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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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.