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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Fuzzy Economics (October 12, 2000)
George W. Bush is right -- the era of big government being over is over. Even if he's the one elected. Christopher Caldwell explains.

The New New South (September 13, 2000)
In recent decades the South has been a Republican stronghold. Times are changing, Christopher Caldwell writes.

The Tyranny of Belief (September 13, 2000)
Some politicians, including Joe Lieberman, would blur the line between religion and politics. They're gravely misguided, Jack Beatty argues.

Leftward Bound (August 23, 2000)
Can you teach a New Democrat old tricks? Christopher Caldwell on Gore's gamble with Lieberman.

The Legacy Haunting Gore (August 9, 2000)
Trade, not scandal, Jack Beatty argues, is the legacy of the Clinton years that could cost Gore the election.

The Issues That Aren't (July 26, 2000)
Where does George W. Bush stand on Microsoft? Where does Al Gore stand on Kosovo? On Big Tobacco? You don't know? You're not alone, writes Christopher Caldwell.

The Democratic Difference (July 13, 2000)
Ralph Nader says the Republican and Democratic parties are indistinguishable. Jack Beatty looks at the record on labor, "the issue our era will be measured by," and sees quite another reality.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

My Father's Politics

The plight of the would-be liberal today

by Scott Stossel

November 1, 2000

Recent years have found me in a pitched battle with my uncle for the political soul of my father. My uncle, a broadcast television correspondent for ABC News, is an ardent libertarian, a former Ralph Nader-style, anti-corporate consumer reporter who underwent a conversion sometime in the 1980s and became a hard-core, Milton Friedman-spouting libertarian. Where once he thought corporate practices were the root of all evil, he now believes that government regulation is. My uncle is so far gone that he considers Charles Murray (the controversial co-author of The Bell Curve and longtime scourge of the welfare state) a good friend of the poor, and he has wondered aloud -- on television -- whether Michael Milken at his junk-bond-dispensing pinnacle might not have been a greater force for good than Mother Teresa.

My father's politics tend to be focused on his professional concerns; a research doctor, he would like Congress to increase the research budget for the National Institutes of Health, which doles out grants subsidizing medical research in this country. Since this in effect puts my father on the side of increasing a government-spending program, he's found himself pulled gently toward the Democratic Party, which also suits his antipathy to the more rabid social conservatives.

But about ten years ago, around the time my uncle was seeing his flash of light on the road to laissez-faire Damascus, my father joined the board of a biotech company as a scientific adviser and found himself in possession of some stock options. He didn't think much about them; they weren't worth very much. But then all of a sudden they were. And like so many in the New Economy he discovered that, almost overnight, his net worth was doubling, tripling. And that meant that the capital-gains tax, something to which he'd never paid any attention, was gobbling up a sizeable chunk of his newfound wealth. The Republican Party, hell-bent on eliminating the tax, suddenly looked more attractive.

Seeing his opportunity, my uncle began inundating his brother with libertarian propaganda: books, videos, newspaper articles, dinner-table tirades against Big Government, the "Nanny State," and regulation. As an editor at a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I came to see it as my filial duty to provide some countervailing ideological ballast, to keep my dad from tipping all the way over to the other side. The free market is great, I explain to him, but the laissez-faire ideal of the doctrinaire libertarians is a utopian canard. And doesn't a democratic nation -- I ask him -- have a civic obligation to provide health care, a decent education, and opportunity to all of its citizens, not just its luckiest ones? Although I sometimes come away from our discussions feeling that I've won a battle, it's clear I'm losing the war. Each time I visit my father, there are more books by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman stacked up behind the toilet, and the copy of David Boaz's Libertarianism by his bedside (a gift from my uncle) looks more thumbed-through. He's thinking of voting for Bush.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I'm losing to my uncle. The perspective he's arguing from, libertarianism, has an elegant simplicity. Everything boils down to the free market. Anything that can be privatized or deregulated should be. Government should be minimally small. Whereas the point of view I'm arguing from, liberalism, says ... what, exactly? That government should be maximally big? (No, that's not it.) That anything that can be regulated or nationalized should be? (No, that's not it at all.) Well, what then? Actually, it's complicated. It means siding with the underdog and, yes, faith in government programs, but also a Keynesian belief in the value of public spending as a spur to economic growth and a veneration of the Enlightenment values of reason and the rights of the individual and ... oh, never mind. You see the problem. For simplicity and purity of doctrine, libertarianism cannot be matched. This makes it hard to argue against. And while libertarianism, as the dominant political culture of the Internet, has acquired a certain cachet, liberalism struggles to rehabilitate an image badly damaged by the excesses of the late 1960s and the absurdities of the 1970s. I'm arguing against the direction of history.

