Listen to our conversation

On Sunday evening, 4o independents from 14 states joined our call to discuss THE CAUSE by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson.  Harry Kresky and Dr. Omar Ali joined me as discussants.  The book covers a mammoth swath of American history from FDR to Obama and traces the players and history of Liberalism.  If you missed the call you can still listen in.

Personally, this is a book that I am glad to have on my bookshelf, a reference I am sure to return to.  If you had a question or comment that you did not get to share on the call, please post a comment here.

Our next selection is Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties and the Struggle for A Post-Partisan America, written by Jacqueline Salit.  The book hits bookstores on August 7th, but is available for pre-order now.

The book traces the history of the progressive wing of the independent movement from the Perot era through the present day.  Jackie offers a narrative of why 40% of Americans are independent of the two parties and what brings independent voters together.  The book is our story told by a master storyteller and a key national leader of the independent movement.

Stay tuned for reviews and news about the book.  In September, we’ll have our next conference call to discuss Independents Rising.

A sidenote:

One thing I enjoy in reading is discovering new words.  (Maybe that’s because I am learning to play scrabble!)  Here are some of my favorites from THE CAUSE with definitions from Merriam Webster and wikipedia:
belletrist—a writer of belles letters,  literary works valued more for their aesthetic qualities than for any informative or educational content.

anomie—social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also : personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.

revanchist—one who advocates a policy to recover lost territory or status.

oppobrium—something that brings disgrace.

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Mickey Edwards Reviews THE CAUSE

Happy Friday!

This morning I spoke  with our two book club discussants, Harry Kresky and Omar Ali.  They will be joining us on Sunday’s call at 6 pm EST.  We had a fascinating discussion of our selection, THE CAUSE and I can’t wait to bring you all into the conversation Sunday.  The call in number is 712 432-3066  and the  Passcode is 636053.

Former Congressman Mickey Edwards   In May, I had the pleasure of interviewing former Congressman Mickey Edwards and Jackie Salit at a live Politics for the People in Manhattan which was broadcast by CSPAN.  It was Mickey  who recommended THE CAUSE to me.  Below is his review which appeared in The Boston Globe in April when the book first came out.  

BOOK REVIEW

April 22, 2012|By Mickey Edwards

One need not subscribe to all of the Left’s grandiose ideas for remaking America to grant that it has been largely responsible for much of what is actually best about the United States of the 21st Century (civil rights laws, universal suffrage, environmental protection, the 40-hour work week, food safety).  And despite the rhetoric one hears too often, this has not been the work of “Kenyan socialists” (who would have thought Kenya would replace France as the great bugaboo of the right!).

Most of the men and women who have brought us this government-centric vision aren’t really socialists at all.  In short, the American liberal has quite a story to tell and even those of us who think of ourselves as the real liberals (advocates of individual liberty and constrained government) owe it a hearing.

Amazingly, it is a story that has largely gone untold except for the work of biographers who have given us portraits of FDR and Truman, LBJ and Martin Luther King, but who have neglected to reach much beyond their subjects to place their efforts in a larger context. In recent years, book shelves have become heavily laden with stories about the growth of the conservative movement and the underlying philosophies (libertarians, neocons, traditionalists) and personalities that have been at its heart. I even contributed a slim volume of my own, “Reclaiming Conservatism,” as a part of that conversation.

The Left, though, save for the periodic attempt by a Bill Galston or John Podesta, has been relatively silent when it comes to putting its own story out there. Sylvia Nasar’s “Grand Pursuit” does a good job of it, but hers is a story of economics and gives equal voice to the leading conservatives in that profession. Beyond that, the Left has been satisfied with people like Thomas Frank and Michael Moore, who offer an abundance of heat but little light.

What a relief it is, then, to read Eric Alterman’s superb new book, “The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.” (Kevin Mattson is billed as a second author but had to drop out of the project early, leaving this mostly Alterman’s work).

Rather than seize on high-profile victories, the book moves chronologically through the advances, false starts, missteps, and triumphs of the decades that followed FDR’s inauguration. The leading characters in the unfolding liberal play are woven into the story, along with the conflicts that sometimes accompanied them. Because it is a history, set in the context of the times and the players, Alterman doesn’t weigh the book down with ex post facto arguments — what is gained now, in the 21st century, from making the case for Social Security or assailing its critics? — but treats the need for government intervention as a given and lays out how the ensuing policies were shaped and realized.

Alterman, despite his strongly held views, does not rant; he knows what liberalism is all about, why it matters, and why, in his view, it should be the basis for American governance. He is an intellectual, not a flack, and his book is long (more than 500 pages), dense, and complex, full of events, decisions, and big personalities. But it would be a mistake, whether you are a conservative or a liberal, not to read it.

