08 May 2012

Liberalism, left right and center

Eric Alterman's The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, co-written or actually handed off to and picked up from historian Kevin Mattson, arrived from my book club yesterday and I've read a few chapters already. There's a long way to go before I'm done but some motifs have already emerged, most interestingly the suggestion that post-WW2 liberalism can be divided into three subgroups symbolized by respective idols or founding figures. The right wing of liberalism, if you please, is represented by Harry S. Truman. Truman's heirs are characterized by tough-mindedness on foreign policy (Alterman intriguingly notes that "liberals" were more interested in making war on fascism than either "conservatives" or "radicals"), an acceptance of consequence that makes them appear weak to those on their left, and a capacity for what came to be known as "triangulation." Truman, for instance, gave in to surging Republicans and gave up on many New Deal regulations, only to attack the GOP hard from the left during the 1948 elections. The liberal center is symbolized by Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's widow, who combined liberalism's characteristic sentimentality with a degree of realism regarding political options and a lack of illusion about foreign powers. Alterman illustrates this by emphasizing her role in drafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights while making sure that the Soviets didn't manipulate its language to their propaganda advantage. The left wing of liberalism is embodied by Henry Wallace, Vice-President during FDR's third term but dumped in Truman's favor in 1944 yet retained as Secretary of Commerce until forced to resign following a speech critical of Truman's foreign policy. For Alterman, Wallace represents those least willing to compromise with opponents, yet least likely to appeal to force, most naive about international politics and human nature, and most inclined to "blame America first" for international conflicts. In the defining year of 1948, Truman was re-elected, with a late endorsement from Mrs. Roosevelt, despite Wallace forming a "Progressive" third party. Wallace won less than 3% of the popular vote and ran behind Strom Thurmond's segregationist ticket.

Even though Truman survived Wallace's insurgency, Alterman to the present day sneers at any attempt to challenge the Democratic party by forming an independent party to its left. He has no patience with what might be described as the liberal left's angry naivete, its refusal to compromise its idealism and deal with the realities of power politics. Alterman seems to be an adherent of Reinhold Niebuhr's secular doctrine of tragic necessity and its rejection of any politics of principled purity. But Alterman most likely identifies himself with the Eleanor rather than the Truman wing of American liberalism. That is, he reserves the right to criticize the liberal right (e.g. Democratic elected officials) for the extent of the compromises they make while refusing to indulge the liberal left (e.g. Ralph Nader) in its supposed contempt for compromise in general and its assumed insistence on impossible demands. Perhaps ironically, it's probably that same idealism that prevents the liberal left from becoming a radical left, despite the labels Republicans might apply, since true radicalism might mean getting one's hands dirty, if only metaphorically.

What makes all these people "liberals?" Alterman suggests that they share an inheritance not only from Franklin but from Theodore Roosevelt. That inheritance is a revision of liberalism during the Progressive Era, when  Republicans were severely outnumbered by TR's followers, a "progressive" Democratic party under Woodrow Wilson, and Eugene Debs's Socialists. Previously, Alterman writes, "liberalism" was concerned with protecting individuals from the power of the state. Starting with the Progressives, liberals decided that government itself could protect people from powers that had risen during the Industrial Revolution with the potential to oppress them. All three factions of liberalism, in Alterman's account, still agree on this point -- and all presumably agree, no matter how far left liberals go, that conventional party politics and representative government can adequately protect people from the excesses of capitalism, while socialism is deemed unnecessary or counterproductive. All the liberals, presumably, remain convinced that capitalism alone can generate the wealth that can make life better for everybody, so long as liberal governments regulate it in the public interest. That's why they're not socialists, again despite what Republicans think. Alterman's book doesn't identify liberalism exclusively with the Democratic party -- the cover illustration includes two non-politicians, Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem -- but Alterman's columns have often identified the fate of liberalism with the fortunes of the Democracy. Whether his history will back up his argument remains to be seen.

No comments: