Issue #25, Summer 2012

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.

T he authors of both these books admit to having got stuck in dispirited moments in their writing. Kazin sought solace in “thinking about the books my mother had read to me in the 1950s, several of which I also read to my children,” and particularly the values imparted by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, who never quite shed the leftism he brought to cartoons for PM newspaper during the war. Alterman couldn’t finish his manuscript and sent it off to Mattson, who worked on it and then gave it up himself in turn, shipping it back to Alterman, who then found, on reading through the raw materials of a history, something of his “original inspiration.” Perhaps there is little in the present moment to inspire either liberals or leftists.

The Cause begins with a quotation from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “The existence of Franklin Roosevelt relieved American liberals for a dozen years of the responsibility of thinking for themselves.” Like much of Schlesinger’s oeuvre, this observation is both catchy and importantly wrong. Roosevelt’s existence provided American liberals with reason to think for themselves: He listened to their ideas (or if he didn’t, Eleanor did and would prevail on him to hear). While Roosevelt lived in the White House, liberals knew the president wanted to know their thoughts, and might make them into policy. His enemies were theirs—the self-interested bankers at home, the fascists abroad. He allowed himself to be pressured by the left, even as he maneuvered to co-opt and neuter his rivals for populist appeal. And even if he did not share liberals’ ideas (he was, famously, not much on ideas anyway) he shared their impulses, especially feeling that the government ought to provide justice for those least able to get justice for themselves.

Roosevelt benefited from global events and congressional majorities that other liberal leaders have not. But he also knew how to take advantage of what he had, as later liberals leaders have often been afraid to do, Alterman and Mattson conclude. It is easy, they say, to explain what it means to be a liberal: Whenever “new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet…it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them,” as Roosevelt said. You need the courage to say that you think so, and it helps to know that you hold your convictions in your heart, not just your head.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Editor's Note by Michael Tomasky

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Issue #25, Summer 2012
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Stephen Zielinski:

How difficult must it be to adhere to the liberal creed. So much ink must be spilt massaging the foibles of racists, elitists, misanthropes, satyrists, etc. What remains under-discussed are the many enduring systemic conditions which prevent liberal reformers from accomplishing much able to stand the tests of time. These conditions include an antiquated and elitist constitution; a decrepit party system; an unwillingness to master the slave question; the persistence of class hatreds; a love of commerce and wealth; the imperial ambitions of the elite; a perceived special relationship with God and historical destiny; etc. We Americans are a cold, calculating and vain people. Our ambitions always exceed our virtues. Should we faithfully follow our liberals as we confront greater problems than we have ever faced before? Not if we are rational.

Jun 12, 2012, 1:03 PM
Ed Shaver:

Yeah, the other problem for liberals: they (we) come up with so many elaborate and well thought out reasons to surrender!

Jun 15, 2012, 6:23 PM

This discussion was muidded by the fact that several concepts were insufficiently defined from the beginning. Liberalism (in sum) is a fairly well researched topic, and its definitions are many. There is big-L Liberalism, small-l liberalism, political liberalism, economic liberalism, and social liberalism, to name but a few. As well, distinguishing any or all of these from the several definitions of conservative, would also have been helpful.Also, regarding how liberalism is tied to economy necessarily (ex ante, sumil, ex post) obviously begs those pie discussions; growing, shrinking, rate and percentage), which are always tricky. If we trust economic data that shows slowing American growth much further back than first believed (almost never reported), and greater distributional disparities (almost never reported), then how can one explain why politically liberal Americans continued to purse inclusivity (diversity) and other forms of legal, social, and economic equality despite our worsening economic outcome? At what magic point did we (in the liberal majority or the racist minority) decide that it was time to dial back on quality of others' circumstance? Was it well after we had lost equality of opportunity; in this example, economic equality?Regarding the difference between presidential and parliamentary systems, it seems that Alterman needs to bone up a bit. While each system has its own legal and political idiosyncrasies (not to mention differences within structural and functional class), the differences in terms of legal and political stability especially for well established parliamentary regimes (like France) is not really that great. And, we all know how well both the current Obama administration and the past Bush administration work to get changes made quickly by working behind closed doors through executive fiat and by ignoring (not enforcing) existing laws.As for Alterman's solutions, they all seemed fairly conventional; get money out of politics, challenge anti-government messaging (media), rebuild civil society through support of non-political (or not explicitly political) institutions. Unfortunately, there are plenty of (capital-L) Liberals (on the left and the right) who have been instrumental at (a) accepting money and accepting its status as speech, (b)attacking government by privatizing everything public and advertising it on a supplicant media, and (c) undermining civil society (by not supporting or attacking civic institutions).Sam, I think you did a fine job of revealing some of the holes here (by asking some great questions) left by this interviewee. And, the Majority Report does yeoman work submerged in soup of mainstream media. It seems to me that the biggest controversy with this book is that Alterman criticizes his own, and, no doubt, the targets of his criticism will certainly howl at having been attacked by their brother. But, fratricide is always a successful formula for boosting book sales especially for political ones.

Sep 23, 2013, 12:33 PM

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