Here is one liberal of the mid-19th and 20th centuries, John Dewey, writing of liberalism’s commitment to “the common man,” followed years later by another liberal, Daniel Bell, arguing that “mass man” must be constrained by “educated elites.” Here are FDR’s “positive freedoms” and landslide victories and Arthur Schlesinger, a dozen years after Roosevelt’s death, writing that “[l]iberalism inAmericahas not for thirty years been so homeless, baffled, irrelevant, and impotent as it is today.”

One of the great strengths of Alterman’s story — a mix of history, biography, and political philosophy — is the straightforward way in which he discusses the movement’s challenges as well as its goals and its triumphs: problems created by the antiwar movement and charges that the Left was soft on communism and national security; tensions between Democrats’ “twin constituencies of blacks and working-class whites”; the McCarthy-Kennedy challenges to Lyndon Johnson; conflicts between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem over the direction of feminism and Friedan’s ouster as president of the National Organization for Women.

In Alterman’s portrait, one can trace the development of ideas that have had great impact on modern society — IsaiahBerlin’s notions of “negative liberty” leading to William O. Douglas’s conception of a right to privacy among “penumbras” in the Constitution and ultimately to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Here, too, are John Rawls and the communitarian Michael Sandel at odds over claims of social obligation and individual rights.

Like the most admirable of true believers, Alterman does not feel it necessary to hammer away at the arguments of others. He has his opinions — he is among the best known, and best, of today’s liberal commentators — and one can find his views easily enough in these pages, but he is content to let liberalism speak for itself and to show us how it came to be and why it has enjoyed the support of so many Americans. In these pages you can argue with or cheer for the people and the ideas that underlie so much of what we today take for granted — I would happily take up some of those debates myself — but if your goal is to learn about, and understand, one of this country’s most potent political forces, this book belongs in your hands.

What an Independent History Scholar has to say…

I asked Dr. Omar Ali for a preview of this throughts on The Cause.  Dr. Ali is an independent activist and one of the  founders of  North Carolina Independents.  He is a professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  Along with attorney Harry Kresky,  Dr. Ali will be discussing The Cause with us on Sunday.

Here is what Dr. Ali wanted to share with all of you on the way to our discussion on Sunday.

The Cause contains a lot of history. But history, as the philosopher Fred Newman once said, also includes ways of understanding history. On pages 461 and 462 of the Conclusion of the book, the framing of American liberalism having transformed from the time of Roosevelt to the time of Obama, offers some interesting food for thought.

Alterman writes, “UnderRoosevelt’s presidency, liberalism became a political movement focused on improving the lives of working people and those who needed a helping hand from government. In Obama’sAmerica…, however, liberalism was primarily a movement designed to increase social and cultural freedoms for those who could afford to enjoy them. Cultural liberalism [of the 21st century], while not without political risk, did not cost the wealthy anything …”

True, the kind of liberalism that Obama has advocated does not fundamentally challenge the wealthy, but one can argue thatRoosevelt’s policies were in fact designed to protect the wealthy. Another reading of the history that Alterman describes, specifically the period of the New Deal, might suggest thatRoosevelt, though a progressive, did not want a fundamental economic or political restructuring of the nation. Yes, he massively increased the power of the Executive Office (not since the days of Lincoln’s cabinet), and yes he helped to oversee the rise of the modern welfare state, but it was the rise of independent and working-class organizations in the 1930s that profoundly challenged the liberal establishment that compelled Roosevelt to protect his own class interests. New Deal programs undoubtedly helped millions of Americans, however, it also reinforced a class-based, racially hierarchical society (for instance, New Deal policies mostly hurt black farmers in the South with government subsidies going to white farmers, thus increasing disparities that already existed among black and white farmers and agrarian workers).

The New Deal was not simply the result of mass action taken in the 1930s, it was the result of decades of mass organizing, and certainly not just the good-will of one man:Roosevelt. Despite Alterman noting the ‘political movement’ that led to the New Deal, the Cause tends to glorify individuals as the engines of historical change.

The Conclusion of the book is most fascinating in that it reveals the way in which Alterman thinks about history (his lens): ideas and individuals change history. Yes, ideas and individual people do help to change history, but it’s ultimately been mass pressure from outsiders that have brought about the policy changes that liberals lay claim to. This is how I read and understand the history presented in The Cause.

As you read the book, you might keep in mind, two things (1) for whom is this book being written, and (2) why?  Do you feel connected to the way in which this history is being presented? And if so, how? And if not, why not?

It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important read, from the vantage point of exploring the ways in which political ideology shapes one’s understanding of history.”

It will be great to further explore Dr. Ali’s comments and The Cause on our call this Sunday.  Our discussion is at 6 pm and the call in information is below.  Talk to you soon!

