on July 26, 2012
This is a political history of liberalism from Roosevelt to Obama, its successes, its internal struggles, its failures, its changes and modifications, its war with a new breed of opponent-- the modern tea party influenced conservative, whose only political goal is to win regardless of the cost in human terms. Alterman's focus is always on the figures who have tried to turn liberalism into political action: Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and on its major thinkers, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., each in his own way and with varying degrees of success, rather than on trying to explain or justify the underlying philosophies.
Liberalism's great strength is that it is not an ideology, but that is also its greatest weakness. It's a philosophy, a way of viewing and understanding the world and taking action to make a better world for all of us. Because it is a way of understanding, it invites differences of opinions, even when those differences are destructive to the main thrust of current liberal political policies. Because it is not ideological, it "has few emotional rewards; the liberal state is not a home for its citizens; it lacks warmth and intimacy" (p. 471), whereas the catchphrases and taglines of the opposition, combined of libertarianism, jingoism, fear mongering, and distortions, racism (and in the south, romantic evocations of the "lost cause"), and other easily pushed buttons provide emotional release and a sense of tribal belonging. The emotional appeal of the opposition's ideology has created voting patterns in which voters end up voting against their own best interests. Liberalism's internecine battles, especially in the 60s and 70s, have split American opinion, often turning public opinion against the very ones the liberal spirit is trying to help achieve major political goals. Those battles have given the opposition opportunity to take hold of the political vocabulary and bend it to its own purposes, even to the degree of using "liberal" derogatorily to push emotional buttons. That split in opinion, fueled by a well-financed and well organized opposition party which craves ideological purity, has moved the basic tenets of political liberalism rightward in search of answers to the opposition's oppressive assault on the middle class.
Nevertheless, the liberal spirit has its roots in the the Enlightenment, which means "standing firm on behalf of the foundational freedoms of thought, expression, and the necessity of individuals to take hold of their collective fates and shape them according to the values of liberty and equality, while being fully aware that the two must always coexist in tension with each other" (p. 472). "Liberalism has pledged itself to rationality in a political culture in which anti-intellectualism runs rampant" (p. 471). This is an important history with which all liberals should be familiar; it tells of a vision of American society as a "more free and equal place for all its members" (p. 473). Liberalism is ultimately "the only honest place to be" (pp. 461-473).