of 1988, when Reagan was on the ropes, and 1998, when the GOP seemed to be collapsing in on itself.

Two such thoughtful liberals, Bruce Miroff, in The Liberals' Moment, and Todd Gitlin, in The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, have written hortatory texts aimed at avoiding yet another disappointment.

Miroff, a veteran of the McGovern campaign and now a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany, argues effectively that, window dressing aside, the McGovernites succeeded in taking over the Democratic party, lock, stock, and barrel. This is more than a matter of the now-famous political names such as Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart, Robert Shrum, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, John Podesta, and Samuel Berger, who emerged from the campaign. As Miroff notes, Mondale, Carter, Dukakis, and Gore all lost presidential elections, yet we talk of McGovernites, not Mondaleites, Dukakisites, or Goreites.

"The 1972 campaign," Miroff explains, "was the last time Democratic activists could wear their heart on their sleeve all the way up to Election Day."

Miroff, the activist taking over for the academic, brushes aside the political problems produced by the McGovern-ites' belief in the goodwill of both the North Vietnamese and the Soviet Union. Nor is he struck by their inability to respond to the plight of blue-collar workers trapped in crime-infested cities. The selfless New Politics movement, as he sees it, was betrayed by old-line centrists such as George Meany and Hubert Humphrey, who refused to acknowledge McGovern's superior virtue.

In a similar vein, he argues that Bill Clinton was a bad deal for the Democrats. "There is also a cost," he insists, "when centrist Democrats conceal or deny the party's bedrock convictions." For Miroff, sounding stunningly similar to an Eisenhower-era conservative, there has always been a liberal majority out there ready to respond to the right bugle call. Todd Gitlin, a leader of SDS in the 1960s and now a Columbia professor, will have none of this.

Much of Gitlin's The Bulldozer and the Big Tent is devoted to the notion that Republicans are mindless wolves while Democrats are reasoning sheep who have strayed off in different directions and need to be brought back together as a flock. When he's in his hyperpartisan mode, Gitlin rehashes the standard-issue criticisms of the Bush presidency. He writes as if Joe Wilson's probity wasn't mocked on a bipartisan basis by the Senate Intelligence Committee; as if the Kyoto climate treaty wasn't defeated by 95-0 in the Senate; and as if Le Monde wasn't talking about CIA conspiracies in the immediate wake of 9/11.

In one of his fits of hyperbole, Gitlin denounces the Bush presidency as the product of "a society that ranked politics somewhere around gang-banging in moral authority."

Nonetheless, the sections of the book that deal with the relationship between political movements and political parties are well worth reading. There, Gitlin--writing in the voice, and at times even the cadences, of a man who is never mentioned in the book, the late Irving Howe--delivers a warning to young activists about the dangers of letting their enthusiasms overwhelm their intelligence.

For those who don't know of him, Irving Howe was a talented literary critic who, over time, exerted a profound influence on the 68ers of an intellectual bent. A man of the Democratic left who had come of age in the 1930s, he was committed to reconciling socialism with liberalism. In the 1960s Howe, then the editor of Dissent, became alarmed at the extremism and irrationalism of the young SDS militants. As a young man, Howe had, with considerable difficulty, largely fought his way free of ideological extremism. But the "mystical militants" of SDS, as he described them, were, to his horror, committed to ignoring all the lessons that had been learned in the 1930s when liberalism had allowed itself to be poisoned by its sulfurous love affair with communism.

In the 1960s Gitlin, one of the "mystical militants," was impervious to Howe's warnings. Today, his goal is to persuade the current liberal "movement" to work in relative harmony with the Democratic party. Howe-like, he worries that the enragés with whom he's worked as a supporter of MoveOn.org "tend not to be interested in inches, only in miles." To get what they want, he warns, "the activists will probably have to cultivate irony." But the probability of activists with irony is no more likely than a liberal socialism.

Gitlin's own cultivation of irony has led him to appreciate Bill Clinton. He savors the Clinton who rhetorized about how "the change we must make isn't liberal or conservative. It's both and it's different." Liberals, he complains, "were loath to acknowledge that only an extraordinarily dexterous politician," such as Clinton, "could have come to power in the first place." But he bemoans "the left" for giving Bill Clinton "no points for effort, no credit for decent intentions."

Gitlin's Howe-like insights are at odds with the SDS strain in his political personality, which can't help but both admire and wildly overestimate the talents of Karl Rove. The McGovernized Democratic party fell apart, as Gitlin understands it, when the rights-based social movements that emerged from the 1960s refused to temper their demands in the interest of advancing the broader agenda of the Democratic party. Republican successes in the years since 1972 were, he argues, an expression of the GOP's ability to seamlessly incorporate conservative social movements into the Republican party to produce an unstoppable juggernaut. But now, he exults, it's the Democrats and their aligned social movements who, thanks to a shared loathing for George W. Bush, have the opportunity to create their own juggernaut.

But if the Rove Machine was, as he argues in his opening sections, so powerful as to be able to override reality, then why did it fall apart in 2006? Gitlin has no answer to this question because, like Miroff, he's unable to come to grips with what happened to liberalism. Both present reality as merely an expression of political dexterity.

Liberalism, and with it the Democratic party, collapsed because (in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous words) both suffered from "a leakage of reality." All these years later, sixties liberals still can't come to grips with their own failures. Miroff slides over the dystopian aftermath of the Great Society, the explosion in crime and welfare, and the creation of an underclass. But he's still in awe of the advanced idealism of the McGovernites who had the intellectual fortitude to ignore the bleatings of the unenlightened.

Gitlin, at least, gives it a brief stab. "As big business's covenant with big labor hollowed out," he argues, "the cities were left to decay, crime ballooned, whites fled." In other words, for Gitlin, the 1970s preceded the 1960s. Neither entertains the possibility that liberals were simply wrong about a range of issues. How is it possible that neither Gitlin, in his 336 pages, nor Miroff in his 355, can find room to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union?

But liberal Democrats are not the only practitioners of evasion. In private, many Republicans declaim against George W. Bush; yet the Republicans' current predicament goes well beyond the failures of President Bush in Iraq and elsewhere. Some Republicans console themselves by noting that they suffer, in part, from the failure of success. In helping to bring down the Soviet Union, and sharply reducing crime and welfare, Republicans undercut their own appeal. True. But just as important is that many Republicans today, like the liberal Democrats of 1972, are steadfastly refusing to respond to new realities. However beneficial in the long run, globalization now, like civil rights then, has an underside. Globalization produces insecurity and inequality and illegal immigration, all of which generate unfortunate distributional effects.

The white ethnic voter of 1972, who had just been mugged, didn't want a lecture from the McGovernites on the importance of civil rights. The worker today who fears losing his job to foreign competition doesn't want to hear a Republican lecture about the long-term virtues of the free market.

In 1972, the Democrats were sure that they were still the natural majority party. The McGovernites, aglow with their own virtue, never felt the need to pay more than lip service to the changing contours of American politics. That self-righteous certainty helped produce a landslide defeat.

Today, Republicans are similarly certain that they represent the natural majority of an essentially center-right country. But economic insecurity has moved the center towards the left, and unless Republicans come to grips with that shift--albeit, within a largely free-market framework--they, too, could suffer a stunning defeat.

Fred Siegel is the author, most recently, of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life.