I have long had an intuitive sense of this, but until I read Blood of the Liberals, the new book by the novelist and journalist George Packer, I hadn't thought clearly about the plight of the would-be liberal today, sifting through the remnants of a much-abused political philosophy for a credible point-of-view from which to approach the problems of poverty, apathy, and injustice. By 1989, Packer writes, "liberalism had become both rigidly, almost theologically abstract and hopelessly compromised.... [A]round the country it was a philosophy of intolerance and fragmentation. What it utterly lacked was popular energy." Harsh words, all the more cutting because they come not from an attack-dog conservative but from a die-hard liberal. Indeed, much of Packer's book, a memoir-cum-political-essay in which he affectingly searches for the legacies of his grandfather (a longtime Democratic congressman from Alabama) and his father (a Kennedy-era academic and civil-rights activist at Stanford) is devoted to his personal struggle to find a functional liberalism that's relevant today.

Through the prism of his family, Packer presents the history of modern liberalism. The twentieth-century American meaning of the world "liberal" was imported from England (as a substitute for "progressive," which the editors of The New Republic thought had become tainted by the jingoism of their erstwhile hero Teddy Roosevelt), borrowed from the Liberal Party's program of government solutions to social problems. Throughout the nineteenth century the word "liberalism" in this country had implied a belief in self-government and individual liberty versus the concentrated power of the state or industry. It was during Woodrow Wilson's Administration that it acquired its present sense of an activist role for government (for example, in helping the less fortunate, in regulating the economy, in breaking up trusts) in industrial society.

The liberal impulse, in the twentieth-century meaning of the word, has inarguably helped make life in this country better and more just. Increased access to education; drastically reduced poverty levels for old people; the eight-hour work day; the right to organize; the Keynesian-induced growth of the American economy; basic civil rights for women and minorities; a more tolerant society -- these are just some of the positive legacies that liberalism in its various incarnations has produced over the past hundred years.

So how is it that George Bush's tarring of Michael Dukakis with "the L word," as Bush called it, during the 1988 presidential campaign did as much as anything to send the Massachusetts governor crashing to defeat?


One long-time Democrat, a close adviser to Adlai Stevenson who held a position in JFK's Administration, told me he knew that George McGovern and the Democratic Party were doomed when he ran into a young Democrat from the New York delegation at the 1972 convention in Miami. "We're a delegate short and we need to find one quick," the New Yorker panted. Over the New Yorker's shoulder in the hotel lobby sat the distinguished New York Democrat Averell Harriman -- who, among the other positions he'd held, had been ambassador to Russia, governor of New York, and undersecretary of state -- and the Stevenson man pointed this out to the delegate. "He sounds great," said the delegate of Harriman, "but we need a Hispanic."

From liberalism's high point in the early to mid 1960s -- JFK's New Frontier and the heady, first years of the LBJ's Great Society -- things rapidly disintegrated in the late 1960s as both Vietnam and domestic upheaval metastasized, and the genuine accomplishments of the civil-rights movement devolved into wanton special-interest pandering. Democrats defected to Nixon by the thousands and, a decade later, to Reagan. Liberalism entered what appeared to be terminal decline. Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis all went down to defeat, with only Carter making even so much as a brief, anemic showing.

