We Might Overcome
The stories of liberalism and radicalism are replete with great triumphs—and regular reminders of why the fight for change can be so exhausting.
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation By Michael Kazin • Knopf • 2011 • 330 pages • $27.95
The single moment that made postwar liberalism feel most like a cause worth fighting for came in the darkness of April 4, 1968, when an Indianapolis crowd, assembled to hear Robert F. Kennedy campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead met a man obliged to tell them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. When Kennedy broke the news, a desperate wail burst from the throats of those gathered, a sound unlike any other, bespeaking the tide of anguish and anger about to rush over the republic, sweeping reason before it—but not yet, or not here, not if Kennedy had his way.
Speaking off the cuff, he claimed a shared sorrow—his own brother had been killed in the line of political duty, at a time when he had begun to align himself with King. Thinking of what he had learned from the violence, Kennedy recited from Aeschylus the lines that had given him leave to accept that he would never forget or stop feeling pain but that he could nevertheless carry the cause forward. In the wake of this new killing Americans could, Kennedy said, divide themselves from their fellows—but that was not what the country needed. “What we need in the United States,” he said, was “love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” And the crowd that had begun listening in grief and despair now applauded, and unusually among American cities, Indianapolis did not see violence that night.
Kennedy’s extemporaneous speech summarized the basic elements of American liberalism at its postwar peak, and on the brink of a precipitous decline. It was less a philosophy than a political tendency, and it urged its proponents in the gentle direction of using politics to do better by their fellow citizens, especially those less fortunate. But Kennedy’s speech also evoked the essentially emotional component of liberalism: compassion and—the words were wisely chosen—“a feeling of justice” for those who suffer. Leading off the list of Kennedy’s needs, as indeed Paul told the Corinthians it should, was “love.” It is difficult now to imagine a major political figure saying that what America most needs is love. But it was not difficult at just that political moment, and it was not just Robert Kennedy, either. In his infamous 1964 television commercial featuring a girl plucking the petals from a daisy, Lyndon Johnson intones over the image of a mushroom cloud, “We must either love each other, or we must die.” Even Richard Nixon’s campaign felt compelled to nod at the discourse of the moment, including in a 1968 campaign ad an image of a soldier with “LOVE” written on his helmet as the candidate pledged “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”
In that peak moment of liberalism, one could without embarrassment invoke love as, indeed, all you need; love would do everything that pop music promised, carry you through the darkness and bind you together with all the lonely souls in the nation’s night, tiding you over until the dawn. Certainly there was no other vocabulary, no logic of self-interest or language of patriotism, that seemed able to transcend the divisions among Americans and induce them to support policies for the benefit of others—to do for their country, rather than for themselves. Love gave liberalism, and liberals, guts.
And yet liberals often—and at last completely—rejected it, succumbing to a terrible impulse toward mere rationality. Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, in their excellent history of postwar American liberalism, The Cause, circle back occasionally to Lionel Trilling’s Liberal Imagination, with its warning that liberalism “drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination,” becoming “mechanical”—or just dead. Michael Kazin, in American Dreamers, his history of American leftists, suggests that it was the radicals—now all but vanished except as bogeymen—that helped give liberalism life. Each book is a superb history that shows what master historians at the peak of their powers and knowledge can do. Each provides opportunities to rethink the American political tradition.
T hese books are less about liberalism or leftism than about liberals or leftists. At the start, Alterman and Mattson define liberalism as Enlightenment rationalism plus sympathy for the common man—but sympathy that falls short of socialism. Kazin defines leftism as radical egalitarianism, including socialism. (Which means both books get to claim Martin Luther King Jr. and Betty Friedan.) Neither book has much further to say about these philosophies; both concern themselves chiefly with history’s protagonists and their struggles.
This biographical approach to political history has great benefits, chief among them being compulsive readability—human foibles and triumphs and occasional tragedies make for terrific stories. At the same time, one often has the sense of sitting through a fascinating analysis of psychopathological personality types. Alterman and Mattson document what one can only call the masochistic tendency of American liberals to choose for their leaders men—and they are, so far, always men—who are self-impressed, self-righteous, aloof, and not particularly interested in liberal policies; great disappointments, every one, whether they win election or not.
In The Cause, this pattern begins with the liberal adoration of Henry Wallace, the politically clumsy former Republican and alleged intellectual of Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration—though his intellectualism may have been evident only when he stood in contrast to Harry Truman. But the type had its prewar incarnation in Woodrow Wilson, the Southern racist turned Princeton professor who opposed Progressivism until he could no longer politically afford to, then implemented it with reluctance until he could divert himself with a war.
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