Jeff Shesol: Review of Eric Alterman's and Kevin Mattson's "The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama" (Viking, 2012)

Roundup: Books

Jeff Shesol, the author of “Supreme ­Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court,” was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

...Enter Eric Alterman, defiant to the last. In 2008, this columnist and media critic published a handbook called “Why We’re Liberals,” a crisply written and emphatically argued retort to the Coulters, Hannitys and others for whom liberalism is a strain of fascism, totalitarianism, socialism and overmothering (why choose?). Alterman’s new book, “The Cause,” written with an assist from the historian Kevin Mattson, is something of a companion volume: a history of liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to the present. (Mattson’s role is a bit ambiguous; in the book’s acknowledgments, Alterman credits him with providing “raw material.”)...

As “The Cause” proceeds toward the present day, Alterman reveals a revanchist streak. Urging liberals to “recapture” Roosevelt’s “militant and optimistic spirit,” he casts a cold eye on virtually every effort, over the past 30 years, to do just that. The intimation of “The Cause” — of both its title and its tone — is that there really is a true faith against which subsequent vintages of liberalism must be judged (and found wanting). “Neo­liberals” like Gary Hart are dismissed as callow and cold; “New Democrats” of the late 1980s are overly in thrall to their corporate donors; and Michael Dukakis, poor Michael Dukakis, is not merely a loser but “no liberal at all — just a sign of the desperate times into which American liberalism had fallen in its apparently endless quest for solid political ground.” As for Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, the Democrats who have been elected president since Johnson, “The Cause” flays all three for yielding to “political pressures” and becoming “far more conservative” as president than as presidential candidates.

Each of these points is arguable in its own right. But taken together, they reflect a contempt for compromise. Without proposing an alternative path, Alterman leaves liberals in a familiar dead end. This, regrettably, is the sort of peremptory judgment that holds liberalism back (just as the conservative equivalent, with its fixation on Reagan-era doctrines and its incantation of old pieties, binds the Republican Party in a kind of intellectual aspic)....

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