Dear Sean

News at Home

Mr. Livingston teaches history at Rutgers. He's finished a book called The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Rowman & Littlefiel, 2009). He blogs at

Dear Sean,

I feel your pain.  If I believed I had backed the better candidate, and lost, I’d be just as angry and bitter as you are.  But you’re getting carried away by your Enlightenment Project—by the urge to look through the candidate to the policies and positions that define his or her candidacy. 

You have to get used to the idea that the rhetoric just is the reality.  Otherwise you’re going to get more angry, more bitter, and we know what happens to liberals who get mugged by reality.  Ask Irving Kristol how that works.  This hard-headed liberal ended up a neo-conservative.  Your covert endorsement of McCain puts you on his political path. 

I don’t expect you to get right with Bill Kristol, the scion of the neo-conservatise movement.  But I do worry that in your recent Newsweek piece, “A Liberal’s Lament,” you have made a good case to vote for McCain or stay home.

Here’s how you do it.  First, you say that “history suggests” something, as if History is an inert body of fact apart from our interpretations.  As a teacher of history, you know better.  Our differences of interpretation suggest something, but they cannot lead to one obvious conclusion about the meaning and significance of the past. 

An event from the past becomes meaningful and significant because it appears in a subsequent narrative—in our stories—not because it the past.  History suggests nothing unless we understand it as the argument we have about what happened in the past.  Events as such are effects of interpretation, not vice versa.  Get used to it. 

Second, you insist that since World War II, “every Democrat who has sought the presidency has attempted to update the legacy of FDR’s New Deal.”   LBJ’s Great Society was the “full flowering of New Deal-style liberalism,” but then Clinton, your hero, represented “a new, post-New Deal liberalism that was moving the country beyond Reaganite conservatism.”

So where are we, Sean?  Updating the New Deal or getting beyond it?  Embracing statist command of civil society, as the earlier Roosevelt wanted, or announcing that “the era of big government is over,” as Clinton did?  What’s the social and programmatic content of “post-New Deal liberalism”?

Third, you equate Obama and Jimmy Carter, a supposed failure of a president: “Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory.”   This is scary, because it allows you to say “I told you so” before, during, and after the 2008 election and then again in 2012   Also silly, if we don’t begin with the notion that “history suggests” something all by itself.

The tripartite rhetorical structure of your essay works declaratively and then interrogatively.   Three statements, three questions.  Let me work backwards from the concluding questions.  You ask, can a candidate “who lost the large industrial states in the primaries, deal with a troubled economy”?  You ask, can “the inexperienced candidate persuasively outline a new foreign policy”?  And you ask, can Obama “become the master of Congress and enact goals such as universal health care”?

Here are some questions for you Sean, offered as a way of breaking up the flow of the assumptions that produce the rigidity of your rhetorical procedure.  First, is the American economy still centered in the industrial states, in industry, in manufacturing?  If not, what is the point of acting as if restoring American economic growth means reinventing the rust belt?  What is the point of correlating the future and the past in this particular way?  Our “troubled economy” can’t be cured by going back to an industrial past, so what is to be done?

Can a presidential candidate “outline a new foreign policy”?  Probably not, Sean, whether the candidate is experienced or not.  But how about the old foreign policy, before Bush and the NSS of September 2002?  Wouldn’t that do?  Isn’t  the Open Door tradition worth consulting here?  The deeply experienced George W. Bush—by 2004, two wars, several crises—has bound us to the mast in Iraq.  How then is experience the standard by which to judge any candidate?

And do we want a “master of Congress” or a partner?  The real masters, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, are passing from the scene—maybe it’s time to reinstate a separation of powers according to constitutionally and, yes, historically dictated patterns

Now for the statements that function as critical preface to these questions.  These are three debunking moves, worthy of an earnest undergraduate or a seasoned talking head, for always the pivot of the implied accusation is a “yet” or an “even though”—for example, Obama presents himself as a “tribune of sweeping change [and] yet he also proclaims national unity, as if transformation can come without struggle.”

Also, Obama has a liberal voting record, but he “presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility.”  And then there is his attendance at a church where the pastor preached “black liberation theology,” thus enfranchising “racial politics” as against a “post-racial” culture

Clearly you want us to see that there are contradictions lurking here—gaps in logic, consistency, good faith.   I don’t see them.  Every life is lived in profile, as Pierre Bourdieu once said, meaning that there is no diagrammatic unity in it, no static blueprint to be drawn from above, from a God’s eye view of the world.  Obama’s ideological flexibility is perfectly consistent with liberalism, in part because we’re all more or less liberal now, even most of the so-called conservatives among us, in part because liberalism is an incredibly variegated social/political phenomenon.

