(Dissident Magazine, Fall 2009)
This should be the liberal hour. American conservatism is in crisis, both intellectually (it has no affirmative agenda) and politically (its strategy has been reduced to mobilizing white resentment at Barack Obama and the emerging multiracial America he personifies). Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress have embarked upon a range of liberal projects: crafting universal health coverage, attacking global warming, bolstering workers’ rights. And yet— you may have seen reports of this in the news— they have encountered obstacles along the way. Despite the stunning success of last year’s Obama campaign in mobilizing millions of volunteers, the passion and the noise in these legislative battles seem to come chiefly from the Right. If this is the liberal hour, where are the liberals? Where’s their self-confidence? Where’s their élan?
For years, liberal writers have been churning out self-help books for their embattled liberal readers. Now that Democrats are back in power, though, and liberals have a shot at actually altering America’s course, liberals need more than cheerleading and self-esteem courses. Happily, two books written before last November’s election answer that call in very different ways. Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, long one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, has, in The Futureof Liberalism, authored an elegant argument that liberalism— by which he means a proceduralism in which everyone is free and equal before the law; substantive policies enabling people to take control of their own lives (in which the state gives people the tools to do so that the market often denies them); and an open, tolerant, empirical approach to addressing society’s ills—is the ideology best suited to modernity. Doug Rossinow, a historian at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has authored a less elegant but strikingly important history demonstrating that liberals and leftists have worked in common cause as, if not more, frequently than they have at cross-purposes since the 1880s, and in every period when liberal reforms were successfully enacted. Where Wolfe tells us why liberalism has been humanity’s best vehicle for navigating through modernity, Rossinow shows us how liberalism has proven necessary but, on its own, insufficient to create a more humane United States.
Wolfe’s liberalism is the enemy of the can’t-do spirit that afflicts many disparate groups (not least, the center and right of the U.S. Congress) in America’s current political landscape. Franklin Roosevelt had it right, he argues, in beginning the New Deal with massive public works—not just to halt the downward spiral of the economy but to reaffirm Americans’ sense of their own agency and efficacy. Wolfe ably attacks a range of doctrines that question society’s ability to overcome the presumable givens of life: laissez-faire economics; evolutionary psychology;, the gender and racial essentialism, respectively, of a Carol Gilligan or a Charles Murray. “Question the capacity of human beings to build societies capable of realizing their objectives,” he writes, “and one has little choice but to conclude that progress is an illusion, self-direction impossible, pessimism appropriate, and the future unknowable.”
Wolfe’s book is also valuable for its attack on neoconservatism’s hostility to both the procedural liberalism of the Constitution and to liberalism’s respect for empiricism. He classifies the On-to-Baghdad saber-rattling of such neocons as Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Victor Hanson Davis as a species of latter-day nineteenth-century nationalist romanticism.
Indeed, Wolfe’s liberalism consistently tilts toward reason over passion in all matters political. Though he praises the welfare state as “the institutionalization of the moral idea of empathy,” he is wary, in the manner of Isaiah Berlin, of romanticism, nationalism, and all- enveloping ideology when applied to public affairs. “Liberals treat the world with a certain kind of ironic detachment that resists ideological thinking,” he avers. “Postwar American liberalism developed its ironic stance,” he notes in his admiring discussion of Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, and Richard Hofstadter, “to distance itself from the ideological left.”
But is a liberalism so ironic, so distanced from the ideological Left, really capable of winning significant reforms? Wolfe’s is chiefly an intellectual rather than a political history, and he devotes little space or thought to the degree to which liberalism’s signal achievements—the Social Security and Wagner acts of 1935; the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Medicare Acts of 1964-1965—were the product not just of liberal presidents but of intensely un-ironic, often highly ideological activists in America’s streets and factories and at its lunch counters. Wolfe may rightly lament the emergence of a Left that now questions “the capacity of human beings to build societies capable of realizing their objectives,” but isn’t that Left the residue of the decline or death of the socialist movement that once pushed liberalism to achieve its ideals? The thirties Left and the sixties Left may not have had a list of thirteen million supporters, as the Obama operation has today, but they did have tens of thousands of zealots who put their bodies on the line for the causes that Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were pushing through Congress, and for other causes that FDR and LBJ wouldn’t even touch. If such zealous ideologues were in the streets today, much as Rahm Emanuel might despise them, Obama could have a better shot at getting his agenda enacted into law.
Wolfe not only makes a compelling case for liberalism’s virtues, then, but he also illustrates its limits. The anti-globalization movement, for instance, has scant appeal for him; it exhibits the nationalism, xenophobia, and fear of change he sees as menaces to liberal values. What he fails to see, however, is how globalization has expanded the power of the market at the expense of the state, and of the welfare state, and of all the countervailing powers to the market’s injustices that he elsewhere extols. What he fails to see is how the de-industrialization of the Midwest could have the opposite effect on its residents that FDR’s public works projects once had, engendering a loss rather than a gain in their sense of agency. What he fails to see is that it sometimes takes someone either on or to liberalism’s left to defend liberal institutions and values from conservative onslaughts and to champion their growth in periods of opportunity.
