It’s taken me almost my entire life to come out of the closet as a liberal. In college at the end of the 1970s, I was no revolutionary, but I thought of myself as a radical. Working at “the independent socialist newspaper” In These Times in the 1980s, I tried on actual socialism, with some relief at having a name for what I thought I believed. Later I became a progressive, when that term came to stand for the Paul Wellstone-Howard Dean “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
In middle age, I’ve belatedly found solace and realism in calling myself a liberal. Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson’s The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama explains why. The book also makes clear why it took me so long to come to terms with my sober, modest, occasionally enervating political identity.
Alterman and Mattson remind us how much liberalism has accomplished over the past 75 years: protecting workers; advancing civil and economic rights for black people and other racial minorities as well as women; supporting seniors, the disabled, and (to some degree) the unemployed; saving capitalism from itself, first in the 1930s and again under President Barack Obama. What’s exhausting is seeing how much time liberals have spent defending those gains and explaining that they’re not what others think they are.
Liberals went from insisting they weren’t socialists, communists, or Soviet--symp pacifists in the 1940s and 1950s to separating themselves from violent New Left revolutionaries in the 1960s and 1970s to disowning their “big government” past in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first decade of this century, thanks to Karl Rove’s indecent political gamesmanship, some felt a need to prove they were as tough on terrorism as the GOP, leading even genuine liberals like Senator John Kerry and—fatefully—Hillary Clinton to vote to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq.
At the time, the gambit seemed like one more effort to shake off the conservative charge that liberals lost Vietnam in the 1970s. But what if, in a way, they were still fighting the allegation that liberals lost China in 1949? The most important contribution of The Cause is to situate the recent predicaments of liberalism in a longer arc of history than we see it framed in in today’s political debates. We often talk as though the Democratic Party and the New Deal coalition began to split in the 1960s, amid the bitterness over Vietnam, race, and the Great Society. But 1968 divisions had nothing on the party’s 1948 crack-up, when a pro-civil-rights convention plank drove out the Dixiecrats behind segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, while former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace picked off progressives, pacifists, and remnants of the Communist Party USA behind his Progressive Party bid for the presidency.
Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), founded in 1947 with the declaration “We reject any association with Communists or sympathizers with communism in the United States,” fought backers of Wallace and the Progressive Party at every turn. But the ADA further divided over the question of anti-anti-Communism, disagreeing about whether and how ardently to fight for the civil liberties of domestic communists and sympathizers even as it denounced their ideas. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the scholar and Democratic Party wise man, defended the film director Elia Kazan after Kazan named names, and Schlesinger also ambivalently backed the anti-communist Smith Act. But Schlesinger opposed Hubert Humphrey’s Communist Control Act as “hasty and reckless” and denounced the firing of New York City schoolteachers who had joined the Communist Party. You see what I mean about exhausting. As for the 1948 election, imagine Obama having to run in the final stretch of this year’s campaign against not only a Republican but also Representative Dennis Kucinich, say, and Blue Dog Senator Ben Nelson. It’s amazing Harry Truman won a second term, even narrowly.
In a way, liberalism’s troubles with the white working class started with these early skirmishes. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had rolled back union protections; the subsequent decline, in numbers and power, of labor unions would change the course of liberalism, as its strongest force for economic populism lost political influence both within the movement and in the wider world. The Democratic Party was already beginning to fracture around race in the South. In the North, a segment of so-called white ethnics, particularly Irish Catholics, were easily riled into believing that godless communists (and their snooty Ivy League allies in the State Department) were out to take our freedom. It was thus Dwight Eisenhower in the early 1950s, not Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, who started to peel the white working class away from the Democrats.
Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate in 1952 and 1956, was an admirable civil libertarian and a reliable anti-anti-communist, but he wasn’t particularly strong on either labor or civil rights, sending confusing signals on whether Taft-Hartley should be repealed and staying neutral on the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Stevenson won his egghead designation thanks to an elongated bald dome, the preternatural anti-intellectualism of the American right, and his own frank elitism. When an admirer shouted, “You have the vote of every thinking person,” he answered, “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan got behind John F. Kennedy in 1960 after noting that Moynihan’s people in the Bronx and Brooklyn had abandoned the not terribly populist Stevenson. As Moynihan hoped, Kennedy recaptured liberalism—Joseph Alsop called Kennedy “Stevenson with balls”—and committed the Democratic Party to aggressive anti-communism, out-hawking Nixon over a nonexistent “missile gap” with the Soviets. (Earlier, Kennedy had refused to take a position on the censure of Joe McCarthy, a friend of his father’s—he was in the hospital for the Senate censure vote.) By some measures, Kennedy moved slowly on civil rights. But from the shrewd gesture of calling Coretta Scott King when her husband was jailed during the 1960 campaign to his historic June 1963 speech calling civil rights a “moral issue … as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,” Kennedy put his party on the side of fighting racism.
