The occasion was the recent (April 12) publication of Alterman's latest book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (New York: Viking 2012), coauthored with Kevin Mattson and called by CAP "the first full-scale treatment of postwar liberalism."
A history of liberalism is most valuable for all those left of the Right wing, I'd say, because the Right wing, for all intents and purposes, can't be reached. A consistent theme throughout the stimulating discussion was that liberalism has lost its self-confidence. Too personified for my taste, but true.
After the discussion, it became clear to me, and Alterman agreed, that the ruthless surgeon/amputator was the deterioration of our public school system that can be traced back to the seventies along with the rise of plutocracy and its dumbing down of the populace to the level of irrationality that fuels the money grubbers.
The Children's Crusade was led, after all, by middle and upper-middle class college students seeking to activate the principles they were studying as part of their humanities curriculum, emphasis on which has decreased also with the rise of the plutocracy over the decades since the seventies.
The Enlightenment is the backbone of liberalism, said Alterman, that flowering of reason that fueled the American Revolution and the values it sought to perpetrate.
"Liberalism has a lot to learn," he said. The key to life is learning from the mistakes of others, he continued, quoting his good friend Warren Buffet.
Along with the Enlightenment, came the second of its three main roots, New Deal liberalism, which added the theme that beliefs must be realized, not simply idealized. The government must be on the side of individuals, championing equality of opportunity, which became an issue in this country with the advent of the industrial revolution.
The third principal root of liberalism was a product of the 1960s, cultural liberalism, which demanded civil rights for those who had never before enjoyed them. The problem with this emphasis is that it must be coupled with economic liberalism to be effective, said Alterman. And it wasn't.
Kazin's very valuable contribution at this point was to distinguish between liberalism and the Left wing. "The Left brings up issues that liberals won't face," he said. For liberals, slavery was an issue that would resolve itself through time, a problem that could be solved by deporting all blacks back to Africa. For the abolitionists, who ultimately triumphed, there was no compromise. The slaves had to be freed, and they were.
In the late nineteenth century, the labor unions that arose to protect and sponsor workers' rights were led by radicals and considered radical, even by liberals, who hated strikes, which were frequent at that time.
To accomplish what needs to be done, said Kazin, the Left must ally themselves with the liberal elite. Added Halpin, the Left feels freer to criticize government than do liberals.
Liberals and the Left are nearly symbiotic, said Alterman. Liberals, including the Kennedys and LBJ, were late to champion civil rights in the sixties and had to be prodded, but to get the job done, LBJ was as crucial as the radical MLK.
The liberals also stab themselves in the back with internal back stabbing over disagreements, losing sight of their friends, the Left wing, and in this process, their opposition to their real opponents, the right wing, is being weakened. The Right wing presents a united front against them, further diluting their strength.