By the early 1990s, it had become axiomatic among mainstream Democratic pundits and politicians that liberalism had collapsed as the result of the supposed excesses of the 1960s. A slew of influential pundits–among them Jim Sleeper, Stanley Greenberg, Fred Siegel and Thomas and Mary Edsall, along with others who found themselves in the orbit of Bill Clinton–looked back wistfully to the days when the Democrats held electoral majorities by fashioning a big-tent politics that included working-class Catholics and Jews, blacks, Southern whites and even establishment intellectuals. In their telling, so oft-repeated that it became conventional wisdom, the big tent’s ropes and stays began to give way in the mid-1960s. Democrats, the story goes, alienated their core voters–white working-class men–by pandering to race-conscious minorities, defending the out-of-control welfare state that enabled them and giving the reins of power to so-called “limousine liberals” who condescended to blue-collar whites and forced an agenda of acid, amnesty, abortion, gay rights and multiculturalism to the center of Democratic Party politics.

Like all jeremiads–calls for redemption in the form of narratives of decline–the story of the unraveling of liberalism contained within it the prescription for a Democratic revival. A new breed of Democratic operatives set their sights on a small band of the electorate–the so-called Reagan Democrats and their latter-day descendants, NASCAR dads. Winning back these defectors required a new manly, nationalistic liberalism, one that offered “tough love” toward the indigent, weaned the poor from welfare “dependency” and reinvigorated the Democratic Party’s commitment to the “traditional values” of hard work and self-discipline. Above all, it required the rejection of “identity politics” and its pernicious spawn–affirmative action, minority set-asides, bilingual education and multiculturalism. In this zero-sum approach to politics, any program that benefited minorities was inherently suspect: aid to cities alienated suburbanites; racial “quotas” took jobs and admissions slots from deserving whites and gave them to undeserving minorities; weak-kneed liberals squandered hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize illegitimate mothers, coddle criminals and engage in social engineering like “forced busing” to desegregate schools.

And like all jeremiads, the new Democratic orthodoxy evoked a wholly fictitious American past. The Democrats needed to turn the clock back to the antediluvian moment–that is, before 1968–and restore the economic opportunity, colorblindness, family values, law and order, and personal responsibility that supposedly reigned before hippies, rioters, anti-American activists and multiculturalists took over. In so doing they tapped an unacknowledged white-identity politics, one that celebrated such virtues as discipline and self-sufficiency while ignoring the fact that for most of the twentieth century, whites were the prime beneficiaries of government largesse–supposedly universalistic government programs like Social Security, the GI Bill and federal homeownership initiatives, which systematically excluded minorities for much of their history.

Over the past decade, a whole generation of historians and political scientists have systematically dismantled the myth of a liberal consensus. The notion that there was a Democratic “big tent” that included Southern whites, Northern urban ethnics and black workers has come apart in a slew of case studies of grassroots politics in the post-New Deal years. Political scientists like Rogers Smith, Philip Klinkner and Ira Katznelson, and historians (I count myself among them) such as Arnold Hirsch, Robert Self, David Freund and Kim Phillips-Fein have found that antiliberalism was deeply rooted, even among nominal Democrats in the supposed heyday of the New Deal order. Whites–both Northern and Southern–punished Democratic officials who were too “pro-Negro” well before the civil rights and black power struggles of the 1960s. White suburbanites long embraced the antitax politics that would be a defining issue for the right. And anticommunist politics drove many voters away from pink-tainted liberals toward the right.

New York’s liberal coalition was arguably the strongest in the country, but as Joshua Zeitz shows in White Ethnic New York, his fine new book on Catholic and Jewish politics in New York City, that coalition was fragile, even in its postwar heyday. Jews, blacks and Puerto Ricans filled the city’s big tent, but New York’s archetypal Democrats, the city’s blue-collar and lower-middle-class Italian and Irish Catholics, were not very comfortable in their company. Drawing on obscure Catholic and Jewish newspapers, tracts and correspondence with elected officials, Zeitz shows that even before the tumult of the 1960s, white Catholics were at best weakly attached to liberalism. Urban Catholics fretted that the Democrats were soft on communism. They were suspicious of Jews as freethinking and prone to socialism. During the ’50s they were attracted to Republicans, especially Joseph McCarthy. Catholics fretted about the erosion of traditional authority and morality and found themselves repelled by the haughty liberalism of establishment figures like Adlai Stevenson. Even those Catholic voters motivated by bread-and-butter labor and economic issues, Zeitz shows, often pulled the lever for Republicans. In New York, as in other Democratic strongholds like Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago, white voters were fickle supporters of liberalism. They were fragmented, often racist and more than primed to vote Republican, especially on matters of culture, morality and foreign policy.

