Passion, Memory, and Politics, 1992


From
its founding nearly three years ago, The American Prospect has
sought to help reconstruct a plausible and persuasive liberalism.
This issue's cluster of articles concerned with a public
investment
strategy for economic growth exemplifies that purpose:
substantive,
detailed thinking about how to solve the nation's problems,
rather
than symbolic gestures. Yet, as this political season has
reminded
us, there is another aspect to the conflict over public ideas in
America that is inevitably and properly symbolic. It is a battle
over cultural ideals, ways of life, the meaning of the past. And
that conflict is inseparable from the hard choices in economics,
social policy, and even foreign affairs.

Clashes over cultural ideals and ways of life are hardly new in
the
United States. The passions aroused by the temperance movement as
this century began were not wholly unlike those aroused by
today's
conservative crusades for "family values" and against abortion
and
gay rights. Temperance, in fact, was a "pro- family" issue in its
day. Yet the present conflict, whatever its deeper historical
continuities, dates fundamentally from the 1960s, and it is
striking how much that decade continues to preoccupy, bedevil,
and
divide us.

The sixties seem to return at nearly every juncture. As the war
with Iraq began, the nation argued about whether it would be
"another Vietnam" (it wasn't), much as a prior generation had
debated matters of war and peace worrying whether some incident
would become "another Munich" or "another Sarajevo" (we can now
appreciate the latter reference). Press stories about Bill
Clinton's draft record and whether or not he inhaled prompted
another round of reflection: Could the generation of the sixties
ever be free of its past? Could the nation ever trust anyone who
was under thirty in 1968?

And when Los Angeles erupted in riots and flames, Marlin
Fitzwater,
the White House spokesman, peered over the city and,
astonishingly,
saw the words "the sixties" traced by the smoke. Again we were
back
to the same argument, in a slightly different version: Was the
Great Society to be held responsible for urban disintegration and
violence today? (According to a Los Angeles Times poll in early
May, few thought it should, and roundups of Medicare, Headstart,
and other surviving programs from that era turned up no plausible
suspects.) Meanwhile, "JFK" was playing at your local theater,
forensic cultural historians hovered over Marilyn's deathbed
looking for fingerprints, and the music of the 1960s that was
once
damned as subversive had literally been turned into advertising
jingles. The lyrics have been changed, but the melodies and the
gunshots linger on.

Yet the memory of the 1960s does not simply linger; it has become
a source of power for some, of weakness for others. The rise of
conservatives at the national level dates to 1968, the waning of
liberal influence to the same period. In the 1992 election, the
Democrats are still trying to shake off the taint of the sixties,
the Republicans are still trying to run against it. At their
convention in New York this year, the Democrats tried to overcome
and put behind them the cleavages that opened in their own ranks
and the larger society in the sixties. At their convention in
Houston, the Republicans proclaimed a "cultural divide" (Dan
Quayle), and even a "religious war" (Patrick Buchanan), trying to
stoke the embers of old antagonisms into a roaring blaze that
would
consume the Democrats.

From
a social and cultural standpoint, the Democrats have become
the party of peace, the Republicans the party of war. If
conservatives in the Republican Party cannot summon supporters to
fight the archenemy in Moscow, they can at least summon them to
fight the Anti-Christ in Hollywood or New York. In short, they
can
make liberalism the moral equivalent of communism, the "cultural
elite" the equivalent of the Politburo, and the battle against
them
the equivalent of war. Some might have thought that once the Cold
War was over, the right's leaders would no longer question their
opponents' loyalty. But it seems they have more reason now than
ever: Without communism as a unifying force, even moderate
Democrats must be made into enemies of the American way of life.
This is dangerous--to the civility needed for political
cooperation, to the tolerance needed in a heterogeneous society,
and most of all to the truth.

