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.
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?
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.
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