When Lyndon Johnson made good on Kennedy’s rhetoric—and the Watts riots erupted five days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act—liberalism began to unravel. But The Cause shows that just as crippling as race was another Achilles’ heel: proving your American bona fides by advancing a muscular foreign policy, this time in Vietnam. Again, the debate not only split the country; it split liberalism. Folks like the labor movement’s Gus Tyler and the former socialist Bayard Rustin parted company with Martin Luther King and other left-liberals over the campaign that had sprung up to “Dump Johnson,” fearing it would destroy the best president labor and civil-rights leaders had ever known. They were right about that, yet the anti-war movement was right about the war.
The factions still might have reconciled if not for the growing nihilism of white anti-war revolutionaries and Black Power extremists and the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy. As muckraker Jack Newfield wrote after those twin tragedies: “We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. … We had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had been assassinated. … The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone.”
Yet Alterman and Mattson suggest that before both King and Kennedy died, there were signs that liberalism couldn’t contain the friction. In 1966, New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s reform proposal for a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police department seemed a no-brainer, endorsed by not just The New York Times but by conservative Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman. Then angry cops organized behind a ballot measure to repeal the law and won. Similarly, the battle in Brooklyn’s desolate Ocean Hill/Brownsville neighborhood over black “community control” of the schools pitted the Jewish teachers’ union against Manhattan liberals and African Americans. (Amazingly, King and Rustin sided with the union, an often-forgotten measure of how close the early civil-rights movement was to labor.)
The two controversies did what had seemed impossible: They united outer-borough Jews and white Catholic ethnics, once antagonists in working-class precincts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, against official liberalism. The New Deal coalition died in New York, the city that had been its birthplace. The authors quote Schlesinger and democratic socialist Michael Harrington arguing that RFK would have held the two groups together had he lived. But they also quote Kennedy suggesting that minorities and liberals might have to go it alone and “write off the unions”—a conclusion ultimately reached in 1972, by George McGovern strategists Fred Dutton and Gary Hart, after AFL-CIO President George Meany did everything he could to sabotage the emerging Democratic coalition.
No Kennedy could have put that coalition back together. Certainly not Ted Kennedy. The Cause revisits a sad truth: The youngest Kennedy’s presidential hopes were dashed not only by his irresponsibility at Chappaquiddick but by his support for Boston’s school-busing plan, violently protested by Irish Catholic South Boston voters who loved his brothers. Few seemed to notice at the time, or to care, that most of the measures liberalism proposed to fight racism set the have-nots against the have-a-littles, and Republicans moved in to stoke the fires of resentment. The main place where wealthy liberals suffered was at the ballot box. Relieved that he was re-elected in 1976 “in light of the recent turmoil in Boston,” Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, unwittingly helping to elect Ronald Reagan.
Alterman and Mattson aim to remind Americans of liberalism’s concrete achievements: first, the New Deal and postwar policies that protected labor, helped the poor, and most important, built the middle class; then the liberation of African Americans, women, and gay people. But they spend two-thirds of their book moving from the Truman administration through Reagan’s victory. The last third covers roughly the same time span. My page counting isn’t meant to criticize; it’s to observe that liberalism’s troubles today have more to do with that tumultuous earlier era than with recent, mostly ineffectual attempts to reckon with what happened in those years.
McGovern begat Carter. Carter’s defeat (as well as Walter Mondale’s) launched the age of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). It’s tempting to compare the DLC to the ADA, since both were intended to purge the Democratic Party—and, to an extent, liberalism—of a politically toxic taint. For the ADA, it was sympathy with communism and pro-Soviet pacifism. For the DLC, it was the legacy of the chaotic 1960s and 1970s, the anti-war movement, and to some degree even the Great Society.
