Eric Alterman and
I confess I am a political junkie.
As a kid, I preferred collecting political buttons to dressing up dolls. During my teenage years, I was starstruck by politicians rather than celebrities. And in political science classes, I read the footnotes rather than the Cliffs Notes. I’m uncertain if this addiction is inherited or acquired, but during the high political season between the conventions and the election, it rages nearly out of control. If you share my affliction, now is a good time to read “The Cause” by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson.
The book opens with an Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. quote, “The existence of Franklin Roosevelt relieved American liberals for a dozen years of the responsibility of thinking for themselves.” “The Cause” invites us to consider the merits of liberalism for ourselves.
The authors, distinguished professors and prolific writers, have exhaustively researched their subject. In fact, the book’s principle strength — as well as its weakness — is its encyclopedic nature and “all you can eat” approach. For the passionate activist, the 473 pages and nearly 100 more pages of footnotes may give the comforting feeling that no stone has been left unturned. The casual reader, however, may feel the authors found nothing too minor to mention and that the density overwhelms. Fair warning: Do not attempt “The Cause” if you are commitment-phobic.
The most enjoyable moments of the book’s march through time are when it veers from linear reportage to explore characters, events, and the cultural context. Television brought politics to the masses. The golden age of broadcast journalism bent the curve of politics with high-integrity reporters like Edward R. Murrow, whose influence led to the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Televised debates changed the game as Richard Nixon sweated under the camera lights while the young, handsome Senator John Kennedy dazzled millions of Americans.
Hundreds of primary and secondary figures are discussed. For those of us who love political history, these references feel like a family reunion. “The Cause” traces liberal lineage beginning with its ideological great-grandparents, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. I could almost see everyone sitting around the table: Hillary Clinton chatting with Hubert Humphrey, and Robert Kennedy comparing notes with Thurgood Marshall.
Of equal, if not greater, interest are the portraits of critical figures who have received little attention in the history books. The singer Harry Belafonte bravely traveled into the Deep South, at great risk, to speak out on behalf of civil rights. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” and, while privately struggling with cancer, gave Congressional testimony that launched the contemporary environmental movement.
Mr. Alterman and Mr. Mattson play the greatest hits of seminal events that shaped the liberal landscape: the rise of the labor movement that established the minimum wage, the creation of the United Nations institutionalizing a multilateral world, and the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” marking the birth of feminism.
The beautiful chapter on civil rights, titled “We Shall Overcome,” is rich with literary and cultural references. Richard Wright’s angry masterpiece “Native Son” and Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” winner of the National Book Award in 1953, predated the civil rights movement. We are reminded that writing often presages political change.
The Stonewall riots ignited the gay rights movement in 1969, but it is not referenced in this narrative until the 1980s, in Chapter 15, titled “Where’s the Beef?” about Ronald Reagan. The authors note, “This was a difficult time for a new movement to take up the cause of ‘rights,’ because the country was growing weary of the demands of women, blacks, and a host of ethnic minorities.” Despite the growing numbers of those dead from the “gay cancer” (5,600) and afflicted with it (nearly 50,000), President Reagan remained silent about AIDS for much of his presidency. The book recalls that it was only the death of Reagan’s old Hollywood friend Rock Hudson in 1985 that prompted any response from the president. This poignant memory reminds me of the intimate nature of politics. Personal histories, individual struggles, and the perceived arc of one’s trajectory form beliefs, in part.
The authors dutifully recognize liberalism’s low points as well. One of the darkest hours was 1972, when Nixon swept every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in his trouncing of George McGovern. They write that the election “confirmed the growing sense among white working-class ethnics, the backbone of liberalism in the New Deal and Fair Deal eras, that their movement had been captured by the longhairs, shiftless minority welfare cheats, and bra-burning feminists.”
The book does not blink. It covers the troubled times of Democratic presidents, such as Harry Truman’s firing of the colossally popular General MacArthur and Jimmy Carter’s bungling of the Iranian hostage crises. It discusses liberal family feuds, including long-simmering tensions between African-Americans and American Jews as well as infighting among feminists, particularly between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
“The Cause,” unlike many long books that lose momentum, gains steam halfway through. The pace picks up in Chapter 9, “The Liberal Hour,” with the arrival of the Kennedys. I admit that I, like so many Americans, never tire of reading about this family — the domineering father, the rivalry among brothers, and the decades-long impact on our nation’s agenda. However, the authors are not so sentimental and question President Kennedy’s liberal credentials. They open the chapter with a campaign speech by then-candidate John Kennedy staunchly defending his liberal values and saying, “I am proud to say, I am a liberal.” Once he was elected, the authors find little reason to believe Kennedy’s claim and quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said he found the young president “had the intelligence and the skill and the moral fervor to give the leadership we’ve been waiting for and do what no other president has ever done . . . the moral passion is missing.”
The authors work hard to parse and explain the difference among those who were leftists, radicals, progressives, and liberals. They note that “. . . in the wake of the myriad upheavals of the sixties . . . politics had become less about issues and more about identity.” Mr. Alterman and Mr. Mattson never opine on identity politics, though they recognize that the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council — the group formed in the mid-1980s — was a response to “rights talk that was dominating liberal public philosophy.”
Throughout the book, liberalism swings in and out of favor as political fortunes rise and fall. Individual fates move up and down, too; John Kerry, the dignified solider turned antiwar activist, cannot connect as a presidential candidate, and Al Gore, unable to succeed Bill Clinton, resurrects himself with the release of the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary that placed global warming on the public agenda.
The penultimate chapter is devoted to biographical data on President Obama but fails to bring him fully into focus. Mr. Alterman and Mr. Mattson strike me as Clinton guys, and perhaps that’s why they’re more adept at portraying Bill and Hillary. The authors rely on President Obama’s own words from “The Audacity of Hope” to describe the essence of his mission to create “a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real.”
The final chapter is a rallying call for liberalism. They write, “To be a liberal now . . . is to be a child of the Enlightenment.” Liberalism, they indicate, is forward-looking, illuminating the future. “The Cause” quotes Betty Friedan as saying, “In America, radical ideas tend to assimilate into liberalism.”
As a voter, campaigner, fund-raiser, and conventiongoer, I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat in the political arena, but I am only an amateur. My credentials pale in comparison to these authors, who have researched, analyzed, and lectured upon these subjects in great depth. Still, I offer my views without apology. I think Mr. Alterman and Mr. Mattson sometimes fail to make their case.
The book is not particularly relevant if the electoral choices — and Long Island residents will be voting for a president, a senator, and a member of the House — prompt you to consider not only whom you prefer, but what it is you believe. The authors do not provoke us to ponder the big thoughts, ask the most relevant questions: What will we fight for? Where won’t we compromise? “The Cause” spills too much ink on “who” and “when” and not enough on “how” and, most important, “why.” I’d be happier with less data and more argument.
I would have titled the book “The Change” rather than “The Cause.” Liberalism, as many have asserted, is often the horse that draws the wagon of social issues forward. Liberal ideas tend to assimilate into the mainstream. What was radical yesterday is commonplace today. Describing this evolution of thought and the role liberalism plays in driving change is this book’s true contribution, rendering it a worthwhile investment of time.
Eric Alterman lives part time in East Hampton.
Sally Susman lives in Sag Harbor and Manhattan.