Passion, Memory, and Politics, 1992

From its founding nearly three years ago, The American Prospect has sought to help reconstruct a plausible and persuasive liberalism. This issue's cluster of articles concerned with a public investment strategy for economic growth exemplifies that purpose: substantive, detailed thinking about how to solve the nation's problems, rather than symbolic gestures. Yet, as this political season has reminded us, there is another aspect to the conflict over public ideas in America that is inevitably and properly symbolic. It is a battle over cultural ideals, ways of life, the meaning of the past. And that conflict is inseparable from the hard choices in economics, social policy, and even foreign affairs.

Clashes over cultural ideals and ways of life are hardly new in the United States. The passions aroused by the temperance movement as this century began were not wholly unlike those aroused by today's conservative crusades for "family values" and against abortion and gay rights. Temperance, in fact, was a "pro- family" issue in its day. Yet the present conflict, whatever its deeper historical continuities, dates fundamentally from the 1960s, and it is striking how much that decade continues to preoccupy, bedevil, and divide us.

The sixties seem to return at nearly every juncture. As the war with Iraq began, the nation argued about whether it would be "another Vietnam" (it wasn't), much as a prior generation had debated matters of war and peace worrying whether some incident would become "another Munich" or "another Sarajevo" (we can now appreciate the latter reference). Press stories about Bill Clinton's draft record and whether or not he inhaled prompted another round of reflection: Could the generation of the sixties ever be free of its past? Could the nation ever trust anyone who was under thirty in 1968?

And when Los Angeles erupted in riots and flames, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, peered over the city and, astonishingly, saw the words "the sixties" traced by the smoke. Again we were back to the same argument, in a slightly different version: Was the Great Society to be held responsible for urban disintegration and violence today? (According to a Los Angeles Times poll in early May, few thought it should, and roundups of Medicare, Headstart, and other surviving programs from that era turned up no plausible suspects.) Meanwhile, "JFK" was playing at your local theater, forensic cultural historians hovered over Marilyn's deathbed looking for fingerprints, and the music of the 1960s that was once damned as subversive had literally been turned into advertising jingles. The lyrics have been changed, but the melodies and the gunshots linger on.

Yet the memory of the 1960s does not simply linger; it has become a source of power for some, of weakness for others. The rise of conservatives at the national level dates to 1968, the waning of liberal influence to the same period. In the 1992 election, the Democrats are still trying to shake off the taint of the sixties, the Republicans are still trying to run against it. At their convention in New York this year, the Democrats tried to overcome and put behind them the cleavages that opened in their own ranks and the larger society in the sixties. At their convention in Houston, the Republicans proclaimed a "cultural divide" (Dan Quayle), and even a "religious war" (Patrick Buchanan), trying to stoke the embers of old antagonisms into a roaring blaze that would consume the Democrats.

From a social and cultural standpoint, the Democrats have become the party of peace, the Republicans the party of war. If conservatives in the Republican Party cannot summon supporters to fight the archenemy in Moscow, they can at least summon them to fight the Anti-Christ in Hollywood or New York. In short, they can make liberalism the moral equivalent of communism, the "cultural elite" the equivalent of the Politburo, and the battle against them the equivalent of war. Some might have thought that once the Cold War was over, the right's leaders would no longer question their opponents' loyalty. But it seems they have more reason now than ever: Without communism as a unifying force, even moderate Democrats must be made into enemies of the American way of life. This is dangerous--to the civility needed for political cooperation, to the tolerance needed in a heterogeneous society, and most of all to the truth.

To be sure, the Democrats have not rejected, nor should they, all the social and cultural changes we associate with the sixties. By and large, the major social programs of the decade still stand, many of them, like Medicare, beyond partisan controversy. But the differences between the parties on the meaning of the sixties are clear enough. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats not only accept the changed role of women but favor policies, such as family leave, that facilitate and advance that change. And the Democrats have incorporated not just feminism, but even gay rights, which would have been truly inconceivable before the sixties. Even if one had never heard of Ron Brown or Bill Clinton, it would not be difficult to guess which party has a national chairman who is black and a presidential candidate who rock 'n' rolls.

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Yet Democratic leaders, and liberals more generally, now recognize that the path they took in the late 1960s--or, to be more accurate, some turns on that path--led them into the electoral wilderness. In both its public and private expressions, the ethic of expansive entitlements seemed to deny limits, whether in personal conduct or government expenditure. Of course, not all liberals or liberal programs, much less all Democrats, had such an ethic, but enough did to make credible the charge that liberals did not know where to draw the line. So now they have to reassert, as an earlier generation of liberals once did, an ethic that emphasizes prudence and responsibility as much as rights. The New Covenant--a poor slogan, perhaps, but a good idea--is an expression of that renewed emphasis on the norm of reciprocity rather than entitlement.

Similarly, rather than emphasize separate programs for the poor, the Democrats now put priority on growth and full employment, as did liberals from Roosevelt to Kennedy. There is a symbolic as well as substantive change here: The Democrats are making the values as well as the interests of the middle class, not the poor, their point of reference in social and economic policy. Some on the left, whose conception of progressive politics was formed in the 1960s, consider this revival of Rooseveltian liberalism a retreat. But what the poor most want is to join the middle class, not to reject it. Those who care about the poor serve them best by identifying them with the middle-class majority, not by distinguishing them from it. In the 1960s, the movement for racial equality correctly argued that civil rights could not depend on majority vote; blacks were entitled to equality of respect regardless of whether a majority of whites approved. That experience, however, led some liberals to treat other types of minorities, such as the poor, as groups whose interests demanded satisfaction regardless of majority approval. From advocating civil rights, they slid into advocating welfare rights as equally imperative. As a point of democratic theory, this was doubtful; as a matter of democratic politics, it was a disaster. Today's changed views of welfare, child support, and other policies all reflect a chastened respect for the culture and pocketbook interests of the nation's middle-class majority.

This is not an abandonment of liberalism; it is more like a return to what liberalism stood for, at least in the minds of its most persuasive advocates, before the late 1960s. The liberalism of the World War II generation, epitomized by such people as Reinhold Niebuhr, had a much stronger sense of both human limitations and the limits of social reconstruction. In the sixties, we sang, "We shall overcome," but unfortunately, many of us were overcome--and now have come back. If the effort currently under way in the Democratic Party succeeds, it will be not simply a matter of a new administration, but the end of an estrangement from a tradition. There is much talk about a sustainable economy and environment; we also need a sustainable politics, grounded in a realistic appraisal of national sentiment as well as the national interest. In a democracy, this is not optional, except for those satisfied to grumble rather than to govern.

In the nation's memory today, the great counterpoint to the 1960s is the 1940s, remembered as a time when America was at once simpler, more serene, and more powerful. The movies, songs, old magazines, even the social critics of that period have acquired a rosy glow. Harry Truman's prestige is so high that George Bush, who surely voted for Tom Dewey, now says the Missouri New Dealer is his model. Of course, some of the longing for the forties is for a period when America was clearly on the rise, and when the problems of race and poverty did not appear intractable (in part because they were hardly thought about at all). But, as Doris Kearns Goodwin reminds us in this issue, the 1940s were in many ways a more liberal period than today, and they offer us a remarkably bold precedent for liberal remedy. Even as we take caution from the sixties, we could do worse than take courage from the forties.

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