Call 712 432-3066       Passcode:  636053

The Best Years of Our Lives–a reading tip

On Sunday evening at 6 pm EST, we will discussing THE CAUSE by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson.  I have invited two national leaders of the independent movement as discussants.

Harry Kresky is an attorney and the country’s leading expert on nonpartisan political reform.

Dr. Omar Ali is a historian and professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

If you have not read the whole book, no worries.  Join the conversation, I think you will find it quite fascinating.  I asked Harry Kresky if there was one chapter he would recommend.  Here’s what he said:

  “A chapter to read is Chapter 5, “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  It sets the mold for the book by revealing (perhaps     inadvertently) that liberalism is best understood as a reaction formation to communism and, later, during the period of the 60’s and 70’s, to other forms of radical politics.  Perhaps the root cause of liberalism’s demise  is that when the Soviet Union fell and theU.S. won the “cold war,” liberalism lost its raison d’etre.”

Here is the call in information for Sunday’s  6 pm Call:

Call 712 432-3066

Passcode:  636053

Look forward to speaking together!  And come back by tomorrow for some of Dr. Ali’s thoughts about The Cause.

Book Discussion Moved to Sunday, July 15th at 6 pm

The discussion of The Cause will be on July 15th to allow more folks to read the book.  Here is a tip—pick an era that interests you and read that chapter.  Break the rule that says you have to read chapters in order!!!

If you have finished the book, you might want to lend it to a friend and invite them to join our discussion. Catana Barnes is planning to do that.

Below is another review of the book from Kirkus Review.

Happy Reading.

THE CAUSE (reviewed on February 15, 2012)

A liberal columnist and a professor examine the zigzag route of liberal politics since the New Deal.

Before the book was finished, Mattson (Contemporary History/Ohio Univ.;“What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, 2009, etc.) left the partnership with the Nation contributor Alterman (Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, 2011, etc.), who wrote the final draft. A chronicle of liberalism’s successes and failures, the text travels the labyrinthine road from the New Deal to the rise (and fall) of unionism, the theorists of the 1940s and ’50s (Dean Acheson, George Kennan), the battle against McCarthyism and the failures of Adlai Stevenson, whom Alterman writes helped create the notion of the effete intellectual. The author then charts the rise of the Kennedys, the tragic assassinations of the ’60s, civil rights and Lyndon Johnson, Betty Friedan and the feminist movement, the campaign and electoral failures of Eugene McCarthy, McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. Alterman pauses often to visit relevant cultural history—the emergence of influential journals, Mailer’s writing, DeVoto’s criticism, Elia Kazan’s films, Cheever’s stories, the various liberal contributions of actor Sidney Poitier, novelist William Styron, filmmaker Oliver Stone and—in a long section—rocker Bruce Springsteen. Alterman points out continually how liberals have often been their own worst enemies—failing to stand up to the violence of the far left in the ’60s, fearing being branded “anti-American” in the face of war (Iraq), failing to confront the Tea Party and the ever-more-rightward GOP. Unfortunately, Alterman too often quotes others and only rarely flashes the scimitar wit he displays in the Nation.

Thorough and thoughtful, but with dense scholarly foliage that needs pruning

Review of The Cause in Sunday’s New York Times

How’s your reading going?  I just started Chapter 4: Patient, Firm and Vigilant.  In the New York Times Book Review this Sunday, Jeff Shesol wrote a review of The Cause.  What do you think?  I am looking forward to our conversation about the book on Sunday, June 3rd at 6 pm.

May 18, 2012

Loving Liberals

By JEFF SHESOL

THE CAUSE

The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama

By Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson

561 pp. Viking. $32.95.

The trouble with liberals, Robert Kennedy complained in 1964, was that they were “in love with death” — they romanticized failure, finding greater nobility in losing the whole loaf than in winning half of it. In the years since then, liberals have not only lost a lot of loaves but have acquired a mess of other troubles, among them the difficulty of getting anyone to admit to being a liberal. To wear the label today seems an act of defiance, much as members of the gay rights community have appropriated, from their antagonists, the epithet “queer.” Liberalism — for decades (centuries, even) the prevailing philosophy in American political life — has become the creed that dare not speak its name, except late at night on MSNBC.

Enter Eric Alterman, defiant to the last. In 2008, this columnist and media critic published a handbook called “Why We’re Liberals,” a crisply written and emphatically argued retort to the Coulters, Hannitys and others for whom liberalism is a strain of fascism, totalitarianism, socialism and overmothering (why choose?). Alterman’s new book, “The Cause,” written with an assist from the historian Kevin Mattson, is something of a companion volume: a history of liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to the present. (Mattson’s role is a bit ambiguous; in the book’s acknowledgments, Alterman credits him with providing “raw material.”)