One figure who fleets across Zeitz’s pages–and who is the subject of Tough Liberal, a full-length biography by Richard Kahlenberg–is teacher unionist Albert Shanker, who died in 1997. Shanker is no longer a household name. But he was for a time in the late 1960s and early ’70s–at least in New York. The lead character in Woody Allen’s 1973 hit Sleeper wakes up from his 200-year slumber to discover that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” Shanker, a lifelong socialist, leader of the American Federation of Teachers, political gadfly and tireless educational reformer, seemed an unlikely agent of apocalypse. But Sleeper‘s laugh line contained more than a little radioactive truth. The man named Albert Shanker did not drop the bomb on liberalism. But he was no small part of a political and intellectual Manhattan Project that exploited the fractures of New Deal and Great Society liberalism and empowered the New Right to rebuild from the rubble.

Kahlenberg pines for a Shankerist political order. If only the Democrats had listened to Shanker. If only they had adopted a “tough liberalism” that jettisoned pesky identity politics for the neat politics of class interest; if only they had embraced meritocracy rather than harmful racial “quotas”; if only they had stood up to the dual menaces of communism abroad and rampant crime at home; if only they had rewarded merit and hard work rather than capitulating to the fashions of multiculturalism and “extreme bilingual education,” then they could have thwarted the Republican juggernaut.

Much about Shanker’s career is admirable–his unstinting commitment to unionism, his dedication to the principle of public education and his sympathy for the downtrodden. Shanker deserves credit for his role in the expansion of public-sector unionism and particularly for his successful efforts to expand the umbrella of teachers’ union protections to mostly minority, poorly compensated and often badly treated teachers’ aides. But in his rush to canonize Shanker as the visionary who could have saved the Democrats from themselves, Kahlenberg all too often sacrifices critical distance for hagiography. Halfway into his public career, which lasted more than four decades, Shanker had often discredited liberalism in the name of saving it. Shanker was no bystander in the rise of market populism, social conservatism and neo-imperialism. He was present at liberalism’s destruction.

Albert Shanker came of age in a distinctive political and social milieu–one that profoundly shaped his career. Born in 1928 to working-class Jewish immigrants, he grew up in rough-and-tumble, mostly Catholic Long Island City. His Queens neighborhood was a tough place to be an awkward, bookish Jewish boy. Shanker suffered the slings and arrows of everyday anti-Semitism. He was ostracized and regularly beaten up by his non-Jewish classmates; and he attended a school where one teacher offered encomiums to Hitler and where others mocked his Jewish identity. Shanker was wounded by the deep political and cultural divisions between Catholics and Jews that Zeitz documents so well. But like many New York Jews during the first half of the twentieth century, Shanker also came of age in a place where socialists really did see themselves as the left wing of the possible and often allied with Democrats, even if the party of FDR and Truman was a little too far to the right for their taste. The young Shanker found his calling in the tracts of socialist intellectuals and found it reinforced in the circles of young idealists who gathered around sectarian gurus like Max Shachtman. For the rest of his life, Shanker believed in speaking his mind, regardless of the cost; he embraced the values of freethinking, hard work and merit. And he never wholly jettisoned his socialism.

By the time he was in his 20s–having grown disillusioned with graduate study in philosophy–Shanker followed the time-honored path of well-educated New York Jews, who still faced barriers in the professions. He became a schoolteacher in a district whose teaching staff was disproportionately Jewish (by 1940, 56 percent of new teachers in New York City were Jewish women). It was admirable work but difficult and often demoralizing, and he was abysmally paid. In 1953 Shanker joined the tiny socialist-led New York Teachers Guild and began to push for collective bargaining rights for teachers, an uphill battle even in union-friendly New York City, which did not recognize the bargaining rights of public employees until 1958. By 1962, taking advantage of New York’s new collective-bargaining law–and organizing tirelessly among teachers–Shanker and his predecessor Charles Cogen had succeeded in winning a generous contract for New York schoolteachers. Over the course of the 1960s, Shanker took the message of teacher unionism nationwide. By the end of his career, teaching was the second most unionized profession in the United States (behind only the postal system)–in no small part because of the galvanic effect of Shanker’s widely heralded victory in New York City.

Shanker’s rise to power coincided with the dramatic racial transformation of urban schools. Since his days as a student, Shanker had supported the civil rights movement. He had been a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and later collaborated with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr., who saw a labor-civil rights alliance as essential to the goals of racial equality. But the battles over race and education unleashed a political whirlwind that eventually proved to be Shanker’s undoing. In a story that gets short shrift in Kahlenberg’s book, civil rights activists targeted Northern schools every bit as intensely as they did their Jim Crow counterparts in the South. Shanker supported the principle of integrated schooling, but his position was unpopular. New York whites fled the public schools in record numbers; black parents led school boycotts and massive demonstrations, and educational politics became a flashpoint of racial conflict. As districts like New York grew blacker, more Hispanic and poorer, the city’s tax base dwindled. Minority parents grew increasingly disillusioned, both with the unmet promises of racial equality and the reality of overcrowding and inferior education in their schools. By the mid-1960s, influenced by black power, a vocal minority of black parents (joined by some white leftists and liberal foundations) began to support experiments in school decentralization and community control.

