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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This is a damning indictment, particularly since the only liberals they can point to who tried to hold the old alliances together became neoconserv-atives. But the impossible task had a social, if not political, solution for the increasingly statist liberals. The triumphs of civil rights in the midst of an economic boom opened a broad path for African-American incorporation. But when the black power movement deemed integration “cultural genocide,” liberals forsook their integrationist ideals and sought to turn black power to their political advantage. They tried to broker alliances around the new interest groups’ power, much as Franklin Roosevelt played off the newly emergent influence of industrial unions in the late 1930s.

The new New Deal was to be led by Edward Kennedy, who (as the authors describe him) believed that liberals needed “to stick to their faith .  .  . in government’s capacity to provide for greater equality and social progress.” Teddy Kennedy, they argue, “looked and felt like a throwback running the kind of campaign that liberals imagine Bobby Kennedy might have tried to run in 1968.” This is not all a matter of wishful thinking on the part of Alterman and Mattson.

In his essay “Going Beyond the New Deal”—one of the contributions to Making Sense of American Liberalism—Oxford professor Timothy Stanley describes the now-forgotten left-liberal surge of the 1970s. It was a period when Richard Nixon and Watergate drove Republican registration down to historic lows, renewed international competition drove down American salaries, and capitalism was challenged by Eurocommunism. With big Democratic congressional majorities under President Jimmy Carter, economic stagnation at home, and a left turn by the big three among the unions—the Auto Workers, the Machinists, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the path seemed, indeed, open to a new New Deal. When Carter declined the progressive mantle, Kennedy, influenced by Michael Harrington of the Democratic Socialists of America, challenged the sitting president for the Democratic nomination in 1980. 

The authors of The Cause implicitly argue that, unlike the McGovernites, Kennedy subsumed the rights-based demands issued by identity politics groups in a broader, more inclusive coalition, with economic justice as its guiding principle. But, as with Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy, fate intervened, and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis revived Carter’s standing among Democrats. As in 1968, liberalism was thrown off its promised path, and Bobby Kennedy’s younger brother did not win the nomination. But the 1980 Democratic platform was written by his supporters, and its call for greater regulation, income redistribution, and national health care has defined liberalism ever since. 

Its depth and subtlety in discussing the 1960-80 period wanes as The Cause approaches the present. Bill Clinton, who was able to appeal to both African Americans and working-class whites, is treated with considerable sympathy. But then the authors argue, against all evidence, that Barack Obama (who was contemptuous of Clinton’s relative moderation and was opposed to welfare reform) is, in fact, the very embodiment of Clintonian centrism. Obama’s first-term failures are laid at the feet of a Republican party that has become (in the authors’ words) “an apocalyptic cult .  .  . terrorized [by] angry, ignorant” Tea Partiers. 

In Making Sense of American
Liberalism, the chapter on “Labor, Liberalism and the Democratic Party” by labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein makes sense of the contemporary politics of unionism. Lichtenstein explains that, because more than two-thirds of all union members live in just 10 states, labor has difficulty winning congressional battles. Card-check legislation, making it easier to unionize, went down to a resounding defeat even as Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress during 2009-10. Strikes have also become harder to win, and are less often invoked. The upshot is that labor’s strength, based on the rise of public-sector unionism, has largely been on the state level. There, labor has been able (until recent downturns) to engage in political bargaining that would bring in new members and to expand its influence. Lichtenstein brands this as “corporatism,” and sees it as labor’s future.

The Cause has little to say about public-sector unions or the inegalitarian effects of liberal environmental policy that limits the creation of new energy and manufacturing jobs. Instead, it peters out with shop-worn musings on the danger of the authoritarian personality, a fine ending for a book written a half-century ago. But then again, as The Cause makes clear, liberalism, even with its periodic electoral victories, has never escaped the 1960s.