Not Quite All We Need
Eric Rauchway’s review of Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson’s The Cause and Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers [“We Might Overcome,” Issue #25] suggests a number of productive ways of thinking about the current state of the left. His portrait of liberal leaders’ typical pathologies—their tendency toward machismo, their clumsiness among the people, etc.—is particularly helpful. He’s also right to insist that liberals need to develop rhetoric that can speak to Americans’ deeply felt moral convictions. Liberals haven’t given serious thought to the content of their rhetoric in years (if not decades).
Nonetheless, I’d caution that reliance upon “love”—the quality whose disappearance among liberals Rauchway laments—isn’t likely to be the corrective for liberals’ foibles. There are good strategic reasons for this. While every political movement needs to speak to heads and hearts alike, it’s dangerous to stimulate the latter by leaning on amorphous ideals. Like “hope” or “change,” “love” is substantively empty. It may stimulate grassroots energy for a time, but it provides it no clear objectives.
Indeed, this open-endedness lay at the root of many of the New Left’s struggles to convert their energy into concrete achievements. Put tritely: They lived, they loved, and they lost (their political momentum). Things haven’t changed much since. President Obama has spent the last few years learning that coalitions built around ambiguous expectations are notoriously hard to keep satisfied—let alone mobilized.
Fortunately, love isn’t the only path to liberals’ passions—nor is it the only way to get them to use more compelling moral rhetoric. Liberals have frequently inspired activists and connected them to elites by other means. As Kazin has argued in earlier works, many twentieth-century liberal organizers leaned heavily upon American yearnings for equality and community. They sought to indict their country when it was wrong in order to pull it toward those better angels of its nature.
Take an easy example: Whatever its failings, the Occupy Movement stands as the only recent liberal mobilization of national significance. Occupiers sang songs to fairness, fraternity, equality, and—yes—liberty in order to “transcend the divisions among Americans,” but they largely left love on the sidelines. Put another way, they leaned upon deeply ingrained American ethical commitments—a fair chance at individual self-determination, equality before the law, decent community life for all citizens, and transparent institutions.
In cynical times like ours, liberals might consider pulling on other heartstrings. Love is as risky and challenging as it is tempting. Much as we might hope for a spontaneous outbreak of compassion, an organized movement for justice, fairness, or equality is likely the best we can currently expect (if, that is, the left is both hard-working and fortunate).