In this conversation with Bill Moyers, writer Eric Alterman describes the grand aspirations, ambitions, and historical ironies that prompted him to write his new book The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. He calls on liberals to regain “the fighting spirit” that characterized Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and to put it in service of new liberal policies for the 21st century. Liberals, he tells Moyers, have overpromised and underperformed, and it’s time once again to make government credible.
BILL MOYERS: This week, two important new books, two fine writers – one on the left, one on the right, each an independent thinker. Together, they make the case for old-school faith and politics.
First, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.” Eric Alterman superbly tells the story of how FDR’s New Deal liberalism lost its hold on the American imagination and is struggling now to regain it.
A historian turned journalist, Eric writes for The Nation and The Daily Beast, among others, and has published eight previous books. He is also Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
Welcome to the show, Eric.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: So have you written the eulogy for liberalism?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, I certainly didn't intend to write the eulogy. No, I haven't written the eulogy for liberalism. I fear that I may have written the eulogy for a certain kind of liberalism, for an economics-based liberalism, for a liberalism that sees the-- that uses a strong central government on behalf of the people who need to be protected by their government, who need to-- who need some force in the world to protect them from corporations and economic forces that are beyond their control. Certainly cultural liberalism is flourishing. Social liberalism is as healthy as it's ever been.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by "cultural-social liberalism?"
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, marriage equality, however you want to define it, is clearly the wave of the future. It's when I-- let alone, you, but when I was young, the idea that being gay is something that's okay, that you would talk about with your children and they would have teachers and friends that were openly gay was unimaginable.
Was one of the worst things you could joke about, in those days. And yet, today, we've had a revolution in that area. Much quicker, I think, than most of us expected. When gay marriage first came on the agenda. I don't think any of us expected that it would be legal so quickly. Civil rights took much, much longer than that. But again women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, other kinds of rights for people. Anything that doesn't cost money, really.
BILL MOYERS: This is why I asked you if you'd written the eulogy. Because taking the criticism from the other side, David Brooks, the conservative writer wrote recently that "this should be a golden age of liberalism." Wall Street debacle has undermined faith in capitalism. Worker wages are flat. Corporate profits are soaring. "The Republican Party is unpopular and sometimes," says Brooks, "embarrassing." And, "yet the percentage of Americans who call themselves liberals is either flat or in decline. There are now," says Brooks, "two conservatives in America for every liberal."
ERIC ALTERMAN It's a complicated phenomenon. In fact, if my friend David Brooks had looked a little more carefully at the data, or a little more deeply, not carefully, but deeply. He would have seen that most of the positions that people who reject the liberal label, nevertheless embraced liberal positions.
Just about everyone who calls themselves a moderate has liberal positions. But they won't cop to the word "liberal." That's in part because the word has been so abused. It's been-- there's been hundreds of millions of dollars spent by conservatives to make liberal an epithet. And it's been successful.
And the other reason is probably liberals' fault. It's not that people disagree so with liberals on the issues. They don't. What they don't like is what they feel to be liberal condescension. The liberals telling them how to live their lives.
BILL MOYERS: But wait a minute, it's the conservatives, Santorum and others, who are telling people how to live their lives.
ERIC ALTERMAN: But for a long time, when you and your friends were running the government there was a sense that anyone who stood in the way of progress for black people and other minorities was immoral or ignorant, at best. And they needed to be uplifted. And that was certainly-- I certainly would have felt that way. And-- but it didn't seem to have any end. So at some point, a bunch of people, maybe most people decided, "Well, enough is enough. We've made up for all of the inequities that this country has been responsible for a long time." We've made good on that check that Martin Luther King said needed to be cashed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. And then the rest of it was just liberals, again, telling them how to order their lives.
BILL MOYERS: What liberals were saying is, "You can't keep people in indentured servitude. You can't keep people in second class and third class schools." It wasn't--
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's what they began saying. But in the late '60s, what they began saying is, "We're going to take your job away and we're going to give it to other people."
