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The Left vs. the Liberals’

In response to:

The Left vs. the Liberals from the August 16, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

It may seem curious that my old friend Sean Wilentz devoted eight paragraphs of his review of my recent book [“The Left vs. the Liberals,” NYR, August 16], almost one fourth of the total, to a choleric defense of Bill Clinton’s administration and then of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. After all, American Dreamers is a history of the failures and successes of the radical left in America, over a span of almost two centuries. Neither the forty-second president nor his vice-president played a significant role in that narrative. During the 1990s, as I noted, the left was weak and divided, and so could not serve as a counterweight to the insurgent right of Newt Gingrich and his ilk.

But Wilentz contends that the left in that decade was actually a rather mighty force and a thoroughly malevolent one: in his view, it “abandoned” Clinton in the face of Gingrich’s attacks and the Lewinsky scandal, “had little to offer” as an alternative to the president’s doomed health care plan, and then promoted the fateful candidacy of Ralph Nader, which he implies, erroneously, that I supported. According to Wilentz, such leftists did terrible “damage” to “liberal ideals”—and my book, in effect, ignores that baleful story.

Now, this is a portrait that few, if any, historians or political scientists today or, for that matter, radical activists and good journalists at the time would recognize. Clinton came into office with big reformist goals in mind. But his failure to achieve other than modest ones—such as passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act—had far more to do with the defensive stance toward “big government” he felt compelled to adopt after his failure to enact health care reform and the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 than with any opposition by the likes of Christopher Hitchens or Barbara Ehrenreich.

For Wilentz, neglect of Clinton’s record is a prime example of the alleged flaw at the heart of my book: the idea that, in his words, “liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change.” If by “fundamental” he means “radical” or “revolutionary,” that is a self-evident truth. Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to cleanse American capitalism of its rapacious excesses; Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, and William Z. Foster wanted to destroy it.

Yet Wilentz criticizes me for assuming that such liberal titans as Lincoln, Robert Wagner, and FDR acted in beneficent ways only when pushed to do so from the left. I neither wrote that nor believe it—as my earlier books about Bryan and the politics of populism (both of which Wilentz praised) made clear. Perhaps I am just guilty of not writing the grand history of liberal and progressive politicians that Wilentz seems to desire.

But I suspect, sadly, that there is also a vengeful motive behind his critique of American Dreamers. During the 2008 Democratic campaign, Wilentz was a dedicated partisan of Hillary Clinton’s, as I was of Barack Obama’s. Enraged that so many liberal and left intellectuals admired and supported Obama, he wrote several pieces for Newsweek, The New Republic, and other publications that depicted first candidate and then President Obama in a variety of negative guises: as a hypocrite who “played the race card,” a Stevensonian egghead, an anti-working-class elitist, and the mastermind of a cult.

At the end of his review, he scoffs at the naiveté of leftists who believed that Obama, a “centrist” with little experience in politics, could change the nation in meaningful ways. The implied contrast with Bill Clinton neglects to mention Obama’s success at enacting health care reform—but no matter. My point is that Wilentz, whose works of nineteenth-century US history are some of the finest produced by any scholar of his generation, has never gotten over Hillary Clinton’s defeat in an intraparty race that he assured me, in the fall of 2007, she was certain to win. And that pique turns what might have been a thoughtful critique into an inaccurate polemic.

Michael Kazin
Washington, D.C.

Sean Wilentz replies:

Michael Kazin’s response trivializes a fundamental historical debate. Instead of contesting my review of American Dreamers, Kazin impugns my motives and invents a political psychodrama.

My review primarily challenges the book’s assumptions about the connections between American radicalism and liberalism. It focuses on Kazin’s inaccurate accounts of the left’s rare successes over the centuries. I remarked at length upon what I called Kazin’s “skimpy caricature” of the Civil War and his exaggerations of the abolitionists’ role in achieving emancipation. I questioned his handling of New Deal liberals and radical labor. I objected to his omission of important anticommunist radicals such as Walter Reuther. Yet on all of these matters, which are at the core of his book, Kazin’s letter is just silent.

The review praises his book’s perceptive contentions about radical culture but also faults them for failing to distinguish between art and left-wing kitsch, and for muffling the idiosyncratic genius of artists like Woody Guthrie. Kazin’s letter is silent about these basic points as well.

Now I am baffled why Kazin in his letter misrepresents some of his own book’s central assertions. He denies writing that principled liberals—including “liberal titans” such as Lincoln and FDR—required pushing by radicals. Yet he describes Lincoln, inaccurately, as an opportunist, pushed by the abolitionists, who freed the slaves only after he realized it could help save the Union. New Deal labor reform, Kazin insists, came only when “Franklin Roosevelt needed labor votes.”

Mostly, Kazin devotes himself to a garbled version of my discussion of leftist anti-liberalism during the Clinton administration and on behalf of the Nader campaign of 2000. I hardly claimed that the left was “a rather mighty force” during these years, largely responsible for Clinton’s failures.

Nevertheless, as a matter of record, an obdurate antiliberalism, nurtured in the 1990s, led some prominent leftists to contribute significantly to the election of George W. Bush—one of the most consequential outcomes in modern political history. American Dreamers, however, devotes exactly one half of a sentence to Nader’s 2000 campaign.

Kazin alludes to my remarks about Christopher Hitchens and Barbara Ehrenreich, but not to how their falsehoods abetted Bush’s victory. In any case, I quoted Kazin from 2000 to illustrate a common mind-set on the left at the time—lamenting Nader’s failure to captivate voters as Ross Perot had in 1992, while rehashing the Naderite trope that Bush and Al Gore were hardly distinguishable—Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

As for 2008, my review discusses how some of Barack Obama’s supporters projected him as a hologram of a social movement leader, a man above mere politics. Almost inevitably, disillusionment followed. That disillusionment is now a worrisome political factor for liberals. It could suppress voter turnout on the Democratic side (as it did during the 2010 midterm contests) and harm the president in the impending election—and, even more importantly, harm the larger liberal agenda.

Kazin, for his part, writes in American Dreamers that, as president, Obama has undertaken only the latest disappointing “new era of mild reform.” He is supporting the president’s reelection, but his book mentions neither the historic health care legislation of 2010 nor Obama’s other early accomplishments.

The links between radicalism and liberal reform, and how change happens in America, deserve serious debate by historians. I’d have hoped that Michael Kazin would offer a strong response on what genuinely matters instead of carping about my imagined “pique” over the 2008 Democratic primaries. The stakes of the real debate are high, as it helps ground vital conceptions of American politics in the present as well as the past.

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