The Magazine

Left’s Turn

Who are the liberals, and what do they believe?

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By FRED SIEGEL
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The Cause, an account of American liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to the present, is a strangely bi-furcated book that speaks to the underlying dynamic of the recent election. At its best, it is, to date, the most thoughtful critique of contemporary liberalism written from within that worldview. Yet, at moments, particularly when dealing with Barack Obama, it descends into standard-issue screed about the unreciprocated moderation of a timid president beset by the evils of Fox News.

Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy

pat benic / upi / newscom

The dueling voices are probably the product of its authorship. It began as a joint project of Kevin Mattson, an Ohio University historian of 20th-century liberalism, and Eric Alterman, a columnist at the Nation. Somewhere along the line, Mattson dropped out of the project and, though the final book bears both men’s names, Alterman’s is in a far larger font. Whatever their differences, however, the authors consistently and continuously argue that the loss of white working-class support has been an enduring misfortune for liberalism. 

The authors’ nonesuch, the ideal that animates The Cause, is an alliance between workers and intellectuals. In the words of their cynosure, Eleanor Roosevelt, they hope for “a partnership between those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads.” But their ideal alliance—which came together in the second presidential term of Eleanor’s husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt—began to dissolve (as they see it) when Adlai Stevenson, who became the liberals’ beau idéal, won the Democratic presidential nominations in 1952 and 1956. “Liberalism,” said John Kenneth Galbraith, “came to mean support of Stevenson.” Stevenson, they note, was “quite a snob.” He was lukewarm about unions, and unionists returned the favor. When one woman tried to console him for his defeats, she told him that he had nonetheless “educated the country.” He responded, “Yes, but a lot of people flunked the exam.” 

They try to speak with the once-vibrant voice of the junior Arthur Schlesinger in The Vital Center (1949). The authors are in sympathy with the civil rights, feminist, and gay pride movements, yet are critical of the fractious political effects of the counterculture and identity politics. They acknowledge that the quest for personal authenticity and transcendence doesn’t lend itself to the ballot box. But they never try to square the circle. 

They approvingly quote Arnold Kaufman, author of The Radical Liberal (1968), on the Aquarian militants of the 1960s:

The counterculture threatens the very qualities upon which our best hope for a brighter future depends—a disciplined ability to reason and a morally passionate commitment to a politics that is both rational and relatively independent of the quest for personal salvation.

But they never try to understand why “the mystical militants,” as Irving Howe described them, were so drawn to the netherworld of mythmaking and violence once associated with European fascism. Similarly, the aesthetic appeal of black violence understood as a form of political theater is beyond their ken. But they have the integrity to accurately note that “Jew hatred became a kind of casual form of communication among many of the self-styled revolutionaries of both The New Left and the Black Power movements.”

Inspired by the coalition of blacks, the white working class, and the “kids” sometimes envisioned by Robert Kennedy, the authors turn a jaundiced eye toward the late George McGovern and the McGovernites, for whom the streets of 1968 became the Democratic convention aisles of 1972. They note the insider gamesmanship and rule manipulation that produced McGovern’s 1972 nomination: The McGovernite “rights revolution,” they argue, invited “activists to carve up what remained of the Democratic Party in the name of narrow, often conflicting identities.” The upshot was an “uncompromising form of identity politics that turned the entire enterprise into a never-ending zero-sum ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural war often driven by mutual fear and loathing.”

Liberalism, the authors seem to acknowledge, had “failed to solve the social problems of the 1960s. In important respects it seemed to exacerbate them.” No wonder, then, that so many liberals exited the ranks while the white working class moved away from the Democratic party. “Liberals,” they continue, “struggled mightily to find a formula that would allow them to somehow hold on to their working class constituency as they simultaneously embraced the ethos of .  .  . the ‘new movements.’ It was, in fact, an impossible task,” given the movement leaders’ penchant for attacking blue-collar values in the name of the utopian promise of a cultural revolution, even as the dystopian reality of day-to-day life meant rising crime and collapsing schools.