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about affirmative action.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Affirmative action, housing, you know, discriminatory housing patterns. If you look at all of the inequity in education, in housing, in jobs, in a place like Chicago. Well, it all derives from housing patterns.
The way-- that were purposefully built that way, to separate white people who didn't want black people in their neighborhoods. And every time you tried to address that, you were met with community wide violence that was approved, by and large, by the community. Fire bombings and horrible things.
And so there were no good solutions to this. And I think one mistake liberals made, even though I certainly sympathize with the goal, is they didn't have a plan for what to do when things didn't work out. When we had to integrate the country with all deliberate speed, what was the plan if the people weren't going to go along with it.
BILL MOYERS: Liberals couldn't have done what you would like them to have done and reversed discrimination in this country.
ERIC ALTERMAN: But the fact is that we were asking for almost a revolution in everyday life for in a lot of parts of this country. And the liberals who tried to bring it on from above--
BILL MOYERS: But when the demand for change came, it didn't come from the top. It came from Martin Luther King. And young men and women on freedom rides and pastors in the South, standing up to Jim Crow. That's where the movement--
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's an enormously inspirational story. I call that the "we shall overcome period" of history. But societies are organisms. And when you change one thing in one place, things change all over the place. And I think that liberals were so in-- they were so committed to the rectitude of their cause that they didn't think hard enough about implementation. And they didn't realize-- I mean, the one things conservatives are right about is that when you change things-- particularly from the top down, they're never going to go as you plan. And you have to be adaptable. But that was Franklin Roosevelt's great strength was he was always ready with another plan when the first one didn't work.
BILL MOYERS: He was impro-- he was a great improviser.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah, great improviser. Government is--
BILL MOYERS: You write that "Franklin Roosevelt's great contribution was to inspire the notion that government might play a positive role in improving the lives of its citizens." But you also go on to say "He never defined the boundaries of benevolent government intervention in either the economy or our individual lives." And isn't that still where liberals are wrestling today, to define the boundaries of government, in its intervention?
ERIC ALTERMAN: I think they're wrestling with the consequences of having failed to define them. I think there were certain boundaries that people would have felt comfortable with and liberals went beyond them. And I do blame liberals, particularly in the '70s for failing to understand that they were no longer acting liberally anymore. They were merely redistributing the spoils of the system amongst various groups.
The political scientist, Ted Lowi, called this "interest-group liberalism." And liberals turned on one another, you know? Feminists turned on blacks turned on gays turned on white working-class people and so forth. And they ended up being their own worst enemies, because they couldn't agree on a common goal for government to lift up people in a majoritarian sense.
The great division in postwar American liberalism is between Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy's notion that-- I'm not so sure about Kennedy, but certainly Roosevelt and Truman, that this was a majoritarian movement to help everyone, lift all boats. And that by doing so, you would help the people who needed help the most.
And then beginning with the Great Society, it became much more about trying to help particular victims of past discrimination and past wrongs and so forth. And so people no longer saw themselves in this project. And that's when I think liberalism was seen to go too far. Now philosophically, you can say it was the right thing to do, because these are the people who needed help. But it's a political loser.
Again, society's very complicated. People are very complicated. And we have to be careful when we mess with these things. Because we're messing with people's lives. And they're not going to react like laboratory rats.
BILL MOYERS: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, United States Senator from New York, once said that Democrats are the party of government. And David Brooks says that is the problem, is that liberals still believe in government when most Americans don't. He quotes one poll that reports only 10 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing, most of the time. That makes it hard for liberals to call for more government.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I agree liberals are the party of government. You can't-- look, an individual in society, who is not well-born, who is not born with all kinds of advantages needs help to be able to self-actualize through the education system, through community organizations, to get through college.
It costs to go to a private college, it's $50,000 a year. And with people who work, you know, hard just to make a living, it's not easy. And they need a hand from somewhere, particularly since we now live in an age of global capitalism, where the corporations have no-- feel no sense of responsibility at all the local communities or even the country themselves. So if you want to give people genuinely equal opportunity, which is what is the point of liberalism, you need to give these people a hand somehow. And government is how we do that.