The story Alterman tells is in large part a familiar one, but worth restating given the strenuous — and to a distressing degree successful — campaign by conservatives to rewrite the entire history of liberalism, and indeed of America itself in the years before the Reagan “revolution,” as one long love affair with central planning and welfare dependency. Alterman works hard to correct the record. By concentrating on the men and women who have defined liberalism in the modern era, “The Cause” lends a human dimension to the dramatic expansion of the federal government, and of the public’s expectations of government, during the New Deal; the postwar faith in economic growth as the engine of social progress; liberalism’s landmark achievements during the early years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency; its embrace of civil rights and other new expressions of liberal ideals of freedom, equal opportunity and the dignity of the individual; and, from the 1970s onward, its failure to square its ambitions, at least in an enduring way, with the values and norms of middle-class America and the slow corrosion of the American dream.

Much of this unfolds, in “The Cause,” by inference, or as interstitial material between character sketches. This is less a book about liberalism than it is a book about liberals — stretch limousines full of them, fleet after fleet. Liberalism, Alterman suggests, is a movement of “many different faces,” and his book, at times, appears intent on showing them all: faces of intellectuals, faces of politicians, faces of protesters and filmmakers, philosophers and diplomats.

There is an indiscriminate quality to Alterman’s attentions, which too often seem to reflect his personal passions rather than a careful weighing of a figure’s historical significance. Thus Oliver Stone gets just as much ink as Walter Reuther, a towering figure in the history of organized labor; Bruce Springsteen, about whom Alterman has written a previous book, receives more airtime than Hubert Humphrey and Thurgood Marshall combined. (Bob Dylan, meanwhile, merits only passing mentions.) Alterman’s choices can be interesting and even brave; one has to admire his willingness to include intellectuals like Lionel Trilling and Richard Rorty in a work of popular history. But in such a crowded field, their relative influence — and anyone else’s — becomes impossible to assess.

The net effect is that of a Pointillist painting, though when you step back from the canvas and squint a little, the dots fail to cohere into a discernible image. As “The Cause” smash-cuts from Henry Wallace to Richard Hofstadter and from Gloria Steinem to Gary Hart, Alterman pauses all too infrequently to reflect on the “cause” — or causes, or ideals — that connects them. This, to be fair, is a challenge, one compounded by liberal schisms and by the nebulousness of much liberal thought; Trilling, as Alterman notes, described liberalism as “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” Liberals, quite unlike leftist radicals or conservative ideologues, tend to reject dogma and theory in favor of “bold, persistent experimentation,” asRooseveltcalled it, or, put another way, pragmatism grounded in enduring, yet evolving, values. It is hard to dissect a gestalt.

Still, that is the historian’s role, and other books — most notably, in recent years, by Alan Brinkley and Paul Starr — have brought sharpness to the picture that “The Cause” renders blurry. Despite its author’s best intentions, “The Cause” makes it harder, not easier, to understand how liberals ever mustered the intellectual clarity or collective resolve not only to govern but to achieve what they manifestly did during their long reign at the vital center of our national life — or even, in a more qualified way, during the two dec­ades since Bill Clinton promised to “put people first.”

As “The Cause” proceeds toward the present day, Alterman reveals a revanchist streak. Urging liberals to “recapture”Roosevelt’s “militant and optimistic spirit,” he casts a cold eye on virtually every effort, over the past 30 years, to do just that. The intimation of “The Cause” — of both its title and its tone — is that there really is a true faith against which subsequent vintages of liberalism must be judged (and found wanting). “Neo­liberals” like Gary Hart are dismissed as callow and cold; “New Democrats” of the late 1980s are overly in thrall to their corporate donors; and Michael Dukakis, poor Michael Dukakis, is not merely a loser but “no liberal at all — just a sign of the desperate times into which American liberalism had fallen in its apparently endless quest for solid political ground.” As for Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, the Democrats who have been elected president since Johnson, “The Cause” flays all three for yielding to “political pressures” and becoming “far more conservative” as president than as presidential candidates.

Each of these points is arguable in its own right. But taken together, they reflect a contempt for compromise. Without proposing an alternative path, Alterman leaves liberals in a familiar dead end. This, regrettably, is the sort of peremptory judgment that holds liberalism back (just as the conservative equivalent, with its fixation on Reagan-era doctrines and its incantation of old pieties, binds the Republican Party in a kind of intellectual aspic).

“The work goes on, the cause endures,” said Robert Kennedy’s brother Edward — one of the heroes of this book — in his stirring speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. But if it really is to endure, then the means of advancing it will surely have to evolve, taking full account of unpleasant realities: the scale of the debt; the depth of public suspicion not just of government but of most institutions; courts that have grown hostile to claims of civil rights and assertions of governmental power; and the tenuousness of our commitment to the common good. The work, indeed, goes on.

Jeff Shesol, the author of “Supreme ­Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court,” was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

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