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.
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.
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