Losing the Center: The Decline of American Liberalism, 1968-1992
By Jeffrey Bloodworth
University Press of Kentucky,
Who remembers the fall of 1976, and the brief flurry of interest when it appeared that Senator James Buckley, the Conservative party incumbent in New York, might face a challenge from Monday Night Football’s Howard Cosell? Or that the first African American to win a majority-white district in the South was Harold Ford Sr., of Tennessee, in 1974—the year 74 liberal “Watergate babies” stormed the House? Jeffrey Bloodworth does. In his unusual multi-disciplinary effort, Losing the Center: The Decline of American Liberalism, 1968-1992, the Gannon University professor does more than serve up first-rate trivia. Combining political science, biography, and sociology, Bloodworth expertly traces the evolution of the Democratic Party and its attendant electoral woes from the “Vital Center” zenith of Arthur Schlesinger and John F. Kennedy to the “New Politics” debacle of George McGovern and the Nixon landslide of 1972. Along the way, Bloodworth sketches some fine political portraits to reaffirm Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim: All politics is local.
In acerbic, incisive, and engaging prose, Bloodworth’s introduction retells in broad terms the tale of how the Democratic Party, and liberalism writ large, first adopted and then jettisoned the set of principles that held together Franklin D. Roosevelt’s winning coalition from the New Deal of the 1930s until the civil-rights and antiwar convulsions of the 1960s.
Once, liberals championed redistributionist policies at home, in an attempt to tame capitalism’s excesses, and muscular projections of strength abroad, in an effort to promote freedom against communism’s tyrannies. In the years after the Kennedy assassination, however, party leaders and intellectuals, as Bloodworth writes, grew ever more “mindful of Vietnam, as opposed to Stalinism…[and] largely indifferent to the issues of working class Democrats….Gone were the New Deal’s labor-liberal coalition and the Vital Center’s anticommunism.”
Although he studiously avoids mention of the three American figures on the right who, in the age of Radical Chic, most forcefully and effectively advocated against the New Left’s pieties—the later-disgraced, much-maligned, and oft-overlooked Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and John Mitchell—Bloodworth notes how “the GOP” skillfully used “law and order” issues, as well as social and moral stands, to marginalize liberals for the better part of a generation. With greater specificity, Bloodworth juxtaposes the liberals of the early 1960s with those of the early 1970s, showing how powerful bygone Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana and House Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma, hailed from today’s solidly Republican states. Likewise, the favor with which earlier liberals once looked upon hydroelectric dams and other federally subsidized development projects for the West was replaced by the New Left’s preoccupation with “entitlement liberalism,” along with abortion rights, gun control, busing, and other causes that tended to set urban elites and intellectuals against rural citizens and rank-and-file workers. “Democrats consigned themselves to the minority,” Bloodworth writes, “by pursuing an unpopular agenda.”
The rest of the book is given over, less profitably, to 11 short biographies of politicians, pollsters, activists, and others who played (mostly) unheralded roles in liberalism’s Great Marginalization. The most famous of these is Jimmy Carter, whose failed attempt at welfare reform, Bloodworth posits, was emblematic of the difficulties technocrats encountered when they tried to wrest control of the party, in the mid-to-late 70s, from the more radical elements that had fashioned the Great Society and engineered the McGovern nomination. The least is Donald Peterson, a Wisconsin activist who prodded Senator Eugene McCarthy to make his ill-fated, but highly symbolic and influential, bid for the Democratic nomination in early 1968. (In terms of sheer obscurity, though, three-term Minneapolis mayor Charles Stenvig, another figure profiled in these pages, probably ranks a close second).
Some of Bloodworth’s subjects, such as Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, whose hawkish anti-Communism and exaltation of human rights in Cold War diplomacy set him apart from leftist contemporaries in the Democratic Party, merit the case-study treatment accorded here. Others are best left to the era they inhabited. Case in point: Rep. Bella Abzug, the abrasive Manhattan feminist. Abzug may have given “a national voice to women’s issues,” as Bloodworth claims, but with a voice so strident—given, for example, to decrying unwelcome committee assignments as “bullshit”—its enduring significance is open to question.
Early on Bloodworth acknowledges: “Choosing to tell the story of liberalism through the use of representative figures and biography has limitations.” The issue, however, is not, as the author claims in straw-man fashion, that doing so will “fail to fully convey the nuances and complexities of a given historical moment or situation.” Rather, it’s a problem of narrative continuity. Not only do we lurch from region to region, era to era, constituency to constituency; the unorthodox structure forces upon the reader a kind of jack-in-the-box dynamic, wherein each chapter begins broadly, with grand geographic sweep, allusions to ancestry and topographical detail, only to get progressively narrower as the selected figure of study emerges, rises, falls, and thereby imparts his or her “representative” lessons. It’s akin to Michael Barone’s The Almanac of American Politics, with its district-by-district summaries: great as a reference volume, less so as a literary experience.
An unintended lesson of the book is how often politics is not only local but depressingly venal. Stenvig succumbs to the temptation of foreign junkets and private-sector digs; Harold Ford Sr. to indictment (and acquittal, seven years later) on bribery charges; and so on. Still, there isn’t an important political event or trend of the fractious quarter-century of history assayed in Losing the Center that escapes Bloodworth’s keen eye, and his book will serve as a useful, if not exhaustive, primer on the era for political-science students for generations.
By way of conclusion, the author argues that American liberals, having already demonstrated a recurrent mutability, must—if they are to avoid the mistakes of the early 70s and remain a viable electoral force—embrace the concept of American exceptionalism. That the book makes no mention of Barack Obama, whose success at the ballot box has not suffered from his refusal to advocate for exceptionalism, suggests the need for further case study—or at least the right case studies.