Shanker–along with many leftists and civil rights activists, both black and white–was skeptical of community control. That skepticism was well founded: the notion that a shift in school governance would magically transform classrooms was dubious. And as Michael Harrington and other leftist critics of decentralization pointed out at the time, white racists had long used local control as a way of keeping schools segregated. The issue came to a head in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968, where a community-control experiment put local schools in the hands of black militants who, in an act that outraged unionists, violated union rules and fired a group of mostly Jewish white teachers en masse. Shanker defiantly led three lengthy strikes, paralyzing New York’s public schools. He insisted that the strike was a defense of hard-won work rules–which it was.

But the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict was much more. It became a shouting match between black radicals (who accused the white teachers of racism and occasionally resorted to anti-Semitic sloganeering) and white teachers and their supporters (who were more often than not condescending, if not usually the racists that their critics charged). The results were explosive. And Shanker, whom Kahlenberg tries mightily to defend, poured gasoline onto the fire of racial conflict by reprinting and widely distributing an anti-Semitic brochure that appeared during the crisis.

The community-control experiment continued after 1968, but in a weakened form. The teachers union successfully defended its members from politically motivated firings. But Ocean Hill-Brownsville was poisonous to race relations in New York and nationwide. Kahlenberg describes the aftermath in Manichean terms: it was, he argues, the beginning of a struggle between “two forms of liberalism–one pro-labor, pro-integration, and color blind, the other anti-labor, pro-community control, and race conscious.” That’s not quite right. Many labor activists supported integration–but also the use of race-sensitive programs like affirmative action. Many advocates of colorblindness were blind to the ways that race profoundly shaped the life chances of blacks and other minorities; and many members of the most vocal and effective unions, especially the skilled trades, fought to protect their white power and privilege against encroachments by women and minorities.

It was a ’70s cliché that a conservative was a liberal who had been mugged by reality. To a great extent, Shanker–like many white liberal men of his generation–was mugged by the ’60s. To overcome the trauma, he lashed out at dissenters of all varieties. While Ocean Hill-Brownsville was smoldering, Shanker denounced the antiwar movement as soft on communism. By the ’70s he had joined the hyperbolic outcry against “limousine liberals” who supposedly allied with minorities against the white working class. In the process, he lost sight of those limousine-riding conservatives whose promarket and antiunion politics were far more damaging to the working class and public education. At the same time, he forged alliances with conservative Democrats like Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (who voted with Republicans on many foreign policy issues) and began seriously flirting with the right.

Shanker never veered as far rightward as did many of his allies, like Sidney Hook, Midge Decter, Elliot Abrams and Linda Chavez, all of whom sprinted into the ranks of the neocons. He was more of an egalitarian than they were–and remained a staunch and committed unionist while they cast their lot with corporate America and the antilabor Republican Party. But Shanker remained a socialist in name only. In 1983 he invited President Reagan to address the American Federation of Teachers, despite Reagan’s staunch antiunionism. And in 1984 Shanker warmly welcomed culture warrior William Bennett, then head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to headline the AFT annual convention. Shanker joined Bennett in his crusade for “traditional values” and against the scourge of “moral relativism.” Not surprisingly, Reagan (engaging in his own unacknowledged act of affirmative action) tapped Chavez for his Cabinet. Over the course of the 1980s, Shanker also supported Reagan’s massive defense buildup and praised the Nicaraguan contras, even if he distanced himself from such Reagan allies as South Africa’s apartheid regime and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Shanker’s march rightward was echoed in his shift in educational priorities. He railed against affirmative action (or what Kahlenberg shrilly and inaccurately brands as “quotas”). By the 1990s, Shanker’s egalitarianism was so narrow that, like his neoliberal and neoconservative fellow travelers, his civil rights politics rested on the dubious distinction between equality of opportunity (which he supported) and equality of results (which he believed was a matter of individual initiative, merit and skill, ignoring the fact that so many people get jobs on the basis of their networks, not solely or even primarily their skills). He also staunchly opposed bilingual education, in large part because of his belief in inculcating students in a single national cultural tradition. And while he sensibly held out against curriculums that had as their primary goal enhancing the “self-esteem” of students (the best research shows that self-esteem and academic success are not correlated), he also led an increasingly influential band of school reformers who fetishized standardized testing as the solution to academic woes. Shanker became a vocal advocate of charter schools as well–succumbing to the folly that administrative reorganization would serve as a panacea for educational inequality. Kahlenberg points out that Shanker did not approve of the 1990s free-market variants on charter schools: he opposed the privatization of a public good. But by then, Shanker’s longtime socialism was so thin that he could not see that proposals to bring competitiveness to public education would inevitably open the door to profit-seeking educational firms.

More than a half-century after Albert Shanker’s public career began, our public education system is still riddled with inequalities. Our schools are reverting to a pre-Brown v. Board of Education racial order, separate and unequal, but only a remnant band of civil rights activists even cares. Mainstream Democrats–eager to win over long-lost Republicans–have spent most of the past fifteen years shoring up the market revolution and slouching rightward on matters of culture and values. And the Bush Administration’s neoconservatives have embarked on a foreign policy to “democratize” the Middle East in ways that resonate with Shanker’s own zealous foreign policy. Even though Shanker continued to cling to an increasingly unfashionable trade unionism, we live under a regime that his “tough liberalism” helped more than hindered.