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.
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.
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.
Fred Siegel, scholar-in-residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute Center for Civic Innovation.