The problem is-- and it's the problem for liberals. There's an awful lot of unfairness in the world. And there's only so much we can do about it, you know, as a society. There's only so much opportunity we can offer people. There's only so much equality that's ever going to be available.
So the first thing we need to do, as liberals, to become credible to the other 80 percent of Americans who refuse to call themselves liberals is find a way to make the government protection of their lives, intervention on their behalf, in their lives credible. And it's no easy task.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you say that liberals have never gotten the right handle on the class issue. That Democrats, they can't handle politically the issue of class, right?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Why can't they do it?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I guess there's two reasons that come to the top of my head. One is that because identity politics, for so many groups, is so strong in this country. In part, because we're a nation of immigrants, and a nation of minorities that those identifications seem to trump class. So certainly race trumps class.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean when you say "race trumps class"?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Most people of color think of themselves as people of color first, not as working people first. And certainly their leaders do. Remember, it was an amazing thing when Jim Hightower from Texas endorsed Jesse Jackson. Because the idea that a white populist would endorse a black civil rights leader for president was seen as shocking.
When in fact, they were on the same side on just about all issues. But the division of race was seen as so much more powerful than the continuity in class. So the great question from Werner Sombart, the historian, why we have no socialism in the United States, it's because the people who would have been the socialists and were in Europe were fighting with each other, between the Italians and Irish and blacks and Jews and so forth. That's one reason.
The other reason is that the conservatives have mastered the politics of class in a way that liberals haven't. Liberals are afraid of the politics of class, in part, because they're funded by really rich people. They're funded. You know, our liberal politics are funded by people who would have to demand higher taxes on themselves.
And whereas conservatives have a consistent message. And so they're able to-- they're libertarianism, even if it's only for show, it resonates with people. It's a response to the liberals telling them how to live their lives. The conservatives are saying, "We're not telling you how to live their lives. You go do and whatever you want."
BILL MOYERS: Libertarians are, but not Christian conservatives.
ERIC ALTERMAN: No. And they're in a very uneasy balance with one another.
BILL MOYERS: You begin your book with a quotation from the late historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. himself a great liberal. Quote, "The existence of Franklin Roosevelt relieved American liberals for a dozen years of the responsibility of thinking for themselves." How so?
ERIC ALTERMAN: When Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York, he wasn't really much of a liberal. He didn't really become a strong liberal until his second term. He was elected on a balanced budget in 1932. But then he came out against economic royalism. And he called himself a "militant liberal." But his policies were not ideologically driven at all. They were incredibly pragmatic.
BILL MOYERS: Militant in his rhetoric against the plutocrats. But many of the New Deal programs deliberately excluded black participation, farmers in particular, others like that.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah, Eleanor Roosevelt used to be on his case about this a lot. But he would tell her this is the only way that they can possibly pass. This is the only way to hold this coalition together. And they're better off. And he was right. None of those politicians would have gone along for the ride if it had included blacks. That was where they got off the train. And in fact, as you know, the labor movement never really made any progress, much progress in the South. And that was because it was insufficiently exclusionary to blacks.
So this-- I mean, you can tell the story of the epitaph of liberalism in many ways. You can say, "In the 1970s, the pie stopped expanding."
As you know, as well as anyone, the great vision of the Great Society was built on an ever-expanding pie that could be redistributed to more people. But once that pie started shrinking in the 1970s, because of largely economic reasons-- then we started fighting over the spoils.
You can say that "Liberals have a tendency, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, to overpromise and underperform." But you can also say, as Lyndon Johnson said, by signing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and losing the South forever-- he didn't just lose the South, he turned the primary constituencies of the Democratic Party, in the North, against one another. And from that moment on it became much, much harder to put together a progressive coalition.
