Back in the days of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, when what we now know as the "culture war" was spawned, liberals weren't just being trashed by conservatives. They were also actively criticized by antiwar activists, civil-rights and Black Power supporters, and others who saw themselves as part of the New Left. The Gene McCarthy/Robert Kennedy trend within the Democratic Party coalesced around George McGovern's candidacy, advocating a "new politics", which meant a break from many of the assumptions of "Cold War liberals".
Much of that criticism was justified. Democratic Party liberals in the postwar era advocated anti-lynching laws, supported Truman's desegregation of the military and backed Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1957 (LBJ was Senate majority leader then). But it took the pressure of the civil rights popular movement, including those rude and unruly African-Americans young people who sat in at the lunch counters and so forth, to push them the Democratic and Republican liberals (the latter once existed) to embrace the decisive Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And even then, the liberal Democrats shared their Party with the Southern segregationists.
And the Vietnam War was very much a liberals' war almost as much as conservatives' in the early years. It was very obviously the Kennedy and Johnson administration who vastly expanded the American war effort in Vietnam from the covert ops of the Eisenhower years to massive military presence at the time Johnson left office.
So there's lots of critical analysis that can and should be done on those years and the failures of the American liberalism that actually existed in practice.
Even in these days, I feel the need of some extra identifier like "Jacksonian democrat" to remind myself that real existing liberals can fail to defend democratic and pro-labor causes with the partisan zeal they deserve. Two sad recent examples: the minority of Congressional Democrats (yes, it was only a minority) who voted for the October 2002 Iraq War resolution, which provided political cover but not legal authority for the invasion Bush launched in March 2003, and the reluctance by many liberals to raise a stink to high heaven about the Cheney-Bush torture policy.
But I don't think it's necessary for liberals to apologize or repent for things they never did. Or to concede conservative talking points about the failings of The Liberals which have only the narrowest of factual bases.
Eric Alterman does some of the best work around on the shortcomings of today's Establishment press. He's a well-informed, critical-minded liberal and a good writer, including his Altercation blog. But he also seems to be unable to shake off an aversion to anyone identifying him with those dirty [Cheney]ing hippies of "culture war" lore.
TPM Cafe has a discussion going this week on Alterman's current book Why We're Liberals. I've linked some of the individual contributions below. Joan McCarter responds to an argument of his that seems to echo a number of the factually-challenged assumptions of the "culture war" slams on liberals:
I'm a liberal, and an unapologetic one. I won't apologize for the liberal past of my forbearers [sic]. I won't apologize for the fight against poverty. I won't apologize for demanding a rational foreign policy that kept the U.S. a respectable member of the family of nations. I won't apologize for standing up for a woman's right to make her own decisions about her health care. I won't apologize for believing passionately in the right to privacy for all Americans.
I particularly won't apologize for the fight for civil rights. I certainly won't apologize for being appalled and repulsed by the fact that torture has been added to our nation's repertoire of "intelligence gathering tools." And I won't apologize for having full-throatedly opposed George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, a war based on lies.
This position makes sense. Someone who advocates those ideas doesn't need to apologize for the images that conservatives conjure up in their heads to demonize liberals. Otherwise, you quickly slide into the "FOX liberal" mold, e.g., "I'm a liberal on most things, but ...", "Liberals need to start reaching out to people of faith instead of ignoring them ...", etc.
The experience of the Iraq War in particular has lead me to a far more critical view of US policies in the Cold War period's than before the war, or at least a far more critical mood. And also more skeptical of military interventions, even in concert with allies or for "humanitarian" or genuinely democratic causes. Both liberals and conservatives need to get a far more realistic view of the limits of American military power, become far more skeptical about war and defend international law (including for the US) with far more dedication.
I definitely have a critical view of real existing Democratic liberals in those regards. But when it comes to agreeing with the criticism that liberals are "elitist" coming from partisans of the Republican Party, whose core operative principle is to free billionaires from the burden of having to pay taxes to support their country - that I'm not so inclined to do.
But McCarter seems to have some honest-to-Andrew Jacksonian impulses when she writes:
Again, liberals have made mistakes, but they pale in comparison to what the Republicans have wrought. Out of control deficits and a devastated economy. Another quagmire of a war and what's worse, a war we entered on the basis of lies. A destroyed international reputation. A failing infrastructure. Torture. It's less important that we treat our opponents with respect than that we shine a bright light on the depth and breadth of the mess they have created.
Sounds about right to me.
At TPM Cafe, Alterman quotes a passage from a speech of John Kennedy's during his 1960 Presidential campaign, suggesting plausibly that Democrats today could make good use of the same approach:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal"? If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then . . . we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the -people--their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties--someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."
While we're on the subject, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his 1960 election pamphlet for JFK, Kennedy or Nixon: Does it make any difference? offered the following perspective on how healthy democratic practices at home are essential to foreign policy strength, as well:
Above all, [Kennedy] realizes that national strength includes much more than armies and weapon systems. It depends essentially on long-run factors - on the education and health of our people, on the guarantee of their equal opportunity, on the growth of our economy, on the development of our resources. These all seem to him wise and necessary objects of national investment. Nor does he feel that such things can be postponed to some more propitious time. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to solve our problems. As Lippmann has said, "Once you've failed to educate a child, you've failed, and you can't make that up later." Kennedy's view, it is clear, is that affirmative Presidential leadership is desperately required - to bring about, through the traditional democratic means of Congressional action, a better allocation of our resources; to assure equal rights to all our citizens; to revolutionize the moral tone of the country; to inaugurate the new epoch of national progress. ...
Kennedy is surely right. It is no accident that America has had its most effective moments of world leadership when our foreign policy has expressed a visible reality of American performance. The words of Wilson and Roosevelt went straight to the minds and hearts of the people of the world, while the words of Eisenhower and Nixon fall on deaf ears, not because Wilson and Roosevelt had better words (though this was the case too), but because their words were underwritten by their deeds. The fact that Wilson and matters to the world. It was Wilson's New Freedom which validated his Fourteen Points, as it was Roosevelt's New Deal which validated his Four Freedoms. The effect of TVA, for example, on the imagination of aspiring peoples everywhere has been incalculable. It is Adlai Stevenson's record as an American liberal which makes his the most influential American voice to the outside world today. But what is authentic idealism on the lips of men who have won the right to talk about freedom and opportunity and social justice becomes the sheerest moralism and hypocrisy when uttered to the world by people notably indifferent to such things in their own land. Men who address righteous sermons to the world while at home they tolerate [Joseph] McCarthy and Little Rock [violent resistance to desegregation] and West Virginia poverty and the rest are bound to strike others as ineffectual figureheads or sanctimonious frauds. (my emphasis)
Republican polemics now commonly try to contrast the "tough" JFK foreign policy with the allegedly weaker version of today's Democrats. But Kennedy never embraced the crazy, militaristic idea that negotiating with a potential adversary was not only wrong but weak and cowardly. Much less the notion that war and the threat of war were the only meaningful tools in dealing with actual or potential adversaries.