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by George Packer

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-25142-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Liberals are born, not made.

The exact definition of “liberal” may be a matter of disagreement, acknowledges journalist-novelist Packer (Central Square, 1998). Even within his own family, different strains of liberalism (from Jewish academic humanism to Protestant southern populism) made the dinner table a battlefield of debate, although both sides of that debate had a tendency “to side with the underdog, to feel that society imposes mutual obligations from which no one excused”—and to give greedy capitalists a good fight for their money. Packer explores many schools of liberal thought in this gracefully written exploration of recent American political history, much of it seen through the careers of his father (an academic who tried to encourage civil discussion on campus in a time of radicalism and reaction) and his grandfather (an Alabama lawyer who served several terms in the US Congress, where he denounced American intervention in Central America, battled the Ku Klux Klan, opposed Prohibition, and campaigned for the Catholic Yankee presidential candidate Al Smith). Having thus demonstrated an honorable—and quite convincing—liberal pedigree, 40-year-old Packer threads his narrative with coming-of-age stories set on the Yale campus (where, to his horror, his geeky and generally shunned conservative classmates became policymakers in the Reagan administration) as well as thoughtful asides on the nature of the American political experiment, liberal from the outset but doomed to contradictions and setbacks because, as his southern-belle aunt insisted, we humans are fallible creatures. “In the early years of the republic,” he muses, “the triumph of democracy over hierarchy released the massive energy of a free people—not into the pursuit of the public good, but into the individual scramble for private happiness.” That scramble for greenbacks continues, of course, and Packer has choice words for those who favor Hobbes over Locke—and Nixon over McGovern.

A good argument soundly made, and useful reading in this strangely illiberal election year.