How did liberals get to be the way they are today?
That’s the question many Americans have been askingparticularly after the ascent of Barack Obama, the most left-wing president in American history. At last, historians Donald T. Critchlow and W. J. Rorabaugh supply the answer.
The authors show that it is a mistake to see the Obama administration’s sweeping agenda as a single man’s vision. Equally flawed, they reveal, is the now-common argument that today’s liberalism is simply a continuation of the progressivism that Woodrow Wilson embodied a century ago. Today’s Left has embraced a more radical vision for transformative change: to remake nearly every aspect of American life.
Takeover completely reshapes our understanding of America’s current political situation. This bold revisionist history delineates the sharp break in the history of modern liberalism that began in the 1960s, when new-style progressive activists left behind their protest rallies to infiltrate the establishment.
Critchlow and Rorabaugh reveal:•How Obama almost certainly could not have become president if 1970s progressive activists had not rewritten the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating rules
•How radical leaders pioneered the use of the courts to impose their agenda
•From Roe v. Wade to Dr. Kevorkian: how partial-birth abortion became “the right to choose” and euthanasia became “the right to die with dignity”
•The inside story of liberals’ decades-long struggle to nationalize health care
•How today’s environmentalism reflects the Left’s anticorporate, anticonsumption ethos
•The progressive paradox: how elites gain more control even as they employ the rhetoric of “choice” and “power to the people”
Critchlow and Rorabaugh masterfully connect the dots in America’s recent history, showing the close links among such seemingly unrelated causes as radical environmentalism, nationalized health care, class warfare, abortion rights, feminism, caps on energy use, assisted suicide, and sex education. Takeover will forever change how you view liberalism and the political debate in America.
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About the Author
Donald T. Critchlow, the Barry Goldwater Chair of American Institutions at Arizona State University, is the author of many books on American political history, including The Conservative Ascendancy, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, and Intended Consequences. He is also coeditor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Political and Legal History and founding editor of the Journal of Policy History.
W. J. Rorabaugh teaches American history at the University of Washington and is the author of The Alcoholic Republic, The Real Making of the President, and Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties, among other books.
Read an Excerpt
TAKEOVERHow the Left's Quest for Social Justice Corrupted Liberalism
By Donald T. Critchlow W. J. Rorabaugh
ISI BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Donald T. Critchlow and W. J. Rorabaugh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLegacies of the Sixties
Like many changes in American life, the transformation of liberalism began in the 1960s. Until that crucial decade, liberals could be found in both major political parties, although the Democratic Party, as the majority party, contained more liberals. At the beginning of the sixties, liberals, suspicious of big business, influenced by the social gospel, hopeful that an informed public would make enlightened decisions, and confident that increased governmental power and regulation could cure all ills, were still close to the economic and social reform ideas of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. To these tenets, Harry Truman had added support for civil rights and strong anticommunism.
The sixties rattled liberals, challenged their premises, and turned liberalism to the left. John F. Kennedy used money, television, and primaries to destroy the boss-led convention nomination system, while Lyndon Johnson completed the New Deal agenda. Meanwhile, the civil rights revolution introduced moral politics, participatory democracy, egalitarianism, and voting rights. Young radicals emerged, while African Americans, women, and other groups embraced identity politics. Then the Vietnam War brought antiwar protesters into the Democratic Party. In 1972, George McGovern cultivated identity politics and ran for president on progressive principles. Although McGovern lost in a landslide, he pushed the Democrats permanently leftward. By the eighties the Democrats were increasingly a party of New Progressives devoted to elite control of governmental power in pursuit of social justice.
Kennedy and Johnson: Old-Style Liberals
In the early 1960s, Americans innocently embraced the present as prelude to a better tomorrow and imagined easy successes. The sixties were the "go-go" years. The stock market rose, and the jet set cavorted in Capri. The government planned to send an American to the moon (outer space), while others plotted to turn America on to psychedelic drugs (inner space). No one affirmed the country's optimism more than President John F. Kennedy) "We were guys of the fifties," one of Kennedy's advisers later recalled, "who thought there was nothing we, or America, couldn't do." Presenting himself as a dynamic, can-do guy, Kennedy was nevertheless only a moderate liberal. This cautious liberalism along with a mastery of television style, sex appeal, charm, and wit enabled him to enjoy unusual popularity, even though he accomplished little as president.
Traditionally, the Democrats had been an umbrella party that included liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Big-city party bosses, who ran the party until the late 1960s, tended to be pragmatic. They were less interested in whether a candidate was liberal or moderate than in who could win. Although Kennedy had cultivated the bosses, he invented a new nomination method that employed money, television, and primaries. This new system gave liberal candidates an edge in gaining nominations. Liberal Democrats were more likely to give money to candidates, to work on campaigns, and to vote in primaries. The old system produced Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who won and governed successfully, as well as Adlai Stevenson, a shrewd choice to hold the party together in an inevitable loss to the popular Dwight Eisenhower. The new system led to Jimmy Carter, who could not govern, and George McGovern and Michael Dukakis, neither of whom could win a national election.
After Kennedy's assassination, the presidency fell to Lyndon Johnson, a thirties New Dealer who had survived in Texas politics by keeping his liberalism to himself. Johnson broke a southern Senate filibuster to pass the Civil Rights Act. After winning a landslide election in 1964, Johnson moved to complete the New Deal agenda. He pushed successfully for the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, the government health program for senior citizens that promised to end the nightmare by which elderly Americans lost their homes in an effort to pay high medical bills. He expanded Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, urban renewal, and funding for public education and for colleges, including the new federal student loan program. Johnson's War on Poverty included the Jobs Corps for unemployed youths as well as neighborhood job training programs.
Johnson's domestic social programs were impressive in breadth and scope. In effect, all the New Deal proposals from the thirties, except national health insurance, were enacted. He had to skip universal health care because there were not enough votes in Congress to pass it, but he saw Medicare as a first step. In 1966, Johnson said, "Medicare need not just be for people over sixty-five. That is where we started." An incrementalist, he believed that Medicare would lead inevitably to national health insurance. Expressing a view common among New Deal liberals of his generation, Johnson always thought that half a loaf was better than nothing.
Johnson's completion of the New Deal agenda, except for national health insurance, suggested that the old-style liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson had reached its natural limit. These liberals had always imagined, as had Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, that the government's role was to provide a helping hand. The purpose of social programs was to make it possible for average people or the poor to enjoy the same opportunities that the upper middle class or the wealthy were able to provide for themselves. Hence, government-aided home ownership, freeways, mass transit, college loans, job training, and health care for the elderly (Medicare) and the needy (Medicaid). Capitalism was affirmed, and the social order went unchallenged.
Old-style liberalism meshed poorly with the upheavals of the 1960s. Kennedy's death in 1963 marked the decade's first shock. That murder shattered the country's equilibrium, challenged liberal confidence, strained the political structure, disillusioned youthful idealists, and ultimately energized emerging radicals. Alas, Kennedy's assassination would not be the last. The murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy less than five years later would complete a trilogy. The civil rights movement, college student protests, and peace marches increasingly filled the streets and appeared on the evening television news. Peaceful black demonstrations ("Freedom Now") turned into riots in Watts and across the country ("Black Power"), and radical opponents of the Vietnam War brought chaos at home ("Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win"). Violence escalated. At the end of the decade, H. Rap Brown, a black militant, called violence as "American as cherry pie."
The Civil Rights Revolution
In the last half of the twentieth century the civil rights movement was the most consequential social movement in the United States. While important for the rights of African Americans, the movement also transformed politics in both obvious and subtle ways. Ever since slavery ended in 1865, black Americans had remained second-class citizens. In the South, they were subjected to a formal legal system of racial separation and white supremacy. In the North, informal segregation was the norm, but there was access to the ballot. As a result of the Great Migration to the North, especially during and after World War II, black voters by 1948 proved pivotal in carrying such key states as New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Black migration, in many ways, put civil rights onto the national agenda.
Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist preacher and the son of a prominent Atlanta clergyman, saw that principles of nonviolent protest could be applied to the racial problem in the United States. Nonviolent protest enabled African Americans to confront the role that violence had played in southern society. White supremacy in the South depended heavily on violence to crush black resistance. A devout Christian, King believed that black nonviolent protest both occupied the moral high ground and created political opportunity. Whites who attacked peaceful protesters revealed their own degradation against a moral challenge and mocked the claim that they were guardians of virtue. If whites avoided violence, they lacked the means to defeat the protests. Once black nonviolence claimed the moral high ground and neutralized white violence, the civil rights movement would prevail.
King and other movement participants sought to win rights for African Americans, who faced widespread discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. To help unlock opportunities, blacks needed to vote in large numbers. Voters could then push for social change. In the late 1960s rights activists, including King, became increasingly interested in poverty, which was seen as an issue of social justice. Most civil rights groups shared the same vision. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had practiced nonviolent protest since the 1940s. In 1960 southern black college students who admired King's principles founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While King, CORE, and SNCC provided inspiration and advice, the civil rights movement took place at the local level, where the grassroots did the organizing. The movement was a bottom-up, self-help operation.
The civil rights movement reshaped politics in four distinct ways. First, the movement believed in and practiced moral politics. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, participants in the civil rights movement believed in the primacy of moral principles. Accordingly, adherents pursued politics in the name of social justice. Although this moral dimension was important to the movement's essence and drive to success, it proved problematic when applied to electoral politics. Politics is often about old-fashioned horse trading and compromise. Infusing the political system with moral fervor had a cost.
Many young white liberals—they mostly thought of themselves as liberals at that time—embraced the civil rights movement in the early sixties, and as they did so, they attached themselves to the movement's moral principles. By the midsixties, even before the Vietnam War, these liberals increasingly wanted to take moral stands on political issues. This is not the way to get Congress to build an interstate highway or a dam, nor does it lead to a "half-loaf" law like Medicare, which helped the elderly but ignored everyone else. Instead, young liberals wanted to use governmental power to pursue social justice with transforming legislation that would end all war, stop racism, and save the planet. Liberal moral enthusiasm made such liberalism less flexible. For a brief time, Todd Gitlin, Mary King, and Tom Hayden thought along these lines.
The second contribution of the civil rights movement to the new politics was participatory democracy. The phrase was first widely used by young white activists, including Tom Hayden, who helped organize Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, but the concept actually dates to the creation of SNCC in 1960 and, arguably, to CORE in the 1940s. Because nonviolent protest forced participants to risk arrest, group solidarity was important. Leaders, of course, had a say. After all, leaders were required to conduct negotiations. But when negotiations seemed futile, and activists believed that the time had come to "put your body on the line," then the rank and file made the decision, because they were the ones who would face arrest. No one, in a moral movement, could tell another person when to protest. The movement was not an army managed from the top. It was a bottom-up, grassroots movement of ordinary people making extraordinary efforts to gain their own rights.
Movement participants learned that narrow majorities could not make effective decisions. Instead, the entire group had to participate in meetings that lasted for hours. The grass roots, not leaders, made important decisions. Each person had an equal chance to take part, and the group hashed out all possible reasons for or against a particular course of action. At the end of the meeting, consensus would be reached. Only through this laborious process could the group be kept together. In practice, leaders learned to outwait enemies and spring proposals on a tired group that had been thrashing around aimlessly for hours. A prepackaged proposal could be sold to a rump meeting. In theory, participatory democracy meant the absence of leaders, but in practice it favored the most guileful. These leaders were also usually educated, aggressive males who liked to talk a lot—and had sex appeal.