That’s where the two groups differ. Where the ADA admirably represented the party’s left wing on domestic issues like labor and civil rights, the DLC stood not only for hawkishness in foreign policy but for correcting Democrats’ perceived excesses in the realm of the welfare state, even on the issues of civil rights and feminism, and luring a new business donor class. Bill Clinton rebuked rapper Sister Souljah (a stand-in for Jesse Jackson), balanced the budget, ended “welfare as we know it,” and presided over the repeal of Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking regulations, helping to usher in the corruption and risk-taking that tanked the economy a decade later.
Clinton also did good things with government (stealthily, through the tax code, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and building a new college tax-credit program) and guided America through a remarkable economic boom. After which George W. Bush slashed taxes and started two wars, letting the deficit balloon, al-Qaeda regroup, New Orleans drown, and Wall Street run amok, mistakes that set the stage for Barack Obama, a thrilling newcomer who didn’t always use the term “liberal” but who embodied the creed’s contradictions.
Our first black president came of age in the shadow of that forlorn era when “the stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone” (as did Alterman and I, by the way). Sober, well intentioned, Obama pursued the career of a post-civil-rights, Reagan-era do-gooder: registering voters, a stint with one of Ralph Nader’s public interest research groups, community organizing. At law school, a left-wing Harvard professor described the young Obama as having “a very strong sense of the limits that American politics and political culture impose on what can be said and done” and “the style of sociability that is most prized in the American professional and business class.”
From the Illinois Senate to the U.S. Senate and even into the White House, Obama couldn’t suppress the telling tics of moderation: In reading Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, Time’s Joe Klein counted 50 trademark “on the one hand, on the other hand” formulations. Largely due to his opposition to the Iraq War (plus unrivaled charisma), Obama beat Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, only to face a bitter backlash as the intransigent right capitalized on economic anxiety (as well as racism) to thwart the new president.
Some of Obama’s White House troubles had their roots in the fractious Democratic primary, amid an economic crisis that should have been a chance for liberal renewal. When white working--class primary voters turned out for Clinton, their affinity was mostly viewed as a racist rejection of the black candidate, rather than approval of the marginally more populist platform of the white Democrat. Once in office, confronting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama mostly deferred to financial-sector advisers and Ivy League mentors, holding fast to dreams of post--partisanship long after it was obvious that Tea Partiers and their mainstream enablers were not interested in extending hands across the aisle unless they could break his wrist.
In fact, Obama performed better with white working-class voters than did Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton. But when his efforts at stimulus, Wall Street regulation, and health-care reform hit the rocks of Republican obstinacy, his white support declined again—and again, it was largely blamed on white racism, rather than on the fact that Democrats often proved to be as cozy with Wall Street and as inept in dealing with working-class dislocation as Republicans.
Alterman and Mattson correctly put race at the center of liberalism’s fracture. “The history of American liberalism through the New Deal and Fair Deal periods was one of steady progress so long as it excluded the demand for full political and social equality,” they write. Post–JFK liberalism absolutely did the right thing on civil rights but never found a way to reckon with the resentment and fear of liberalism’s onetime core constituency, the white working class. “The callousness with which liberal politicians treated the genuine concerns of so many white working men and women as they sought to address, and when possible, reverse the consequences of racial discrimination was truly politically perverse and morally difficult to justify.” I absolutely agree—yet I did not find in The Cause, or in my own anguished reckoning with Democratic Party history, a lot of concrete action liberals could have taken to change the outcome.
With all its respectful accounting of accomplishments, The Cause makes clear that liberalism is more temperament than ideology. As Jacques Barzun said of the great mid-20th-century liberal Lionel Trilling, we’re the people who answer every query with “It’s complicated.” We’re the folks who referee between radicalisms of the left and right. Or as Robert Frost put it, “A liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” I thought about that quotation a lot watching Obama in the first three years of his presidency.
I came away from The Cause amazed, and a little drained, by the amount of energy liberals have spent fighting lies and defining themselves by what they’re not. So is defending ourselves an ongoing necessary evil? Or is it futile, because it never works? I’m not sure all the earnest rhetorical strivings of the ADA, the DLC, the centrist Third Way, or the “post-partisan” Obama White House have managed to convince a single skeptic that liberals are good Americans. What we know works, at least for a while, is something FDR, Truman, and Clinton did—and something Obama is beginning to do. We prevail when we deliver on promises that make life measurably better for most Americans. Obama seems to have learned that lesson, albeit belatedly. Let’s hope he holds on to it.