How’s your reading going? I just started Chapter 4: Patient, Firm and Vigilant. In the New York Times Book Review this Sunday, Jeff Shesol wrote a review of The Cause. What do you think? I am looking forward to our conversation about the book on Sunday, June 3rd at 6 pm.
May 18, 2012
By JEFF SHESOL
The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama
By Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson
561 pp. Viking. $32.95.
The trouble with liberals, Robert Kennedy complained in 1964, was that they were “in love with death” — they romanticized failure, finding greater nobility in losing the whole loaf than in winning half of it. In the years since then, liberals have not only lost a lot of loaves but have acquired a mess of other troubles, among them the difficulty of getting anyone to admit to being a liberal. To wear the label today seems an act of defiance, much as members of the gay rights community have appropriated, from their antagonists, the epithet “queer.” Liberalism — for decades (centuries, even) the prevailing philosophy in American political life — has become the creed that dare not speak its name, except late at night on MSNBC.
Enter Eric Alterman, defiant to the last. In 2008, this columnist and media critic published a handbook called “Why We’re Liberals,” a crisply written and emphatically argued retort to the Coulters, Hannitys and others for whom liberalism is a strain of fascism, totalitarianism, socialism and overmothering (why choose?). Alterman’s new book, “The Cause,” written with an assist from the historian Kevin Mattson, is something of a companion volume: a history of liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to the present. (Mattson’s role is a bit ambiguous; in the book’s acknowledgments, Alterman credits him with providing “raw material.”)
The story Alterman tells is in large part a familiar one, but worth restating given the strenuous — and to a distressing degree successful — campaign by conservatives to rewrite the entire history of liberalism, and indeed of America itself in the years before the Reagan “revolution,” as one long love affair with central planning and welfare dependency. Alterman works hard to correct the record. By concentrating on the men and women who have defined liberalism in the modern era, “The Cause” lends a human dimension to the dramatic expansion of the federal government, and of the public’s expectations of government, during the New Deal; the postwar faith in economic growth as the engine of social progress; liberalism’s landmark achievements during the early years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency; its embrace of civil rights and other new expressions of liberal ideals of freedom, equal opportunity and the dignity of the individual; and, from the 1970s onward, its failure to square its ambitions, at least in an enduring way, with the values and norms of middle-class America and the slow corrosion of the American dream.
Much of this unfolds, in “The Cause,” by inference, or as interstitial material between character sketches. This is less a book about liberalism than it is a book about liberals — stretch limousines full of them, fleet after fleet. Liberalism, Alterman suggests, is a movement of “many different faces,” and his book, at times, appears intent on showing them all: faces of intellectuals, faces of politicians, faces of protesters and filmmakers, philosophers and diplomats.
There is an indiscriminate quality to Alterman’s attentions, which too often seem to reflect his personal passions rather than a careful weighing of a figure’s historical significance. Thus Oliver Stone gets just as much ink as Walter Reuther, a towering figure in the history of organized labor; Bruce Springsteen, about whom Alterman has written a previous book, receives more airtime than Hubert Humphrey and Thurgood Marshall combined. (Bob Dylan, meanwhile, merits only passing mentions.) Alterman’s choices can be interesting and even brave; one has to admire his willingness to include intellectuals like Lionel Trilling and Richard Rorty in a work of popular history. But in such a crowded field, their relative influence — and anyone else’s — becomes impossible to assess.
The net effect is that of a Pointillist painting, though when you step back from the canvas and squint a little, the dots fail to cohere into a discernible image. As “The Cause” smash-cuts from Henry Wallace to Richard Hofstadter and from Gloria Steinem to Gary Hart, Alterman pauses all too infrequently to reflect on the “cause” — or causes, or ideals — that connects them. This, to be fair, is a challenge, one compounded by liberal schisms and by the nebulousness of much liberal thought; Trilling, as Alterman notes, described liberalism as “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” Liberals, quite unlike leftist radicals or conservative ideologues, tend to reject dogma and theory in favor of “bold, persistent experimentation,” asRooseveltcalled it, or, put another way, pragmatism grounded in enduring, yet evolving, values. It is hard to dissect a gestalt.
Still, that is the historian’s role, and other books — most notably, in recent years, by Alan Brinkley and Paul Starr — have brought sharpness to the picture that “The Cause” renders blurry. Despite its author’s best intentions, “The Cause” makes it harder, not easier, to understand how liberals ever mustered the intellectual clarity or collective resolve not only to govern but to achieve what they manifestly did during their long reign at the vital center of our national life — or even, in a more qualified way, during the two decades since Bill Clinton promised to “put people first.”
As “The Cause” proceeds toward the present day, Alterman reveals a revanchist streak. Urging liberals to “recapture”Roosevelt’s “militant and optimistic spirit,” he casts a cold eye on virtually every effort, over the past 30 years, to do just that. The intimation of “The Cause” — of both its title and its tone — is that there really is a true faith against which subsequent vintages of liberalism must be judged (and found wanting). “Neoliberals” like Gary Hart are dismissed as callow and cold; “New Democrats” of the late 1980s are overly in thrall to their corporate donors; and Michael Dukakis, poor Michael Dukakis, is not merely a loser but “no liberal at all — just a sign of the desperate times into which American liberalism had fallen in its apparently endless quest for solid political ground.” As for Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, the Democrats who have been elected president since Johnson, “The Cause” flays all three for yielding to “political pressures” and becoming “far more conservative” as president than as presidential candidates.
Each of these points is arguable in its own right. But taken together, they reflect a contempt for compromise. Without proposing an alternative path, Alterman leaves liberals in a familiar dead end. This, regrettably, is the sort of peremptory judgment that holds liberalism back (just as the conservative equivalent, with its fixation on Reagan-era doctrines and its incantation of old pieties, binds the Republican Party in a kind of intellectual aspic).
“The work goes on, the cause endures,” said Robert Kennedy’s brother Edward — one of the heroes of this book — in his stirring speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. But if it really is to endure, then the means of advancing it will surely have to evolve, taking full account of unpleasant realities: the scale of the debt; the depth of public suspicion not just of government but of most institutions; courts that have grown hostile to claims of civil rights and assertions of governmental power; and the tenuousness of our commitment to the common good. The work, indeed, goes on.
Jeff Shesol, the author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court,” was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.