Eric Alterman, who writes on media for The Nation, has a book out on the history of liberalism in America and a fascinating essay in The New York Times on how progessives lost the economic war. It's hard to make a case this complicated in a few hundred words, so he sounds as if he's somewhat downplaying the importance of civil rights. And American history is, of course, complicated and the post-War era one of the most confusing times to understand and analyze. But Alterman seems to come down on the side of those who argue that the fight for what he calls the "rights agenda" undermined the battle for economic equality:
In other words, economic liberalism is on life-support, while cultural liberalism thrives. The obvious question is why. The simple answer is that cultural liberalism comes cheap. Supporting same-sex marriage or a woman’s right to choose does not cost the wealthy anything or restrict their ability to become wealthier.
He also disses incompetence, always an easy target, since the economic crises that post-War liberals addressed -- from inner-city and rural poverty to energy prices and inflation -- defied easy solutions and there were bound to be mistakes. But here's his basic hit:
“The great liberal failing of this time,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed as early as 1968, was “constantly to over-promise and to overstate, and thereby constantly to appear to under-perform.” This not only alienated key constituencies, but it also diminished the trust between the governing and the governed that previous generations of liberals had worked so hard to earn.
Caught in the crosswinds of so many simultaneous crises — I have not even mentioned Vietnam — many liberals chose to focus, rather perversely, on a “rights” agenda and the internecine fights it engendered within their increasingly fractured coalition. They lost sight of the essential element that had made the coalition possible in the first place: the sense that liberalism stood with the common man and woman in their struggle against economic forces too large and powerful to be faced by individuals on their own.
In other words, if we'd just been willing to throw the gays and the women under the bus (or do what so many "liberals" so often suggested, and move more slowly on things like abortion rights, comparable worth and same-sex marriage, which are so easy for the Right to use as wedge issues) we might have held on to the coalition that was able to wage the War on Povery under LBJ.
Okay, that's not fair -- Alterman is a lot more nuanced than that. And I agree with him entirely that it's easy (particularly in a place like San Francisco) to support same-sex marriage, and that cultural issues can give fiscal conservatives cover with a left-leaning electorate. It drives me nuts. And I completely agree that Obama needs to return liberalism to an economic populist agenda.
And a lot of this discussion has been done before, starting with Thomas Frank and What's the Matter with Kansas?
But would we really be better off in the long run if we'd abandoned the "rights" agenda in favor of economic equality? Or is it possible that the Right is losing steam on the Culture War and in the process discrediting its economic ideas? Do women who heard Rush Limbaugh call a law student a "slut" start questioning what he says about taxes?
I dunno. Interesting questions.