To be sure, the Democrats have not rejected, nor should they, all
the social and cultural changes we associate with the sixties. By
and large, the major social programs of the decade still stand,
many of them, like Medicare, beyond partisan controversy. But the
differences between the parties on the meaning of the sixties are
clear enough. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats not only
accept
the changed role of women but favor policies, such as family
leave,
that facilitate and advance that change. And the Democrats have
incorporated not just feminism, but even gay rights, which would
have been truly inconceivable before the sixties. Even if one had
never heard of Ron Brown or Bill Clinton, it would not be
difficult
to guess which party has a national chairman who is black and a
presidential candidate who rock 'n' rolls.



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Yet Democratic leaders, and liberals more generally, now
recognize
that the path they took in the late 1960s--or, to be more
accurate,
some turns on that path--led them into the electoral wilderness.
In
both its public and private expressions, the ethic of expansive
entitlements seemed to deny limits, whether in personal conduct
or
government expenditure. Of course, not all liberals or liberal
programs, much less all Democrats, had such an ethic, but enough
did to make credible the charge that liberals did not know where
to
draw the line. So now they have to reassert, as an earlier
generation of liberals once did, an ethic that emphasizes
prudence
and responsibility as much as rights. The New Covenant--a poor
slogan, perhaps, but a good idea--is an expression of that
renewed
emphasis on the norm of reciprocity rather than entitlement.

Similarly, rather than emphasize separate programs for the poor,
the Democrats now put priority on growth and full employment, as
did liberals from Roosevelt to Kennedy. There is a symbolic as
well
as substantive change here: The Democrats are making the values
as
well as the interests of the middle class, not the poor, their
point of reference in social and economic policy. Some on the
left,
whose conception of progressive politics was formed in the 1960s,
consider this revival of Rooseveltian liberalism a retreat. But
what the poor most want is to join the middle class, not to
reject
it. Those who care about the poor serve them best by identifying
them with the middle-class majority, not by distinguishing them
from it. In the 1960s, the movement for racial equality correctly
argued that civil rights could not depend on majority vote;
blacks
were entitled to equality of respect regardless of whether a
majority of whites approved. That experience, however, led some
liberals to treat other types of minorities, such as the poor, as
groups whose interests demanded satisfaction regardless of
majority
approval. From advocating civil rights, they slid into advocating
welfare rights as equally imperative. As a point of democratic
theory, this was doubtful; as a matter of democratic politics, it
was a disaster. Today's changed views of welfare, child support,
and other policies all reflect a chastened respect for the
culture
and pocketbook interests of the nation's middle-class majority.

This is not an abandonment of liberalism; it is more like a
return
to what liberalism stood for, at least in the minds of its most
persuasive advocates, before the late 1960s. The liberalism of
the
World War II generation, epitomized by such people as Reinhold
Niebuhr, had a much stronger sense of both human limitations and
the limits of social reconstruction. In the sixties, we sang, "We
shall overcome," but unfortunately, many of us were overcome--and
now have come back. If the effort currently under way in the
Democratic Party succeeds, it will be not simply a matter of a
new
administration, but the end of an estrangement from a tradition.
There is much talk about a sustainable economy and environment;
we
also need a sustainable politics, grounded in a realistic
appraisal
of national sentiment as well as the national interest. In a
democracy, this is not optional, except for those satisfied to
grumble rather than to govern.

In the nation's memory today, the great counterpoint to the 1960s
is the 1940s, remembered as a time when America was at once
simpler, more serene, and more powerful. The movies, songs, old
magazines, even the social critics of that period have acquired a
rosy glow. Harry Truman's prestige is so high that George Bush,
who
surely voted for Tom Dewey, now says the Missouri New Dealer is
his
model. Of course, some of the longing for the forties is for a
period when America was clearly on the rise, and when the
problems
of race and poverty did not appear intractable (in part because
they were hardly thought about at all). But, as Doris Kearns
Goodwin reminds us in this issue, the 1940s were in many ways a
more liberal period than today, and they offer us a remarkably
bold
precedent for liberal remedy. Even as we take caution from the
sixties, we could do worse than take courage from the forties.



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