Packer vividly describes how his generation (which is roughly mine) grew up among the political detritus of the 1960s and 1970s. Liberalism had imploded in an orgy of revolution and self-indulgence. But conservatism -- at least until the triumphal capitalist celebration of Reagan's 1980s -- offered no kind of constructive alternative. And the ultimately pointless war in Vietnam -- combined with the Watergate scandal and the oil crisis and inflation and the hostage crisis and the Carterian "malaise" -- provided an unfortunate crucible for a generation's political consciousness to be forged in. Add to that the long stagnation in middle-class wages that began in 1973 and lasted for twenty-five years, and it's no wonder a whole generation has been turned off by politics in general and liberalism in particular. After all, wasn't it in part an efflorescence of liberalism, those damn Baby Boomers and their (momentarily) radical politics, that begot this whole mess?

By the 1980s, liberalism had become the political philosophy that dared not speak its name. And so the Democrats who used to identify themselves as liberals fled the label (often back to "progressivism"), or went into hiding. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was formed in 1985 to try to lead the party toward the political center. Al Gore and Bill Clinton were early members. The New Democrats, as the DLC politicians styled themselves, were tough on crime, business-friendly, and ardent free traders -- "like Republicans," the Old Democrats pointed out.

Beginning with Daniel Bell in the 1950s, people have routinely claimed that the End of Ideology or the End of History are at hand and have never yet quite been right. But the ideologically desiccated nature of this year's election suggests that perhaps, indeed, the old ideologies have played out the string. While it's silly to say, as Ralph Nader does, that there is no significant difference between the candidates, his sentiment is at least understandable. Even as each candidate half-heartedly mouths the shopworn slogans of his respective party's ideological legacy (Bush railing against big government; Gore striking populist poses against big corporations), they're both also trying on each other's clothing (Gore claiming his party as the avatar of fiscal discipline; Bush claiming his as the party of "compassion").

For this we owe much to Bill Clinton. President Clinton has been blamed for moving the Democratic Party several clicks to the right. But it can also be argued that in moving the Democrats toward the center, he's forced the GOP several clicks to the left to remain viable. The key question, then, is this one: Has Clinton, in making his party into a paragon of fiscal discipline and economic growth, and in holding office for two full terms (even after imposing a Trumanesque executive order on the military in his first two years in office and trying to legislate universal health insurance) restored liberalism's luster? If the answer is yes, then the next question is: Has the cost of restoring liberalism's credibility been the draining of any real meaning from the term?
Whither liberalism? Based on my reading of Packer -- and on my arguments with my uncle over my father's political leanings -- there are three key observations to be made about the fate of the liberals, with lessons to be drawn from each.

First, while there is a distinction to be made between liberalism in the nineteenth-century sense of the word (meaning individual freedom) and liberal in the twentieth-century sense of the term (implying commitment to New Deal-inspired government programs), there is much to be gained from a broader understanding of the term that includes both meanings. The late Judith Shklar, one of America's pre-eminent political theorists, said that the overriding aim of liberalism as a political philosophy is "to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom." Liberals would do well to remember this, placing their calls for activist government squarely within the framework of political rights and civil liberties. This would inoculate them against charges of excessive statism and place them more clearly in a direct line stretching back to Jefferson, Madison, and even John Locke; this in turn would make it easier to argue with conservatives when they, too, invoke the Founders.

Second, most peoples' opinions of a political ideology have as much or more to do with that ideology's perceived style and cultural tone as with any particular policy viewpoint it represents. Packer writes that "songs, clothes, tone of voice, even physical looks will attract or repel potential recruits regardless of the legitimacy of the cause." Jack Beatty, in an essay in this space in June, 1999, remembers as a twelve-year-old boy seeing the towering John Kenneth Galbraith on television at the 1956 Democratic Convention and hearing him described as a liberal. "Whatever a liberal was," Beatty writes, "if he was anything like as smart, superior, stylish, and funny as Galbraith, then I wanted to be one. If the reader can believe it, liberals were cool."