Democratic Party liberals—they increasingly called themselves progressives—embraced the civil rights style to impose participatory democracy on party structures. Liberals called for broad voter participation inside the party, discouraged the role of leaders at all levels, and demanded precinct caucuses to pick presidential candidates. Caucuses were arguably the least democratic form of democratic politics ever invented. They attracted far fewer voters than did primaries. Those who attended rarely represented public opinion. And a small number of activists could rig meetings. Caucuses were unfair in another way: women with children found it hard to attend.
Caucuses embraced "persons of the people" who rose mystically from the mud, like Jimmy Carter rising from the Iowa caucuses all the way to the White House (to the ultimate embarrassment of millions of Americans). Of course, Carter was no man of the people but instead a shrewd and often devious politician who propelled his campaign forward in the Iowa caucuses largely through artful dodges. ("On a range of issues," wrote journalist Jules Witcover in his account of the 1976 presidential race, "he showed all the elusiveness of a scatback.")
The third contribution of the civil rights movement to the new politics was egalitarianism. Since the movement's goal was to tear down segregation and white supremacy, it is understandable that the movement was egalitarian. The movement accepted Thomas Jefferson's line "All men are created equal," assuming that "men" could be read to include all people. In the sixties, the egalitarian ethos percolated throughout the liberal community. For example, in 1962 the U.S. Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr declared that the federal courts had a right to control legislative districting. In a subsequent ruling, the court's liberal majority held that all apportionment had to be based on "one man, one vote." This egalitarian concept of proportionality in representation can be seen as rooted in the ideology of the civil rights movement. "One man, one vote" became a guiding phrase for the egalitarianism of the new liberalism.
Liberals used governmental power through statutes, executive orders, agency regulations, or the courts to impose their own particular brand of egalitarianism in numerous situations. In the name of equality and fairness, colleges and employers were forced to adopt racial, ethnic, and gender quotas, despite promises from Hubert Humphrey that the Civil Rights Act (1964) did not impose quotas. Many Jews, who had been subjected to quotas in Europe, were livid. Quotas were also forced on banks. The government eventually wrecked the mortgage industry by forcing lenders to give loans to unqualified borrowers in the name of promoting equality of home ownership.
In another sign of egalitarianism, progressive campaigns were waged to allow felons to vote, even if they were in prison. (Do the felons get to vote for the warden?) Liberal judges extended many rights to felons under the guise of equal treatment, ignoring the fact that hardened criminals had been locked up because they were dangerous to other people. Thus, the liberal governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis famously furloughed convicted murderer Willie Horton, who fled the state and ended up raping a woman and beating and binding her fiancé.
Fourth, the civil rights movement pushed for African American voting rights, a cause the Democratic Party quickly adopted. In the early sixties, Attorney General Robert Kennedy encouraged voter registration drives in the South. Increased black registration would make southern senators more pliable on racial issues and might help John Kennedy in 1964. Much of the civil rights campaign in Mississippi from 1960 to 1964 focused on voter registration. Because few blacks in Mississippi were allowed to register at that time, the movement decided to organize a private registration system and hold a mock election, called the Freedom Vote. The main idea was to show that a lot of African Americans wanted to vote. The Freedom Vote quickly led to the organization of the mostly black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP petitioned the 1964 Democratic National Convention to be seated in place of the regular all-white Mississippi delegation, which was pledged to segregation.
Excerpted from TAKEOVER by Donald T. Critchlow W. J. Rorabaugh Copyright © 2012 by Donald T. Critchlow and W. J. Rorabaugh. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The New Progressives 1
Chapter 1 Legacies of the Sixties 9
Chapter 2 From of the Streets into the Courtroom and the Neighborhoods 41
Chapter 3 Brave Green World: Radical Environmentalism and the New Social Justice 71
Chapter 4 Controlling Life and Death 101
Chapter 5 The Dream of National Health Insurance 133
Chapter 6 The Long March Leads to the White House 159
Chapter 7 The Heights of Power 187