Commentary Magazine

Liberalism and Its Challengers, by Alonzo L. Hamby

Losing Hope

Liberalism and its Challengers: Fdr to Reagan.
by Alonzo L. Hamby
Oxford University Press. 386 pp. $24.95.

Twice in a row, American voters have elected by large majorities the most conservative presidential candidate since Herbert Hoover. It would appear, moveover, that intellectual life in our country now has a conservative inflection. And most significantly of all, for the first time in the nation's history conservatives seem to be, paradoxically, the party of the future, the party of hope.

Normally, the party of hope lives on the liberal side, for the simple reason that in an imperfect world, hope springs from a vision of change, and liberalism has historically signified the willingness to embrace and even encourage change. Because America has been the nation most successful at reconciling change and social order, liberalism has been its dominant political tradition. Even though, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, liberals have by no means been in the political majority, the history of American politics, in the 20th century especially, is largely the history of liberalism's slow but successful conquest of the bastions of political power and the centers of ideas.

If prior to World War I, for instance, one had argued that Americans must transform themselves into a racially integrated society, or that that society must undertake vast international commitments, or that the federal government must concern itself with the education and the health of its citizens, young and old—if one had maintained these things, one would have been considered eccentric or even subversive. But these objectives constituted the liberal program, already discernible in most of its details, and this program, of course, has been achieved.

To be sure, liberalism is of far more than merely historical interest even if it is agreed that in 1968, when it tried to take America's capacity for change beyond a point that our society could tolerate, liberalism suffered a political blow from which it has not yet recovered. The question is: did liberalism contain the seeds of its own failure, and, conversely, might it contain the seeds of its own renewal? The prudent historian, eschewing teleological explanations, would study instead the steps that might have been taken differently: the beginnings of national economic planning under FDR; the development of a great national army in World War II and its aftermath, and with it a specialized national-security establishment; the critical move from the concept of the social safety net to the notion of welfare entitlements; and so forth. Perhaps it was not fated that the ideas growing out of the experience of the Wilson and Roosevelt eras should have played themselves out quite the way they did.

Some liberals today, called neo-conservatives, argue that their liberalism—the liberalism, essentially, of Harry Truman—was betrayed during and after the 1968 revolt against Lyndon Johnson. Others in this camp argue—following, up to a point, such 1950's conservatives as Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham—that the rot can be traced quite specifically to Wilsonian and Rooseveltian illusions about the world, abroad and at home. It is significant that Chambers and Burnham both came from the Left. The argument, which can only be articulated by ex-leftists, concerns the tension between tradition and change in a civilization based on hope. This question is a crucial and fundamental one, because it affects profoundly liberalism's destiny. Yet in Liberalism and Its Challengers, Alonzo Hamby, a historian at Ohio State University, fails even to raise it.

What were the intellectual and political forces that constituted 20th-century American liberalism?

What elements of this movement did leaders as diverse as FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. draw from to achieve their objectives, and what did they contribute to it? These are the questions that Hamby tries to answer. Unfortunately, his effort remains only that. “The writing of contemporary history,” he remarks in his introduction, “is at best a difficult business.” It is, indeed: so difficult that, instead of explaining the “contemporary American political tradition” that is his subject, Hamby provides a series of biographical essays numbing in their superficiality, combining conventional pieties about the accomplishments of Presidents and other political figures since FDR with psychological speculations that are embarrassing when they are not distracting.

On Roosevelt, Hamby offers the following banalities: “Roosevelt left a deep imprint upon his era. . . . [F]rom almost any vantage point, the nation was stronger and more secure at his death than at the time he took office.” There is this on Truman: “[A]lmost all observers have agreed that whatever Truman was, he was enormously different from his awesome predecessor . . . [yet] in fundamental attributes of thought and character, the two were far more similar than different.”

Biography is surely important to historical understanding, but the historian must be able to make up his mind about his subject, the personalities and ideas around him, and all the other elements that help explain his political behavior and illuminate the unique and unpredictable relationship between the individual and his time. There is, unfortunately, none of this in Hamby. He notes that Robert Kennedy adopted a radical rhetoric during his race for the Presidency, but he in no way prepares the reader for the obvious question: what actually was new here? Was this liberalism's logical outcome, stemming from the Roosevelt-Truman period, or did something go drastically wrong—or were there avoidable errors of judgment?

The same questions are left begging in the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose repudiation of the Great Society and rebellion against his most powerful ally, Lyndon Johnson, merit deep examination. As with Robert Kennedy, Hamby weighs vague psychological possibilities that would explain King's behavior and considers the influence on him of the extreme Left. But much more than a brief glance is needed.


The relationship between liberalism and the New Left (in all its various guises) is of fundamental importance, and a book ostensibly concerned with the challenges to liberalism ought to have something to say about that diffuse, sometimes anarchic, sometimes surprisingly disciplined front for what could fairly be called a nihilistic attack on American society. Hamby contributes astonishingly little to our understanding of this phenomenon, so central to his story, though he does have this to say about Robert Kennedy:

To the New Left and Left-liberal thinking of the time, the entire spectacle [of LBJ's travails in domestic and foreign policy] laid bare the bankruptcy of establishment liberalism, representative primarily of the well-to-do, manipulative of the underclasses but superficial in its concern for them, and prone to disastrous military adventures abroad. Kennedy and his advisers accepted much of this diagnosis . . . but like Martin Luther King . . . he found it difficult to develop credible prescriptions. . . .

This observation remains undeveloped. Of the so-called New Class, the generation that grew out of liberalism's encounter with the New Left, Hamby remarks: “Relatively rootless . . . anti-commercial by career choice and strong conviction, the New Class took liberalism well to the Left. . . .” But the big story is not that a new class (about which in any event Hamby has no original insights) emerged; the big story is that liberalism lost its nerve and its optimism. In this respect, Allen J. Matusow's The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960's (1984) goes much farther than Hamby in explicating the cultural and intellectual factors that led the party of hope to become the party of despair and appeasement, though by focusing narrowly on one decade Matusow can only hint at the threads, both positive and negative, that ran from the New Freedom to the Great Society.

The theme remains a fascinating and important one. There is much talk of a party realignment these days, but the only important issue is whether the Republicans, traditional political vehicle of the conservative party, can turn themselves into the party of hope. To do this they will have to understand how and why the Democrats became so susceptible to ideas that made them behave timidly abroad, arrogantly at home. More to the point, they must take to heart the need of any society, and a democratic society above all, to maintain intact an agreed-upon hierarchy of values. It appears the current administration, albeit much more hesitantly than was expected, is trying to find its way to this position. If it succeeds, a truly new chapter will have been opened in the history of American liberalism.

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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