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.
The exemplary character in the postwar period was Adlai Stevenson, the egghead who held the political process in utter contempt, disdaining even to ensure that he kept himself properly clothed and shod—the lapel pin in the shape of a holey shoe sole became an affectionate token for his supporters. Alterman and Mattson quote enough of Stevenson’s misanthropic witticisms to suggest that Stevenson didn’t care what people thought of him because he didn’t actually care for people. And it is difficult to be a liberal without empathy for one’s fellow human beings, which perhaps explains why Stevenson didn’t support civil rights or public housing, either. This unsympathetic type of illiberal anti-politician appears repeatedly in the ranks of allegedly liberal leaders who often display open contempt not only for politics as usual and the ordinary voter but for liberalism and liberals: Eugene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter—and Barack Obama, who mocked liberal critics of his Administration by sarcastically saying, “Gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace, and I thought that was going to happen quicker.” (His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, called liberals “fucking retarded,” which was a step too far and drew an apology—not to liberals, but to the developmentally disabled.)
Certainly, in some cases these leaders’ disinclination to dance with who brung them had political justifications—not every minute of the recent past has chimed the liberal hour, and it has often seemed prudent to put off progress until a more propitious time should arrive. But equally, in many cases, these leaders clearly nursed a sense that there is something wrong—perhaps, one gets the sense in The Cause, something insufficiently masculine—about liberalism. Gloria Steinem—a gifted writer with, as Alterman and Mattson say, a “genius” for publicity—wept with frustration and anger because despite her contributions as fundraiser and speechwriter to the McGovern campaign she couldn’t get the candidate to take women’s issues seriously. The demand for toughness pushed anything resembling emotion—including the essential one, compassion—out of the mainstream of liberal politics. (Whether a woman president would more easily embrace the liberal cause, or whether she would more eagerly shun a stereotypical femininity because she would feel harder pressed to show her toughness, remains to be seen. But the example of Hillary Clinton’s rightward run during her campaign suggests the latter.)
As the instance of Woodrow Wilson suggests, the requirement that eggheads show manliness by striking at those to their left predates the Cold War, though the pressure to demonstrate toughness on communism certainly reinforced it. At the same time, it was Wilson’s antagonist Theodore Roosevelt who showed the way around this conundrum: Prove your masculinity beyond a doubt, and you can be as liberal, even radical, as you like. It is the method the football-playing Kennedys and the swaggering Lyndon Johnson used to good effect, though it undermined them both when it came to foreign policy, an arena in which their machismo led them to misrepresent Cold War crisis and escalate the war in Vietnam.
Apart from the Kennedy brothers (all of whom, even the lately maligned John, get sympathetic treatment from Alterman and Mattson) and Lyndon Johnson, there are few liberal leaders personally committed to liberalism from Truman onward. Indeed, especially in international affairs, Alterman and Mattson note that their liberals were often conservatives with a sense of decency: Henry Stimson, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan all get credit for designing a humane international order, though none of them was much of a New Dealer, or even a small-d democrat.
One is necessarily left with the sense that personalities, and personal misfortunes, occasioned the frequent faltering of the cause. If only Lyndon Johnson had the courage to take America out of Vietnam. If only Bill Clinton had the continence to keep his zipper up. If only Daniel Patrick Moynihan had less “fondness for self-medication” and had put away the bottle. If only the Kennedys and King had survived their assassins’ bullets as George Wallace did.
Yet this focus on personal fate cannot tell the whole story. After all, personal foibles are common on both sides of the political aisle, but they leave conservatism largely untouched. Certainly the occasional failing may cost an election here or there, but it does not damage the right’s ability to carry on. That is partly, as Alterman and Mattson glancingly note, because of the much greater amount of money, first increasing in the 1970s and then more sharply in our time, available to conservatism. But partly too, they suggest, because liberalism is inherently a fragile position. This is why they circle back to Trilling: His trademark phrases were variations on the insistence that “it’s complicated,” and he argued that “between is the only honest place to be.”
O f course if you’re trying honestly to occupy the space between, you need to have something on either side of you. The right in America we have always had with us, at least since the 1930s gave rise to conservatism in its modern, anti-New Deal form. The left is another story, one that Kazin tells, also through biography. Beginning with the abolitionists, he traces the impact of figures on the radical fringe who sometimes managed to influence the American center.
In Kazin’s narrative, leftists have benefited and suffered from exogenous influences. They hardly waver from their chosen course, but they depend on events to usher them onto and off the American stage. The white South’s treasonous act of secession made the abolitionists into heroes of the United States. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution pushed the socialists offstage. The Great Depression and the war against fascism made communists into acceptable allies, while the Cold War sent them packing again—though they also made demands for civil rights seem suddenly pressing. Leftists from Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass through to King and Bayard Rustin applied a constant pressure, waiting for a crack in the wall so they could rush through.
But something happened to the left after the 1960s that rendered it less influential. In part, Kazin says, it was success: So much of what the early anti-racists and anti-sexists demanded had become commonplace, even if it got more rhetorical than legislative support. But more, he says, the world has failed to offer the kind of challenges that aided leftists before. “Every past left,” Kazin writes, “had been able to make a moral argument about an inescapable problem, one that touched the conscience and/or self-interest of most Americans…from slavery to monopoly to mass unemployment to fascism to legal racism to the war in Vietnam and the continuing inequality of women…But nothing so big or important emerged during the final quarter of the twentieth century.”
The early twenty-first century was different, featuring big and important episodes aplenty, from the 2000 election through 9/11 and the Iraq War to the financial collapse and ongoing economic unpleasantness. But these events found the left unprepared to do more than sell copies of Naomi Klein books or tickets to Michael Moore films—or unfortunately, Kazin says, to draw Americans to Howard Zinn’s radical history of the United States, which documented a “trans-historical” elite that always defeated the people.
If any trend today can qualify as outrageous enough to reinvigorate the left, perhaps it is the screws being regularly put to American youth. The rich members of a generation that received generously subsidized state university education are saddling their children with enormous debt in the midst of a depression that affords graduates few opportunities. Maybe in between bouts of getting tased and pepper-sprayed, the kids can organize in such a way to inspire sympathy, and even hope for change. Kazin concludes his book with a brief for utopias. If the American left has lately lacked an irritant to spur it forward, it has also lacked inspiration from abroad: The international left also collapsed over the late twentieth century. Everywhere—even in some Labour parties—Thatcherism/Reaganism has triumphed. Indeed, the only utopias today are on the right, where visionaries imagine self-regulating societies whose armed citizens civilly roam the streets, incessantly negotiating spot prices for every good and service imaginable. The left has only the humdrum fact that the welfare and regulatory states we are so eagerly dismantling have on average worked rather well, promoting widespread prosperity and a healthy, educated citizenry. And who can get fired up for that?
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