Robert Parmet: Review of Eric Alterman's and Kevin Mattson's "The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama" (Viking, 2012)


Robert Parmet is professor of history at York College, The City University of New York.

For decades conservatives have equated liberalism with weakness in domestic and foreign policy, big government, and heavy taxation. Eric Alterman. a frequent spokesman for American liberalism, argues that identification with it should be a source of pride rather than embarrassment. In collaboration with historian Kevin Mattson, Alterman combines the skills of a historian with those of a journalist to dispute conservative views. He demonstrates that during the past eight decades liberals have done much about which to be proud despite the incessant onslaught from the Right. Yet his book is less a history of liberal ideology than of the liberals themselves from the 1930s to the present.

Alterman begins with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose “enduring legacy was the modern American welfare state, and with it the foundation of American liberalism.” The “values and institutions” of FDR’s “New Deal order ... outlived the president and his policies,” with regard to foreign as well as domestic policy,” with liberals emerging from the Second World War “with a hope and a belief in the importance of international cooperation.” On the other hand, Roosevelt was “at heart a realist” who fully understood “that the United States could not police the world, and that its people had no interest in doing so.”

FDR’s successors disconcertingly demonstrated the difficulty of adhering to his legacy. Henry Wallace, the New Deal’s presumptive intellectual heir, was so temperamentally and politically estranged from Harry Truman that he challenged the latter in the 1948 presidential election, a “bizarre” affair with three Democrats, including segregationist J. Strom Thurmond, in the mix. As evidenced by Truman’s “Fair Deal,” liberals were concerned about the less fortunate, but suffered from “political paralysis” which accompanied the red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy and an unwinnable war in Korea. Adlai Stevenson’s candidacy for president in 1952 and 1956 did not improve matters. Stevenson may have been a “quality” candidate in terms of felicity of expression, but otherwise he was no match for genuine national hero Dwight Eisenhower and the Republicans, to whom he was an “egghead’ with “holes in his shoes,” and an exploitable model for the “effete, intellectual stereotype.” John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, was much more than a Cold War liberal who rejected his father’s isolationism and bested Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Alterman recalls JFK’s often forgotten Executive Order 10988, which granted union membership to “most federal workers.” The AFL-CIO’s George Meany called that deed “a Wagner Act for public employees.” On the other hand, a cautious Kennedy initially opposed the 1963 March on Washington for fear it would lead to violence and discredit the civil rights movement.

This book clearly stresses the fact that race remained a thorny topic for liberals, even when they made gains. In 1964 and 1965 Lyndon Johnson pushed landmark civil rights legislation through Congress, only to encounter an immediate “white backlash.” Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York discovered as much when voters rejected his Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the New York City Police Department. Civil rights embarrassed Johnson even in 1964, when Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party complained about “lily white” Southern convention delegations at the Democrats’ national convention in Atlantic City. The war in Vietnam, vastly expanded by Johnson, caused much greater distress as it became apparent that people of color were bearing a disproportionate burden on the battlefield.

With liberals in disarray, they and America staggered through the 1970s. It was a decade that included a military defeat in Vietnam, presidential scandal and resignation at home, and the hostage crisis in Iran. Alterman deftly traces the liberals’ problems, beginning with the disastrous presidential run by South Dakota’s George McGovern in 1972. Apparently repudiating liberalism, four years later the Democrats nominated and placed Georgia businessman Jimmy Carter in the White House. To the liberals’ delight, the otherwise disappointing Carter negotiated treaties to turn over the Panama Canal Zone to Panama and brokered one between Israel and Egypt. Seemingly unable to cope with economic inflation or secure the release of Americans held hostage in Iran, in 1980 Carter was defeated in his bid for reelection by unabashed conservative Ronald Reagan. Liberals fared little better when George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, was elected in 1988 to succeed him. For liberals the 1980s also saw globalization and hostility to organized labor take jobs overseas and workers out of trade unions.

In 1992, the liberal “cause” rebounded somewhat when Bill Clinton recaptured the presidency for the Democrats, but he, too, was a Southerner and a “New Democrat.” The primary liberal national figure remained Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. In eclipse until 2008, following two-term Clinton and conservative George W. Bush presidencies, liberals finally saw sunlight with the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president. Too pragmatic for many on the Left, Obama nevertheless secured a “signal accomplishment as president” with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a national health insurance law. It was “a cause that had set liberal hearts aflutter for more than sixty years.”

Alterman notes that by 1973 “liberalism ... had become a house of many mansions.” The same is true of his book. It seems to discuss virtually every liberal of note since 1933, from the Reverend Ralph Abernathy to journalist Sidney Zion. In addition, its biographical sketches of the liberals (as well as conservatives) are often fascinating. Similarly, it distinguishes among the varieties of liberalism, especially in discussing attitudes toward the Cold War, making, altogether, for a very full house. Though its eye is not always on politics, occasional digressions, such as to discuss arts and entertainment figures, are eminently worthwhile. Within the vast amount of material presented, there are also a few missteps. For example, Gus Tyler was not “head” of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and Elijah Muhammad was not “murdered.” Nevertheless, The Cause provides an ample arsenal of information to remind liberals that theirs is the side of virtue.

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