A liberal columnist and a professor examine the zigzag route of liberal politics since the New Deal.
Before the book was finished, Mattson (Contemporary History/Ohio Univ.; "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, 2009, etc.) left the partnership with the Nation contributor Alterman (Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, 2011, etc.), who wrote the final draft. A chronicle of liberalism’s successes and failures, the text travels the labyrinthine road from the New Deal to the rise (and fall) of unionism, the theorists of the 1940s and ’50s (Dean Acheson, George Kennan), the battle against McCarthyism and the failures of Adlai Stevenson, whom Alterman writes helped create the notion of the effete intellectual. The author then charts the rise of the Kennedys, the tragic assassinations of the ’60s, civil rights and Lyndon Johnson, Betty Friedan and the feminist movement, the campaign and electoral failures of Eugene McCarthy, McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. Alterman pauses often to visit relevant cultural history—the emergence of influential journals, Mailer’s writing, DeVoto’s criticism, Elia Kazan’s films, Cheever’s stories, the various liberal contributions of actor Sidney Poitier, novelist William Styron, filmmaker Oliver Stone and—in a long section—rocker Bruce Springsteen. Alterman points out continually how liberals have often been their own worst enemies—failing to stand up to the violence of the far left in the ’60s, fearing being branded “anti-American” in the face of war (Iraq), failing to confront the Tea Party and the ever-more-rightward GOP. Unfortunately, Alterman too often quotes others and only rarely flashes the scimitar wit he displays in the Nation.
Thorough and thoughtful, but with dense scholarly foliage that needs pruning.