How, Sean, does national unity—building consensus, creating cross-class coalitions—preclude transformation through struggle?  Do you really want to return to the divisions and conflicts of the 1930s (New Deal liberalism)?  Is that the only way to restore the health of the body politic?  Many historians think so, among them Nelson Lichtenstein, Alan Brinkley, Gary Gerstle, Steve Fraser, and most of the chroniclers of the New Left, but do you want to stand with them?

And how is black liberation theology inconsistent with the political version of the American dream that goes by the name of pluralism?  If Harold Cruse was right, and I think he was, the atomic particles of modern American politics have been ethnic groups rather than omni-competent citizens, self-determining individuals (notice that the “new political history” of the 1970s amplified his claims).  Black nationalism was the mainstream, Cruse insisted, but it never cancelled a commitment to the other Americas.  He was right.  So is the Reverend Wright.

Stretch the categories and ask yourself, is feminism inconsistent with a post-sexist politics?  Or is it a crucial constituent—a cause and effect—of such a politics?  These are by now rhetorical questions.  Group identities, whether articulated in theological or secular terms, are the elementary table of American politics.  Class is no less artificial, and no less real, than race or gender is defining such identities.

So let’s stop pretending that you stand alone on the Left in objecting to Obama.  You do object, of course you do, but your objections are the insignia of indignant abjection, not the rudiments of real argument.  “Liberal intellectuals have largely abdicated their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis instead of paeans to Obama’s image.”  That’s how you sanctify your own lonely mission.

Blink, Sean, see what happens on the other side of your interrupted vision.  See what the rest of us have been watching.  Then join up or not, but please stop kvetching.  Hillary lost, Obama won.  McCain is dangerous.  What follows?   

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    More Comments:

    James Livingston - 9/4/2008

    The events to which we flock as (re)interpreters of the past are always already historiographical conventions. For example, Black Reconstruction was not an event in the annals of American history until Du Bois (and Beale) claimed it was--and he had minimal effect on the discipline until very late 1960s (Stampp) and 1970s. Now black agency in winning the civil war, ending slavery, and so on, is taken for granted as a historical event worth fleshing out with mongraphical research and writing. Why? Because Du Bois's definition of this moment AS AN EVENT finally resonated with historians who were watching the civil rights movement unfold.

    Fred Dill - 9/4/2008

    Your make a good case versus Wilentz but I'm not so persuaded by your point that "An event from the past becomes meaningful and significant because it appears in a subsequent narrative—in our stories—not because it happened in the past." But why would historians be interested in writing stories about an "event" if it didn't actually happen in the past?

    Clare Lois Spark - 9/1/2008

    I have read Wilentz's Newsweek article and am simply aghast at the violent responses of the Obama supporters to the reasonable and not unprofessional questions posed by Professor Wilentz regarding the programs, background, and prior associations of Barack Obama. Truly, the anti-Wilentz din resembles that of a howling mob more than objections and criticism from an informed and appropriately curious electorate. But hey, "rhetoric is reality" and hence cause to celebrate the disintegration of a rational liberalism, taking place before our very eyes.
    Is anyone else here nauseated by the spectacle?

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/31/2008

    It seems to me the body politic is in excellent health. There are no peasants with pitchforks in the streets.

    I don't believe manufacturing is dead in America, either. I live in the rust belt, and everybody goes to work in the morning they way they always have, everybody drives cars, and many have a place at the lake. The weekend traffic is frightful. The young people are as happy and optimistic as they've ever been.

    We just won a very long war--isn't that good news?

    Everywhere I see members of the fair sex beaming with excitement, who can't wait to vote for a hockey mom.

    As long as you keep looking for bad news you will someday be right and find it, but it's not to be found in many places today. The market is holding up extremely well under the shocks of overbuilt housing and runaway oil prices. National unemployment remains very low. The two-party system seems much less in jeopardy than it did earlier in the year. And the Democrats, with another extreme candidate, are about to lose their third consecutive presidential election. They will probably back off and regroup around less-radical leadership. Sarah and the old man seem to have them on the run now, and in all likelihood the Supreme Court will, within a year or two, get some conservative new blood.