The Journals of the late Arthur Schlesinger have received a good deal of attention, but most of it has concerned Schlesinger’s writing style, personality, or the broad topic of keeping and publishing diaries. The strangely neglected question of Schlesinger’s politics is finally addressed by the New Yorker’s George Packer, writing as one liberal assessing another. “In [Schlesinger’s] long record of speeches, conferences, lunches at the Century, and dinners at Mortimer’s,” observes Packer, “there’s an unmistakable sense that liberal politics belonged to a small group of the rich and famous who all knew one another and knew what was best for the rest of the country, while knowing less and less about the rest of the country. . . . It’s possible, even if you agree with almost every position Schlesinger held, to find the smugness and complacency not just annoying but fatal. His crowd made liberalism a fat target for the New Right; Reagan and his heirs seized the language and claims of populism from liberals who believed that they had had permanent possession [of it] ever since Roosevelt.”
One subtext of the 2008 election is liberals’ effort to convey that they now “get it” – they understand the damage this elitism inflicted on their cause in a way Schlesinger never did. Packer’s critique of Schlesinger is one instance. Eric Alterman’s assertion that, “One of the great mistakes liberals made in the 1970s was to try to win in the courts what they could not win at the ballot box – thereby allowing their democratic muscles and instincts [to] atrophy and helping to inspire a right-wing backlash against which they were defenseless,” is another.
These mea culpas, however, always turn out to be sorta culpas. No sooner does Alterman identify judicial activism as one of liberalism’s great mistakes than his litany of the “catastrophes” that have befallen America during the Bush years includes “the attack on . . . choice.” The goal of this insidious attack is to re-democratize abortion policy, 35 years after the Supreme Court reduced the number of Americas who could affect it to nine. Roe v. Wade is the biggest land-grab of all the liberal efforts to secure a political victory in the courts that they couldn’t win anywhere else. Conservatives try to reverse this great mistake, and give liberals a chance to rebuild their democratic muscles, and Alterman sputters with rage.
The problem is that liberalism incorporated the agenda and the up-against-the-wall style of the various radicalisms of the 1960s in ways that now make disentangling the New Deal and New Left genomes impossible. According to James Piereson, the ideology that emerged from the 1960s was “punitive liberalism,” which “parted company from earlier liberal reformers such as FDR, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, who viewed reform as a means of bringing the promise of American life within reach of more of our people.” Punitive liberals wanted America to atone for its sins rather than solve its problems. Their goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as one of the era’s slogan’s had it. The comfortable, made numerous by the postwar boom, deserved to be afflicted because America needed to be redeemed. Arthur Schlesinger, for example, said that we all killed Robert Kennedy: Americans have become “the most frightening people on this planet . . . because the atrocities we commit trouble so little our official self-righteousness, our invincible conviction of our moral infallibility.” This heat-of-the-moment judgment, made in the hours after RFK was shot, was one Schlesinger repeated in a subsequent magazine article and book.
The current liberal attitude about the sort of bourgeois-baiting rhetoric and policies they favored 35 years ago is: don’t worry, that’s all behind us now . . . although it was completely defensible and really quite noble. Salon’s Joan Walsh writes, “Pushed by the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movement, the Democrats [in the 1960s] became the party of inclusion, of racial equality. The Democrats became the party that questioned unchecked U.S. military adventurism and untrammeled corporate power. In my opinion these were all good ideas, but the anxiety they engendered helped lead to 20 years of Republicans in the White House, interrupted briefly by Jimmy Carter after Nixon went too far. Reagan ousted Carter by continuing to hammer away at Democrats as the party of minorities and the poor. Sure, he talked about ‘Morning in America’ and that ‘shining city on a hill,’ but he mostly played on fears that liberalism had run amok.”
Walsh can’t or won’t ask whether there was something about liberalism that engendered the anxiety that Republicans could exploit. Favoring inclusion and opposing military adventures and corporate power doesn’t sound like a recipe for defeat. Canvassing for votes from people you’ve castigated as the most frightening on the face of the planet does.