Alterman, Eric. Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America (New York: Viking, 2008)
After reading a series of books (ranging from Paul Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal and Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America through David Barash's The L Word and Douglas Massey's Return of the L Word up to John McGowan's American Liberalism, Jumonville & Mattson's Liberalism for a New Century, and Paul Starr's Freedom's Power) on liberalism last December, I was looking forward to Alterman's Why We're Liberals for a fresh take on the subject. Unfortunately, despite the title, Alterman's book is less a straightforward explication of liberalism that a defense of it against conservative attacks. A more accurate title for the book might be Why We're Not the Traitorous, Unpatriotic, Immoral, Elitist Scum That the GOP Says We Are.
Alterman leans perhaps too heavily on his own book What Liberal Media? during parts of this book, although doing so may have been unavoidable when criticizing the media's shortcomings. He makes a valuable observation, however, that conservatives' perception of the media is rooted in the past:
It's a cliché that the media is biased in favor of liberals, but a profoundly outdated one. The accusation, while true thirty years ago, perhaps, has been overtaken by the growth of a massive conservative media establishment that, to a considerable degree, has not only displaced the old media but simultaneously transformed it (a process I described in What Liberal Media?). (p. 98)
Later, Alterman does the same with their small government/low taxes plank, noting that "somehow liberals still retain a reputation for fiscal responsibility based on actions taken more than forty years ago" (p. 123) and observing that liberals' mistakes in the 1960s "pale in comparison to the fiscal and economic nightmare that so-called conservatives have intentionally inflicted on the nation." (p. 299). The spendthrift nature of modern conservatism--particularly from Reagan through Bush II--is rather hard to ignore, though some true believers still make the attempt. Speaking of true believers, Alterman makes two errors at the beginning of his chapter on Christian nationalism:
In his book The Myth of the [sic] Separation, religious conservative David Barton argues that America's founders simply did not support the separation of church and state. (p. 196)
In the first place, apart from its prohibition against religious tests for public office in Article 6, and the First Amendment's refusal to allow the countenancing of an established religion "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," the U.S. Constitution makes no reference whatsoever to God. (pp. 196-7)
First, David Barton's book The Myth of Separation (1992) was superseded by Original Intent (2000), and--while his odiousness is apparently undimmed--it is more sporting to at least use the latter as a reference. Second, this sentence immediately precedes the signatures at the end of the Constitution:
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names,
I've commented before on the pro forma nature of the phrase "in the Year of our Lord," but it is nonetheless present in the Constitution.
Alterman errs more severely in commenting about abortion that "I am hardly the first writer to note that if pro-choice advocates put as much energy into passing policies that sought to make abortions unnecessary--and did so explicitly under this rubric--they would find considerable common ground with religious Americans" (p. 219). While this common ground may in fact exist, redirecting the defense of abortion rights toward other endeavors would allow right-wing restrictions to be enacted without opposition, making abortion even more unavailable. A few pages later, Alterman notes that this is already the case:
While the rhetoric of Christian conservatives gives the impression that American is awash in abortions, the fact is, while in most places in the United States abortions are technically legal, they are nearly impossible to obtain. A mere 13 percent of counties in the nation now offer the service. This number can only decrease, as every one of the more than four hundred or so federal judges appointed by George W. Bush will seek to reduce it to zero. Even where abortions are available, getting one can be such an ordeal that it's difficult to imagine many women actually going through with the process. (p. 221)
Medicaid funding has for nearly thirty years restricted abortions for low-income women, and eleven states now restrict abortion coverage in insurance plans for public employees. Forty-three states require parental consent or notice before a minor obtains an abortion. Thirty-one states demand that women receive "counseling" before an abortion, and eighteen offer it only in a misleading and frequently inaccurate form designed to scare them into changing their minds. Six states insist that this "counseling" be provided in person, ensuring at least two visits to the clinic. In addition, over a dozen states have so-called TRAP laws, which force abortion doctors and clinics to adopt especially difficult regulations. (pp. 221-2)
His point that "Abortion rights won democratically will be far stronger and more stable than those secured only by what many consider to be judicial fiat, as they would be protected by the will of the majority and the politicians sent to defend them" (p. 223) is, again, an accurate one, but one wonders how such a war could be won if the pro-choice movement were to surrender all the battles along the way.
As good as Alterman's work is, the time spent debunking conservative misinformation is time no longer available for advancing our own ideology. If we liberals continue to be consumed with preventing conservatives from dragging us backward, we no longer have the energy to move our nation forward. These are the traps into which Alterman falls. In his conclusion, there is a beautiful passage that begins to actually explain Why We're Liberals, but it's too little, too late:
Liberalism is the natural political philosophy of our nation because it respects and encourages what is both good and great in all of us. It embraces freedom of thought rather than ideologically or theologically imposed certainty. It inspires the spirit of discovery in science and technology. It embraces the ideal of teamwork through its commitment to the common good, which allows us to make the best use of the wisdom of the many while at the same time respecting the sanctity of the rights and talents of the individual. (pp. 333-4)
at this FDL book salon, Matt Stoller writes:
"...it's really a first-rate and meticulous piece of work. If you want to know why a certain stereotype is held about liberals, there's no better book than this one."
Scott McLemee's review at NYT
Eric Alterman & George Zornick discuss the book at Center for American Progress
Brent Bozell III calls it the "Dumbest Book of the Year" at ClownHall
at the NJ Star-Ledger, Elaine Margolin calls the book:
"...a masterful new thesis about the distortion of the liberal agenda on every frontline of American society during the past decade. His book is a passionate call to arms to his brethren to reclaim their nobility of purpose."