Looking Left

Book cover
The Causeby By Eric Alterman and Kevin MattsonViking. 576p $33

Eric Alterman often ends up the reasonable man in the room. He wears the label “liberal” in full view, but he brings integrity to his positions and confronts his opponents with intellectual honesty. One of the nation’s foremost media critics and a trained historian, he has insightfully diagnosed a chief malaise of contemporary journalism: its ignorance of American history. So who better to acquit liberalism while pulling together a history of its development since Frankilin D. Roosevelt?

At times, however, The Cause reads more like an indictment than a defense. Co-authored with Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson, The Cause is a tragic chronicle of misstep after misstep.

Though the authors frequently draw a line between “liberalism” and “the left,” they never define it. In fact, the snide left is as often to blame for liberalism’s failures as the anti-intellectual right.

The story begins with the triumph of liberalism in the Roosevelt era. Though the authors give rather less ink to Roosevelt and the New Deal than one might hope for, they do establish how radical a shift the 1930s represented. After the New Deal, the frame of national debate moved decidedly leftward. The comparatively laissez-faire approach to government that preceded it was no longer in contention. Favoring a return to a pre-F.D.R. America became more or less a fringe position.

The burst of change wrought in the early years of the New Deal would wind down in the 1940s, and attention would shift from social welfare priorities to civil rights. At this point, but not for the last time, a president would advocate for, and then abandon, universal health care.

It is also at this point that liberalism would become identified with un-American attitudes. The naïve embrace of Stalin by some on the left crashed headlong into McCarthyism. Unfortunately for Democrats, Eisenhower turned out to be a Republican, and liberals cemented a reputation for elitism by making the brilliant-but-remote Adlai Stevenson their man.

In 1960 a new hope was born. John F. Kennedy brought virility to liberalism. After his assassination, the mantle fell to the bulldog Johnson, who rapidly whipped up a cocktail of social welfare and civil rights reforms. But in an attempt to show that he was not soft on reds, Johnson also brought on the Vietnam War. He did catastrophic damage to his party, to liberalism and to the United States.

Following Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Democrats put forward a series of disastrous presidential candidates, and even a disastrous president. The names Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis (and, still later, Al Gore and John Kerry), have become associated with elitism, woodenness, impotence, doe-eyed dovishness or some combination thereof. Only Bill Clinton stood apart.

It is to the post-civil-rights period that Alterman and Mattson bring their sharpest criticisms, for it is during this period that liberalism traded in an emphasis on improving the lot of the working and middle classes for identity politics. It traded in muscular investments in society for a pitying, victim-oriented world view. And it lost many Americans in the process.

Liberals are still reaping that harvest. In a particularly devastating passage, the authors take New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo to task: “In the same legislative session that legalized gay marriage Cuomo engineered a cap on annual increases in the amount of property taxes collected by local school districts.... [M]ost energetically, Cuomo fought to ensure the demise of New York State’s millionaire tax at the moment when its proceeds might have been able to prevent the kinds of cuts being enforced. These were the priorities of a man who occupied the office once held not only by his father but also by Franklin D. Roosevelt before him.”

Today, liberalism is “primarily a movement designed to increase social and cultural freedoms for those who [can] afford to enjoy them.” The advantage of this brand of liberalism is that it does not ruffle the feathers of the rich financiers of political campaigns.

Not every page in The Cause will break the hearts of old-line liberals. The occasional policy triumph is recounted. We learn about the depth and breadth of intellectual contributions from luminaries like Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Rorty. And the volume is filled with punchy mini-biographies of the stars of liberal activism and politics.

Yet one is left with the distinct impression that the liberal policy edifice built under Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson may be nearing the end of a long siege. President Obama, the authors suggest, is another liberal showing up to a gunfight armed with a library book. He is carrying on the irksome liberal habit of overpromising and underperforming. So liberalism’s best hope at the moment may lie not in its proponents’ ability to make a case, but in modern conservatism’s own off-putting and self-defeating tendencies.

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