BILL MOYERS: He knew this. He knew when he embraced the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, '64 and '65, that he was taking it beyond Franklin Roosevelt. He was including embracing the cause of civil rights, knowing it was going to alienate Southern churches, Southern Baptists and the white elites.
ERIC ALTERMAN: And it might have worked over time, if there had really been an expanding pie. But because he got so deeply involved in Vietnam. And Vietnam became such a sinkhole and also divided the country, it became impossible to move forward on the kinds of the "we shall overcome" agenda. And so we'll never know. We'll never know. But the way it turned out was disastrous for the cause of liberalism. And actually, in many ways, for the cause of the people that he was trying to help.
BILL MOYERS: You also quote the liberal economist whom we both know, Robert Kuttner. Quote, "how did we make such stunning progress in three decades on issues involving tolerance and inclusiveness," as you have just talked about. "And how is that, during the same period, we have gone steadily backwards on a whole set of economic issues?"
ERIC ALTERMAN: Another reason that liberals do so badly in polling, in terms of, "Are you a liberal?" is that most people don't think that politicians are going to deliver on any of their promises. So even if you-- some guys promising to gut your Medicare and Social Security and another guy's promising to protect it, they're just promises. It doesn't matter. You might as well vote for the guy who looks and sounds like you, as much as possible.
Liberals have taken their eye of the ball, I think, since the '70s. It didn't happen by accident. They have allowed this purchase of a government to take place. They have spent their time fighting amongst themselves, arguing about peripheral issues, being on the defensive. It has a lot to do with the loss of self-confidence. Liberalism suffered an enormous blow from McCarthyism in the first place. And then from the New Left--
BILL MOYERS: McCarthyism condemning liberals as traitorous--
ERIC ALTERMAN: As somehow less than American. And then they suffered an enormous blow when their children, in the 1960s, told them that they were war criminals because of Vietnam and because of the way we treated the Indians and because of how blacks were treated and so forth. And these were their children. These were the people in the elite schools that they had worked so hard to send their children to.
And they never-- and then Ronald Reagan got elected president, who seemed like a joke. Before Reagan was-- got elected, nobody took the guy seriously. How can you elect this buffoon who thinks that air pollution comes from plants and trees? And so I think those three events, those three punches in a row, robbed liberals of their self-confidence.
And ever since then, they haven't really been able to make their case in a full-throated way. You know, whenever a conservative says, "A." A liberal says, "Well, maybe A, maybe B, possibly a little bit of C." And it's very hard for any politician. If you take the most conservative politicians in our society, you know, people like DeMint.
BILL MOYERS: Senator Jim DeMint, South Carolina.
ERIC ALTERMAN: And Rick Santorum. And you compare them to the most liberal in our society, people like Barney Frank or George McGovern. They're-- I admire Barney Frank and George McGovern, but they're very moderate people. They see the other side of their-- of the issues. They're not demagogic in any way.
BILL MOYERS: So do liberals not have the instinct to fight?
ERIC ALTERMAN: I think, number one, they've lost their self-confidence. And number two, they're, to some degree, hampered by their own recognition of complexity. If you listen to Limbaugh and Buchanan, everything is simple, you know? "Here's what we've got to do." But if you listen to a liberal-- Obama said this about himself and about Jimmy Carter and about Bill Clinton. He said, we're paralyzed by our wonkishness. And it makes it difficult to communicate a vision that we can march to as a collective.
BILL MOYERS: On a scale of one to 100, as a measure of where someone stands, where do you put Obama as a liberal?
ERIC ALTERMAN: With 100 being who?
BILL MOYERS: Roosevelt.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I put him at about 30.
BILL MOYERS: Really?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thirty-five. Yeah, in today's society, I would put him at about 55, 60.
BILL MOYERS: Why the difference?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Because as a society, we've moved incredibly further to the right, since Roosevelt's time. But there's something about our political system, dominated as it is by money and by corporations and by the elite media that beats down the liberalism in Democratic presidents.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, David Brooks, who is a thoughtful critic of liberalism says that liberals need to do what farmers do. They weed. And they get their ground clear. And then they replant. And he says, liberals, Democrats should weed out what's not working.
