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'Big Ideas Need Sharp Elbows' | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

'Big Ideas Need Sharp Elbows'

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We may never reach a consensus on just what it was about George W. Bush that led so many millions of Americans to ignore his Administration's dishonesty, incompetence, ideological fanaticism and corruption and vote for the guy. Early exit poll analysis put a premium on "moral values," but that explanation evaporated with even rudimentary scrutiny. Clearly the most significant advantage Bush enjoyed came in the various national security categories, despite the fact that this is the area where the Bush Administration's myriad failings, both personal and professional, ought to be most obvious.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Evidently, thirty years of attacks on liberals' national security credentials have taken their toll. Given both his experience as a senator and his heroism during the Vietnam War, abroad and at home, John Kerry should have easily trumped Bush here, but he didn't even come close. During the brief post-cold war/pre-"war on terror" interregnum, Bill Clinton could squeak past George H.W. Bush with a largely economic argument, but Osama bin Laden put an end to those days together with the Twin Towers. Unless liberals find a way to reverse this trend, they will forfeit election after election, notwithstanding the increasing extremism and irresponsibility of Bush & Co. in virtually every area of public policy.

We didn't always have this problem. From FDR's victory in 1932 through the election of 1968, liberals were viewed as "tougher" on national security than skinflint--frequently isolationist--conservatives, and the Democrats were the natural party of government. This does not mean they were always right; indeed, there is much in the conduct of US foreign policy under liberal leadership that turned out quite badly. (Nation readers hardly require a lesson in those misadventures.) The point is that, like it or not, the perception of "strength" is the sine qua non of American politics. As Bill Clinton famously observed, it is politically safer to be perceived to be "strong and wrong" rather than weak and right.

Not long ago at New York's Plaza Hotel, a few hundred people came together to salute two liberals who played a crucial role in creating what historian Kevin Mattson terms a "fighting faith"--one that appealed to the main currents of American political discourse while simultaneously inspiring a sense of solidarity and common purpose among middle-class and poor Americans. At the age of 96 and 87 respectively, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have participated in as many of the great political and intellectual battles of postwar US history as any two men alive. Political comrades and intellectual allies, both men have pursued careers that, for a time, involved combining political combat and intellectual disputation. Remarkably--though it was not always apparent at the moment these disputes were taking place--neither has allowed the demands of politics to compromise his intellectual work. Nor, at the same time, have they held themselves to be above painful but necessary compromises that define political effectiveness.

This is no easy task. Mattson's invaluable new study, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism, quotes Galbraith at a Congress of Cultural Freedom gathering in Milan in 1955, attacking intellectuals who treat their ideological constructs as reality. The goal for both men, as Mattson defines it, was a "tough-minded realism that saw intellect in service to the world of politics, a world of messy compromise and inevitable failures." This is not to argue that political involvement is the only appropriate role for intellectuals. Schlesinger, who remains almost the ideal example of the intellectual engagé, greatly admired Richard Hofstadter and Lionel Trilling, who always retained their detachment. At the same time, Mattson notes, he praised Murray Kempton for offering an "antidote to the danger that those with influence might take themselves too seriously."

Of course, both men made their share of mistakes, political and intellectual. But they were not the most costly kind, thanks to an unyielding commitment of both the economist and the historian to battling the effects of extremism of all stripes. A lifetime of loyalty to intellectual inquiry helped to infuse each man's career--both inside and outside the political arena--with an abiding respect for the difficulties involved in remaking men and women according to ideological precepts, as well as with a strong sense of modesty about just how much mere politics could accomplish. Galbraith once explained that he always sought "a measure of detachment. I've felt that one should hold some part of one's self in reserve, never be completely sure of being right." Schlesinger concurred, noting that "democratic politics, as Orwell has observed, permits the participant 'to keep part of yourself inviolate.'" Both men lived up to what Mattson identifies as the "classic tenet of the liberal state," which acknowledges "many limitations in its demands upon men, [while] the total state acknowledges none."

At the event at the Plaza--organized by William vanden Heuvel in support of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, at Hyde Park--friends, family and admirers of all political persuasions paid tribute to the numerous moments in each man's life when their actions contributed to the common good by demonstrating the kind of toughness, both moral and intellectual, that liberals are perceived to lack today. I have my biases, but I thought Bill Moyers best captured the combination of passion, intellect and political smarts both men helped pass down to a younger generation of liberals, qualities sorely needed today if liberals are ever again to exercise national power:

"Ken Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger engaged in the passions of our times and brought to the liberal project the fire of deep conviction, the gravity of fierce intellect and the temperament of the tested warrior of ideas who accepts that the achievable is possible while the perfect can only be imagined.... The hopes of common people rest not with saints but with flawed champions who understand that in a world where bad ideas wear brass knuckles, big ideas need sharp elbows."

Amen. Now, the hard part...

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