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The Past and Future of Liberalism

Senior Fellow Eric Alterman Discusses New Book

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For more on this event, please see its event page.

On April 26 the Center for American Progress hosted an event highlighting the progression of postwar liberalism, at which CAP Senior Fellow Eric Alterman discussed his new book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Moderated by CAP Senior Fellow John Halpin, the discussion also included Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University.

Alterman provided three causes of liberalism: the Enlightenment, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement. The Enlightenment, he said, allowed “[us] as human beings to reason our way to our future,” while the New Deal gave the government concrete ways to help people make their vision of “equal opportunity [and] the American Dream” more than just a vision. The civil rights movement involved the government in “cultural liberalism” by asking it to “fix [the] historical inequalities” suffered by racial minorities, women, people with disabilities, gay and transgender people, and others.

Alterman said that cultural liberalism is where liberalism “lost its political mojo,” and that “although it’s actually today much more successful than economic liberalism is in terms of how willing politicians are to adopt it, it’s also much more divisive, and creates a lot more problems for politicians. … plus, it’s hard to enact if it’s not enacted on a body of economic liberalism.”

Kazin discussed the differences between liberals and those on the left of the political spectrum, saying that “what the left is historically, I think, is it brings up issues that liberals don’t really want to face, or don’t have the courage to face, or don’t think that they have the pressures to face.”

He gave examples of those on the left who fought for abolition rather than just a “compromise” and those involved in trade unions and the labor movement in the 1800s. While the left is vocal, Kazin said, it is a minority, and it needs support from the “liberal elite” (policymakers, the media, etc.) to make things happen.

Alterman and Kazin then discussed the decline of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Alterman said that liberalism “took on too much” in trying to right cultural wrongs and help a faltering economy at the same time: “[B]ecause liberals were being attacked both from within and without … they lost their ability to defend themselves. They lost their self-confidence.”

While Alterman believed that self-confidence is essential to reinvigorating liberalism, he talked about two other issues that it faces: “the lack of confidence in the ability of government to improve people’s lives,” and “the power of money in our politics today.” For instance, only 17 percent of Americans have absolute or partial trust in the government and believe that government does not have the power to keep big banks in check.

When asked what the basis of liberalism’s self-confidence could be since conservatives are rallied around the church and the free market, Alterman spoke again of the Enlightenment, saying that “we don’t have to apologize for ourselves” for things like climate change, which science has proven, and things that reason tells us to be true.

Overall, the speakers agreed that liberalism is the way forward for our nation, but that it needs to find a way to position itself and take a stance in the current political climate.

For more on this event, please see its event page.

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