That might as well have been a century ago. Galbraith was followed by such icons as Jane Fonda, the epitome of the hypocritical "limousine liberal." At some point liberalism ceased to be -- in the public imagination, anyway -- a political philosophy and became instead a "lifestyle," associated with aging hippies, New Agers, and academics in elite enclaves around the country. Even if it was only partly accurate, the image of pampered academics sitting around on their Ikea furniture discussing poverty policy while sipping expensive chardonnay served to marginalize liberalism even among its mainstream Democratic constituency. By the 1980s, when Reaganism was in vogue and liberalism was pushed even further to the margins, a competing liberal archetype was the scruffy-cheeked loser skulking around on society's margins (which is more or less how George Packer describes what he was doing at the time). If liberalism is to enjoy a resurgence, it must cast off its image as an "ideology of losers," as Packer describes it, and find more inspiring banner-carriers to lead it. Liberalism needs a new JFK.

Finally, I said earlier that the Clinton era has produced a narrowing of the distance between the parties, but it's more than that: growing fault-lines within the parties could render the old liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat distinctions meaningless. How do hard-core social conservatives coexist in the same party with laissez-faire libertarians, for whom morality-policing is anathema? How do the Republican supply-side libertarians coexist with the deficit hawks? And speaking of deficit hawks, now that Al Gore is the über-hawk, doesn't he have more in common with the old fiscal conservatives among the Republicans than with the Keynesian spenders in his own party? And that doesn't even get into foreign or trade policy, where there are a whole host of weird fissures and interparty overlaps. Thus while liberalism and conservatism remain useful shorthand for referring to rough constellations of political and policy positions, it's not clear that they retain the power to describe coherent political philosophies.

So those people of Packer's generation and younger who care at all about politics (I think there are about seven of us), have been left to grow up in what has felt like the aftermath of ideology, and to wonder what exactly we are politically -- and whether it matters.

By background and temperament I ought to be a conservative. I grew up in an affluent white suburb. My mother gave me her "I like Ike" pins when I was little. My grandmother is still moved to sputtering rages anytime FDR is mentioned. I have the conservative's natural skepticism about both human nature (I think it's bad) and grandiose schemes aiming to correct or improve it (I think they're worse). And on capital-gains and estate-tax grounds alone (my dad's biotech stock options, remember), if ever I hope to rise above the hand-to-mouth penury of the journalist, I'd be wise to go GOP.

So why don't I? Well, perhaps someday I will. Winston Churchill believed that any man who is not a liberal while young has no heart, and any man who is not a conservative when old has no brains, in which case it's too early to tell whether I'm brainless or whether (as my grandmother hopes) I'll make the transition. But for the moment I muddle along with a collection of affinities and political positions (for: universal health insurance, campaign-finance reform, a woman's right to choose, increased federal funding for education, and careful protection of civil liberties; against: the death penalty) that mark me, more or less, as a liberal. And if some positions (I'm guardedly opposed to affirmative action) or cultural markers (I'm not anti-business or anti-religion, and I've never put bumper stickers with goofy progressive slogans on my car) make me an apostate in some of liberalism's lefterly precincts, well, I think the average conservative would still be pretty quick to slap me with the liberal label.

Which is precisely what my uncle does. "You liberals," he always says when we start to argue. At least his position is consistent -- which may be why, these days, libertarianism and the more laissez-faire strands of conservatism seem to be winning. Thus as he continues to apply a single principle across the board, while I'm left to parry with a set of loosely clustered propositions, I watch my father drift inexorably over to the other side. Fortunately, I can console myself with what is perhaps the supreme liberal rule, the key to liberalism's strength and its weakness, gleaned by George Packer's parents from that great mid-century Democrat Adlai Stevenson: an honorable defeat is better than an ignoble victory.

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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Scott Stossel is the executive editor of The American Prospect. He has written for numerous publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound. He is at work on a book about Sargent Shriver.

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