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's absolutely true. And what liberals have done instead, because of their loss of self-confidence is they've played defense everywhere. So one of the great victories of liberalism, and it's true, was when George Bush tried to destroy Social Security. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo," which barely existed at the time, got all his readers to call up their representatives and say, "Oh, did you want to destroy Social Security?" And it got the representatives to go on record.
But nobody then came forth with a plan to make it whole. Nobody has a good plan on the liberal side to ensure, that I've heard, to ensure that Medicare will survive. Nobody's willing to take on corporate welfare, the agricultural lobby, all the tons of money that goes to all these different organizations. That goes to the Catholic Church, for God's sakes. Billions and billions--
BILL MOYERS: No pun intended.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Right. I mean, they're all these organized groups that, are we allowed to say, sucking at the tit of government. That are considered to be sacred. And liberals need to fight this battle, because the resources are finite. And you can't, obviously, you can't win these battles when the very victories that you won like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid in the Great Society have now become albatrosses around your neck. So they need to do what you and David Brooks suggest is weed out the programs and decide which ones are the ones worth fighting for and expanding. And then fight for them.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you write this book?
ERIC ALTERMAN: I was looking for people who I could admire in history. I was looking to locate myself on the shoulders of others. But more than that, you know, I think liberalism just makes sense. Liberalism is acting rationally and principally in the name of fairness, in the name of the greatest amount of equality possible.
Saying that being born rich shouldn't give you an impossible advantage over everybody else forever. That's just common sense to me. It's what this country was founded on. There were different priorities back then. But it's the same challenge that faced the founding fathers. That faces every generation. And yet, it's held in such ill-repute. It's considered so outrageous.
Whenever-- I've had the word liberal in a few of my books. And whenever I go on the radio or on one of these cable shows, it's like I'm defending, you know, child murder. So I'm really needed to-- I'm a historian, so I needed to understand that process, historically.
BILL MOYERS: In a word, as we say in television, what is the cause today?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Today the cause is greater equality, two words. Well, yeah. No way to say that in one word. Today, we're living in a moral emergency. The combination of the Supreme Court opening up the system to unlimited amounts of money and so much money being accumulated by such a small part of our society has really threatened the future of this country, as a democracy in any meaningful way. Plutocracy is not a hyperbole. It's actually a more accurate description of how our politics actually works.
BILL MOYERS: And plutocracy means?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Plutocracy means the rule of the wealthy, the rule of the very top of society by the plutocrats. Everything flows from that. Schools flow from that. Parks flow from that. Health care flows from that. Housing flows from that.
All the causes that liberals care about, having to do with equality, are only given meaning by the resources that are being, right now, sent entirely upward. And unless we can find a way to equalize those resources, to some degree, then things like integration are kind of meaningless.
BILL MOYERS: So when the proverbial alien from Mars arrives and says, Alterman, how will I know a liberal when I meet one? How do you answer?
ERIC ALTERMAN: You know how you know someone is a liberal? It's because they believe in the enlightenment. It's because they believe in reason. It's because they follow their thoughts to their logical conclusion. And they say, "This is the right thing to do." Now exactly what policies that leads you to is always changing and always open to argument. But they don't say, "This is what God told me to do." They don't say, "This is what the dialectic of history told me to do." They say, "This is the right thing to do for the greatest number of people."
So if there's one challenge that faces liberalism-- liberals today, it is to find a way to revive people's faith in the ability of government to improve their lives. And that, to me, is the-- would be the next chapter of this book.
BILL MOYERS: The book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Eric Alterman, thanks for being with me.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thank you.
- Full Show: The Case for Old-School Faith & Politics
- Bill Moyers Essay: Keep Political Ads Off Public TV
- Ross Douthat on Modern Christian ‘Heretics’
- Eric Alterman on Liberalism’s Past, Present and Future