Columnist and historian Eric Alterman has written a new book entitled Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, which came out this week. Here’s an interview I did with him that appeared on playboy.com.
PLAYBOY: Okay, Eric—why are we liberals?
ALTERMAN: Depends on what you mean by “we,” Kimosabe. On the one hand, those of us who already know we’re liberals are liberals because we believe in the Enlightenment. We having open minds and allowing the truth take us anywhere it leads us, irrespective of what is allegedly commanded by God, the Dialectic of History, the Fatherland, George Bush’s sense of filial outrage, or whatever. We believe in giving everybody a fair shot at success, prosperity, self-fulfillment, etc, and if necessary, using the power of the government to make sure that everybody gets that chance, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth.
For everybody else it means, you’re probably already a liberal. You just don’t know it, yet because the word has been so demonized by right-wing lunatics and a compliant, spineless media. But if you look at what you, in all likelihood, believe about protecting the environment, taxing the wealthy, keeping corporations under control, providing health care to everybody, supporting smart science, and only invading countries that actually mean you harm, well then, by today’s standards, you’re a liberal.
PLAYBOY: Why don’t conservatives like liberals?
ALTERMAN: I think they do. Liberals have been the best friends conservatives have had until lately. They spent so much time fighting amongst themselves and failing to tend to their natural constituencies and thereby allowing conservatives to pick them off with arguments contrary to their won values and self interest.
PLAYBOY: Are any of their criticisms valid?
ALTERMAN: Sure, look. Americans’ political beliefs have long been in sync with those of liberals. They support universal health care, a fair taxation system, strong stewardship of the environment, good science over religious dogma, a cooperative foreign policy, and keeping the government out of people’s personal lives. And yet liberals, until 2006, lost election after election, with just a few exceptions. Why? Because they were foolishly focused on proving how “right” they were—often against each other and letting conservatives walk away with the prize almost every time.
PLAYBOY: What are the five biggest canards about liberalism?
ALTERMAN: That they are not patriotic, not religious, not practical, not tough-minded and not sexy…
PLAYBOY: Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley opposed the war in Iraq. Scads of liberal pundits and Democratic senators and congressmen supported it. Isn’t this one of a large number of issues where the liberal/conservative label just isn’t a very useful or illuminating?
ALTERMAN: Well, the strain of conservatism represented by Buckley and Buchanan has been rendered obsolete by the much more aggressive and imperialistic neoconservatism that the Bush administration embraced. (And Buckley supported the war until 2004.) And yes, many liberals were misled by the lies of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the like, and should have known better. So remove the lies and the gloss that the administration’s misleading rhetoric put on the war and we’re back to a pretty clear split; one that is evident today. Almost no liberals support this war, given current circumstances. And those conservatives who don’t—like Ron Paul—have become politically irrelevant.
PLAYBOY: If liberals are so good, how come it’s been so long since we had a liberal president that hasn’t been a disaster, a catastrophe or an embarrassment?
ALTERMAN: Like, who bub? The last unapologetically liberal president we had was FDR? What exactly is your problem with FDR? Go ahead, take your time…
PLAYBOY: Clinton, Carter and LBJ (Civil Rights? The reat Society? The National Endowment for the Arts?) may not have been unapologetically liberal, but I’d certainly put them on the liberal side of things.
ALTERMAN: You’re doing what the media always does, and I’m not going to play. A liberal is not just someone who is not a conservative. (I’ve seen George H. W. Bush called a “liberal” and to Limbaugh, et al, McCain is one too.) A liberal is someone who identifies with, and argues on behalf of liberalism and liberal solutions, not just someone who rejects outright conservative ones. Jimmy Carter was one of the most conservative Democrats running in 1976 and beat the liberal alternative in 1980. Lyndon Johnson embraced civil rights etc, late in his life but spent his career as a Texas conservative, as almost all Texas Democrats were. Clinton, too, had little use for liberals. (See under: “Nafta,” “death penalty,” “right to work,” etc, fiscal program, etc.” They did liberal things and they did conservative things, but I would argue it was the conservative ones where they screwed things up, rather than vice-versa.
As far as I am aware, the last president to call himself a “liberal” was John Kennedy, and he parsed his definition quite carefully. He said:
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.”
And he wasn’t such a bad president, all things considered.
PLAYBOY: Has the absence of strong class resentments in America hurt the cause of liberalism?
ALTERMAN: I disagree about their absence. I just think conservatives have been brilliant at manipulating them on behalf of fear and resentment, rather than hope and teamwork. I may not be the first person to say this but one of the only things liberals have to fear is, um, fear itself…
PLAYBOY: Should a liberal be elected president this fall, what three pro-America, pro-liberalism things should he/she focus on accomplishing?
ALTERMAN: Well, nobody’s running who is willing to call him or herself a liberal, except maybe Ralph Nader, so no, absolutely not. But once the next Democratic president reads my book, well, then, sure, that’d be a fine idea. America would finally have a president who believes what the majority of Americans believe, rather than what the punditocracy says they do.