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Liberals need new narrative, but they won't find it here

Maybe all you need to know about Eric Alterman's "The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama," is how the book was produced. When Alterman found himself buried under a "mountain" of research, he handed the project off to a second author, historian Kevin Mattson, who subsequently kicked it back to Alterman, who finished it eight years after he started.

The result is a ponderous and shallow history of a political movement from Roosevelt, Truman and McCarthyism through the Kennedys, the Great Society, and McGovern to Bill and Hillary and Barack. It has that quality of an obligation grudgingly fulfilled.

"The Cause" would be a passable account of this span of history for someone who knew nothing about it. For everyone else it will be familiar and predictable. And if it seems there is nothing new in the book, it is because there is nothing new in it. It's nearly 100 percent secondary source material -- a good lit review but not much of a story.

Alterman, who is known for his honesty, wit and incisive commentary as a columnist for The Nation, shows few of those qualities here. Indeed, there's nothing funny about the book and it's hard for the reader to put his arms around anything that feels like an argument. Rather, it is shaped more like a series of miniature biographies than a history, an account driven by a "great man" theory but written very, very small.

The story certainly frames the frustrations liberals have felt over nearly seven decades since FDR left the scene. Democratic presidents have seldom manifested the same confidence that Roosevelt did. From Truman to Obama and everywhere in between (with the exception, perhaps, of a brief period following Lyndon Johnson's election in 1964) they have driven into the headwinds of vicious conservative movements: the witch-hunts of the 1950s, reaction in the 1960s, the birth of the "Southern Strategy" in the 1970s, the Reagan counterrevolution, Clinton's "triangulation," right up to the Tea Party present.

Assaults from the right have driven liberals into an emotional and philosophical corner. Soft on Communism, soft on crime, soft on defense, soft on terrorism, and, in the campaigns of the right, determined to give away the hard-earned dollars of God-fearing taxpayers to hordes of the undeserving, liberals have become so battered that, as Alterman notes, they won't even answer to the name "liberal."

The response has too often been accommodation, although it seems somehow naive to blame presidents for the adjustments they make in the political crossfire of the legislative process. It's not the compromises they have made once in office that are troubling, although Carter, Clinton and Obama have all seemed at times to settle too easily and for too little. It's that liberals haven't done more to contest the broader environment of symbols and ideas that nurture arguments on the right and starve the liberal cause.

One of liberalism's greatest problems has been the failure to create, as Obama put it in "The Audacity of Hope," "a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real," or as Alterman puts it "a language of the common good."

Republican philosophy has been boiled down to the shortest elevator speech in history and one that can whip disenfranchised middle-aged white men into a stiff froth in seconds. Mario Cuomo provided the Democratic counterpoint in his famous 1984 convention keynote and Obama's campaign in 2008 offered a similar libretto.

But Democrats just can't seem to stick to the script.

And there's another missing piece. If the practical heart of American liberalism is a belief that government can and must do things for us that we cannot accomplish for ourselves individually, Democrats need to explain why that's necessary and how it will work in the world -- in terms that span both altruism and self-interest.

Even in a "market-based" system, there is a need for government to regulate the economy, invest in our shared environment and maintain social stability for people across the ages of life. This includes the creation of what is sometimes referred to as "a structure of opportunity" -- through education, employment, health care, housing, transportation and more. It's not a "handout"; it's the common social world that makes possible both individual and collective success.

Unfortunately liberals and Democrats -- and they are pretty much the same thing since Southern whites left the party -- have nothing like the "lower taxes, smaller government, personal freedom, let markets do it" spiel of the Republicans. And it's not only because they lack the language. They also lack the logic, which perhaps goes back to 1950s red-baiting and the unresolved estrangement between liberalism and the true left.

We can see this in how Alterman turns to such writers as the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci (on culture and power), and the American Marxist scholar, Ira Katznelson (on race and class), to explain the liberal predicament. While liberalism seeks to occupy the political center in America, it needs the deeper analysis of economy, politics and culture that the Marxian tradition can offer.

You don't have to be a socialist to see that Marx's concept of the crisis of over-accumulation, for example, is essential to explaining our most recent economic troubles.

Alterman ends by pegging liberalism back to its roots in The Enlightenment and skipping all the practical stuff about how to guide our country in the age of climate change, economic inequality and international turmoil.

As much as the contemporary Know-Nothing tendencies of the Republican Party are disturbing, it's hard for liberals to claim knowledge and reason as their exclusive territory. Alterman does some of the work of creating "language and systems of action" in his other books, but it's not here.

Bradshaw Hovey is a former reporter for the late Buffalo Courier Express who has done his share of working in liberal politics. He's currently a planner at the University at Buffalo.

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The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama

By Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson

Viking

562 pages,$32.95