One way Wolfe could correct this deficiency in vision would be to read Rossinow’s book, which provides a tour d’horizon of liberal and left cooperation and conflict over the past century. Visions of Progress is plainly intended as a corrective to those histories by aging or neo-New Left academics that deliver glowing accounts of socialist, communist, and grassroots uprisings and organizations and view all liberal reform efforts as no more than attempts to co-opt or bamboozle the Left. Such historians who see rebellions “as authentic and inspiring only to the extent that they were free from any taint of liberal ideology,” Rossinow writes, misunderstand American left and liberal history. “Deep in American history,” he continues, “there lies a neglected middle ground of ambitious reform politics … [a] left-liberal tradition that includes liberals who were deeply critical of American capitalism as well as leftists who saw great value in social reform, as opposed to revolutionary upheaval.”
The bulk of Visions of Progress—which also stands as a rebuttal to liberals who see the two camps as fundamentally opposed—documents the left-liberal alliance of the period from 1880 through 1940. The mistake of the historians he critiques is to misconstrue the liberal-left splits of the twenty-five years following the SecondWorld War as a constant in American history. For George Meany and Lane Kirkland, he notes at one point, “it would always be 1946”— and the historians Rossinow contests in this book make the same mistake from the other side of the divide.
The overlaps between the liberal and radical projects in America have been rooted in more shared values than the partisans of either side might wish to acknowledge. For much of the past century, socialism was more a prod than a threat to liberalism, serving, Rossinow writes, “continually to push back the horizon of reform, to maintain a space for prophetic moral criticism of society, and to furnish a practically endless series of demands for the redefinition of liberal reform…” Inherent antagonism was also lessened by the fact that most radicals “generally championed individual liberties,” though for the communists, of course, that belief didn’t extend to the Motherland. (Rossinow’s account of the on-again, off-again alliances of communists and their supporters with anticommunist liberals and leftists within the ACLU make for a compelling book-within-a-book. I hadn’t realized that on the organization’s original letterhead in 1919, the name “Felix Frankfurter” on the list of national board members was preceded by “William Z. Foster”— who was, admittedly, not yet the head of the American Communist Party.)
The two labor-left coalitions that Rossinow examines most closely are the Farmer-Labor parties of the Upper Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Popular Front of 1935 1939. The former, through such representatives as Nebraska’s Progressive Senator George Norris, played a role in pushing FDR leftward in 1935, but it lacked the dynamism and resources of the Popular Front Left, which was based within a rising urban ethnic coalition that looked to Roosevelt as its leader and within a powerful institutional force as well—the CIO. (Indeed, the vehicle through which the Farmer-Labor forces backed FDR’s re-election in 1936, the Progressive National Committee, was actually funded by the United Mine Workers.)
The communists in the CIO, Rossinow makes clear, succeeded in large measure because they were pluperfect liberals, leaving their communism (but for their convention resolutions backing Stalin’s foreign policy) “at the workplace door.” They supported the New Deal’s Keynesian approach to creating mass economic security, relegating questions of the control of capital to history’s dustbin. (The unionist who did raise that question, in the General Motors strike of 1946, was the anti- communist social democrat Walter Reuther.)
The communists’ distinctive contribution to American liberalism came not in economics but on the issue of race. Directly and relentlessly, the party challenged white supremacy,
“injecting cultural pluralism into the main- stream of American politics in a way that no movement had done before. In these ways, the Popular Front exerted an important influence on the political liberalism that succeeded it.” Tracing the early career of Betty Friedan through Popular Front circles, Rossinow also makes a plausible case for the Front’s role in incubating modern American feminism.
While Rossinow clearly sees the left-liberal discord that ended the Popular Front as a blow to social progress in America, he’s less certain about how to apportion the blame for the divorce. In some passages, he rails at Reuther and other social democrats for their red-baiting, but he also notes that the communists’ allegiance to Soviet interests pushed would-be allies past the breaking point. A. Philip Randolph, the anticommunist socialist union leader, for instance, remained president of the communist-dominated National Negro Congress despite the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, becaus ehe understood the importance of a mass, militant, black civil rights organization. It was not until the following year, when the communists pushed through a resolution calling for U.S. non-intervention in the Second World War, that an understandably disgusted Randolph left.
Rossinow is particularly acute on the origins of the New Left and its affinity for the band of outsiders in their parents’ generation— C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald, Saul Alinsky—who periodically railed against liberals while holding themselves aloof from any form of progressive politics. But with the estrangement of New Left from Old, Rossinow’s tale ends somewhat abruptly, even though history has moved on. We see Tom Hayden in his commune in 1969, but not Tom Hayden in the California State Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s. We see “young anti-sweatshop activists and environmentalists join[ing] forces with dissident elements in organized labor to oppose… globalization,” though the dissident element of labor that came in force to Seattle in 1999 was the AFL-CIO. Our problem, in the age of Obama, isn’t the estrangement of the Left from the libs. It’s the weakness of the Left that enfeebles liberalism just when liberals need a Left to push through the next generation of liberal reform.