The Magazine

Come Home, America

The siren song of contemporary liberalism.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By FRED SIEGEL
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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.