Liberal, Liberal, Liberal—and Hey, What's Wrong with That?

books washburn libbyh Liberal, Liberal, Liberal—and Hey, What's Wrong with That?WHY WE’RE LIBERALS: A POLITICAL HANDBOOK FOR POST-BUSH AMERICA
By Eric Alterman
Viking, 334 pages, $24.95

How many liberals does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, but it really gets screwed.

Sadly, this dry heave of a joke achieves the same level of sophistication as much of what passes for American political discourse. As we all know, through tactical genius the right has managed to turn the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” into the ultimate empty signifiers; they are now no more than rhetorical cudgels wielded by partisan politicians.

Eric Alterman’s Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America is a spirited attempt to undo the damage, to reclaim and redeem the concept of liberalism. Mr. Alterman thinks the remedy for the dizzying level of confusion and obfuscation attached to liberalism is actually quite simple—though exceedingly difficult to apply.

 

WE’VE BEEN TRICKED, he tells us. The policy positions advocated by the Democratic Party (in this book a virtual synonym for “liberals”) are not in fact the pet projects of a condescending elite; those policies actually represent the intentions and interests of a “supermajority” of the American electorate. Americans, says Mr. Alterman, are liberals—and any responsible public opinion poll conducted in the past 20 years proves it.

The alignment of Democratic and popular opinion has occurred for several reasons, including a migration of political positions: Democrats and liberals have moved rightward while the majority of Americans have moved leftward.

This substantive political connection is rarely articulated, however, due to the fact that “political pundits have treated as a truism” that liberalism is a credo of, among many other things, nasty, God-hating, baby-killing, smut-loving, elitist anti-American wimps. After providing a quick summary of the historical roots of liberalism, Mr. Alterman shifts into rebuttal mode, launching a series of responses to the typical assumptions about liberals. For instance, Mr. Alterman devotes a chapter to responding to such questions as: “Why Do Liberals Hate Patriotism?”; “Why Are Liberals So Damn Elitist?”; “Why Do Liberals Always Blame America First?”; and “But Why Are Liberals So Nasty?”

In good “I’m rubber and you’re glue” polemical fashion, Mr. Alterman’s strategy in these chapters is less to respond to these questions as to show how these accusations are more legitimately levied at the conservative accusers. He’s at his best when he focuses on matters of fact, like the chapter on everyone’s favorite ghoul: the smut-loving liberal pervert.

I generally enjoy the succulent irony of a hypocrite conservative extolling his virtue, but the example trotted out here is a little too freakish: Mr. Alterman caps his well-reasoned claim for the laxity of conservative morality by quoting from I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s loathsome novel, The Apprentice, in which the author floridly describes a 10-year-old girl locked in a cage with a sexually aggressive bear. It made me realize that for the past eight years we’ve been in the hands not only of chauvinist warmongers but a crew with wildly distempered minds.

Mr. Alterman is similarly convincing, though with far less salacious supporting material, when he discusses why liberals “deny” that the United States was created as a Christian nation. As he writes, “The evangelicals [during the founding of the republic] stood with Jefferson and Madison … to prevent the establishment of official churches because they deeply believed in the separation of the spiritual and the secular, as the latter could only corrupt the former.” Mr. Alterman uses this well-documented fact to turn the accusation on its head and attack fundamentalists for distorting the religious foundation of the country. “The fact is,” he writes, “contemporary conservative Christians could hardly be less in sympathy with the political sentiments of America’s founders if they converted to cannibalism.”

Mr. Alterman falters when he turns to more insoluble issues like abortion. Why We’re Liberal recites the typical liberal party line, which is fine as far as it goes, but won’t convince a skeptic. This leads me to one of the book’s critical misunderstandings: As Drew Westen reminded us in The Political Brain (2007), the most essential political decisions are not based on rational calculation.

“The good,” wrote the decidedly nonliberal Aristotle, “is that at which all things aim.” But defining the good, particularly when it comes to the most divisive issues in American public life, presents tremendous difficulties. When faced with these more thorny issues—and, in fact, when bolstering his primary thesis about the liberal inclination of America in 2008—Mr. Alterman deploys a barrage of polls, statistics and liberal logic to prove his point. But the good was never decided on the basis of a percentage; people’s sense of virtue is rarely engaged by a poll.

One last problem: A somewhat smug tone, however logical and humane the content, won’t help to change people’s minds.

Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He can be reached at books@observer.com.