A longtime cheerleader for progressive causes makes an enthusiastic though not entirely original case that liberalism is poised to rise again.
“Liberal” is only a “dirty word” so long as people are confused about what it means, avers Alterman (What Liberal Media?: The Truth about Bias and the News, 2003, etc.). In reality, he argues, most Americans are liberal. They believe that government should care for those who can’t care for themselves, that health care is a fundamental human right, that corporate profits are out of control. Starting with the Enlightenment, Alterman walks briskly through the history of American liberalism, pinpointing as the end of its hegemony the late 1960s, when liberal policies improved the living conditions of minorities but greatly increased the insecurity of the white working class. Since then, left-wing activists and thinkers have been systematically driven from American political and intellectual life, he contends, while conservatives have hijacked the mainstream media, claimed “tradition” and “patriotism” as conservative, not American, values and painted liberalism as a philosophy that rejects religion, is oblivious to national security, embraces elitism and supports restrictions on individual freedom. Alterman outlines a long list of obstacles liberals will have to overcome if they want to return to their former position of power: racial, ethnic and class conflicts among potential allies; the divide between secular and religious Americans; and a lack of disciplined networks to recruit converts. Nonetheless, after seven years under the Bush Administration, he thinks liberals can reclaim American hearts and minds, as long as they’re willing to embrace the term “liberal” and welcome people into the party who harbor conservative social positions or strong religious convictions—a majority of the U.S. population, the author notes.
Alterman’s conclusion—triangulate or perish—will be familiar to anyone who paid attention during the Clinton years, and it’s unlikely to provide much comfort to readers who’d rather have their liberalism without a stiff shot of cultural conservatism.