To be a liberal means, fundamentally, to be a child of the Enlightenment. It 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 . . . The liberals who founded America believed themselves to be inventing a new form of government based on those Enlightenment precepts.
It became known as "the American experiment."
The subtitle of this account reads “from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama” but:Teddy Roosevelt laid the building blocks . . . his conception of “new nationalism” – the slogan for his run in 1912 as the candidate for the Progressive Party – also reflected a radical rethinking of liberalism, from which his younger cousin would later draw. In 1918, a year before he died, TR outlined a program of public works, hydroelectric power development, agricultural aid, pensions, and social insurance. From these, it was a short step to the New Deal.
Alterman writes with a clear commitment to the necessity and legitimacy of liberal politics – just about every American advance in human rights and national solvency has been the result of liberal agendas. But he sugar-coats nothing, least of all the current Democratic administration, and can be brutally honest about liberal shortcomings and missteps.
The result is a readable and instructive but sometimes painful history, told mostly through profiles of liberal thinkers and leaders – politicians, academics, reformers, writers, musicians. Presidents, of course, but many others, some obscure but important, representing economics, civil rights, social welfare, foreign policy, the arts, just about every aspect of the political and philosophical tradition that is American liberalism. In the process, the counterpoints of political conservatism are almost as fully explored.
It’s a well-sourced overview that follows a disturbing trend from mostly intelligent if adversarial discourse between left and right to the current state of mostly rhetorical and often ridiculous animosity that, make no mistake, is being propagated and promoted by a rabid and reactionary conservatism that increasingly resembles mindless McCarthyism, the kind of thing that recently prompted a Republican governor to call his own kind “the stupid party.”
Economic and media mismanagement have a lot to do with it. In Fortune 500 companies, CEOs who once earned on average 20 to 30 times what their average worker made came to expect their salaries to be 400 times that amount or more. In no other Western democracy did anything like this transformation of wealth take place.
In 1971 future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote his famous memo warning that “the American economic system is under broad attack” and “business must learn the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary it must be used aggressively and with determination, without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” That is precisely what business did, through a program of legislation, reinterpretation of labor law, election spending, and media manipulation . . . By the end of 2010, as corporate profits rose to 14 percent of national income – their biggest share of the economy since such statistics became available nearly 70 years earlier (despite the banking debacle) – the share going to workers’ wages fell to its lowest level in the same period. (pp. 287&463)
And about the media:“Fox News represented a relentless assault on political truth in America carried out on multiple fronts simultaneously . . . and Fox News was only a small part of the story when it came to purposeful conservative disinformation. According to a study of the Pew Research Center’s Project on Excellence in Journalism, right-wing talk radio enjoyed 48 million regular listeners, which was not only many times Fox’s audience but also more than twice the collective audience for the three TV network evening news shows combined. Liberals had their own voices as well, but they were no match at all, whether measured by size, scope or vociferousness, to those of the far right; nor could they honestly be portrayed as even remotely as extreme as their conservative counterparts. . . . Fox News is something new – something for which we don’t yet have a word. It provides little if any actual journalism.”( pp. 448&469)
There’s much more to this story, but the current state of economics and the media are my greatest concerns.
I’m more worried now than I was before I read the book, and more aware of the many ways that liberals need to get their act together. But like Alterman I remain determined to stand 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
because that‘s the bottom line of everything about the American experiment that works and remains worthwhile.