Politics & Policy

Liberal Reading

A Right man's Left-hand library.

A couple years ago, I penned a quick column on books I would recommend for folks interested in boning up on the intellectual heritage of the conservative movement. I wrote it in response to repeated requests for recommendations on the subject. This makes sense insofar as it would be very strange for me to write such a column in response to requests for recipes for Moroccan-Burmese fusion cuisine.

The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945? What does this have to do with couscous Rangoon?”

Anyway, what’s sort of interesting is that requests for conservative book suggestions dried up for a few years. I hardly think this is because my column settled the issue for all time. Rather, I think interest in conservatism has waned in recent years thanks to the more pressing issues of Islam and terrorism and the fact that–for good and for ill–conservatism has largely been defined for much of the last five years as “whatever George W. Bush does.” To say this state of affairs has been vexing to some of us is an understatement on par with “haggis is an acquired taste.”

Regardless, recently I’ve been getting a lot of requests to stop throwing my chicken bones onto the street outside my house. But that’s not important right now. I’ve also been getting a lot of requests for recommendations about conservative books again. I think this is probably a good sign, but with some serious downsides as well. It probably reflects that President Bush’s defining role as a conservative has abated somewhat. I also worry it might be a sign that people are growing bored with the war on terror as an intellectually compelling challenge. Still, any time a movement rekindles its interest in the ideas which defined it, it’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, I wrote my conservative-book-recommendations column already. And while I would add a couple other books to the list, and I’d probably revise and extend my remarks about Professor Von Mises in a more complimentary way, at the end of the day I still think it’s a pretty good list.

Besides, since the time when I wrote that list, I haven’t read that many more conservative books–at least not many which deserve to be added to it (possible exceptions: A New Republic by John Lukacs, The Long March by Roger Kimball, and almost certainly the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Conservatism put out by ISI–not the Pakistani intelligence service, the other ISI). But I have been reading a lot of books about liberalism (and time-machine construction, but we can talk about that another day–perhaps thousands of years from now, if I’m successful). Which brings me to the subject of this column, some five paragraphs from where the topic sentence should be. I thought it might be useful to offer a few books on the subject of liberalism that open-minded conservatives and intellectually engaged liberals might find interesting.

But first, some more throat-clearing. As I’ve written a bunch of times, I think liberals have cut themselves off from their own intellectual tradition, to the point where the giants of the true liberal tradition–Locke, Smith, the Founders, etc.–are vastly more celebrated on the right than on the left. But even the founders of “modern liberalism” (i.e. Progressivism), which means almost the exact opposite of traditional liberalism, are very rarely celebrated by self-described liberals today. Don’t take my word for it–E. J. Dionne admits as much in his book Stand Up Fight Back: “Liberals and Democrats tend not to view themselves as the inheritors of a grand tradition. Almost on principle, they are suspicious of such traditions, of too much theorizing, of linking themselves too much to the past.” Modern liberalism has lots of intellectual giants, but liberal totem poles tend to feature activists more than thinkers and writers. Indeed, of the intellectual giants who formed (or deformed) modern liberalism–Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, et al.–”not one of them is routinely celebrated by today’s liberals,” according to Dionne. (Meanwhile, the avatar of movement liberalism these days–that Daily Kos guy–admits he doesn’t really read books much at all).

This is just one reason why I’m not recommending primary sources. Much as I argued in my conservative-book list that I wouldn’t really recommend The Road to Serfdom or God and Man at Yale, even though their historical importance is enormous, I don’t think many readers would gain a whole lot from reading The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly or The Folklore of Capitalism by Thurman Arnold, even though these books were hugely significant historically speaking. And some books–The Greening of America, for example–are so stupendously awful it would be silly to waste your time reading them unless you have to (I did–and “stupendously awful” is a diplomatically generous description along the lines of “this haggis is surprisingly tangy”).

Instead, I’m recommending books that I personally found interesting or useful, which explain the history of liberalism or aspects of it from non-hostile perspectives. I don’t pretend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, and every day I discover another book I should have read. Despite the caricatures of liberalism perpetrated by many on the right, there’s a great deal of realism and sober analysis to be found on the liberal side of the aisle. Obviously, their conclusions and preferences will elicit disagreement from thoughtful conservatives, but thoughtful conservatives should still appreciate that serious criticism of liberalism requires that we make some good faith effort to understand liberalism as it understands itself. Anyway, the throat-clearing is now over.

Get Reading

My absolute favorite book on the history of liberalism is Eric Goldman’s Rendezvous with Destiny. Goldman was an esteemed liberal historian who taught at Princeton and served as an adviser to LBJ from 1963 to 1966. The book is completely accessible to the lay reader, light and crisp. Its sweep is enormous without losing sight of the telling or humorous details. Because the word liberalism has been abused so badly, Rendezvous With Destiny is designed as a history of “reform” (as are many such histories). This allows him to cover the Populists and the Progressives as the precursors to modern liberalism, while at the same time recognizing the important distinctions between various factions. Goldman’s tone is often celebratory, but this merely adds oomph to his criticisms. Also, because Rendezvous was written in a different era, Goldman’s arguments are entirely oblivious to much of the political correctness one finds in similar contemporary works.

Arthur Ekirch’s The Decline of American Liberalism is gloomier about liberalism and more loyal to the original (i.e. libertarian) understanding of it, and is therefore the most “conservative” book on my list. Rather than celebrate the rise of reform, he laments its contribution to the decline of individualism. Hence, as libertarians are wont to do, Ekirch complains a lot about the rise of the national-security state–which is not to say he’s always unpersuasive, even for a warmongering “neocon” such as myself (quotation marks intended to convey heavy sarcasm).

A similar book in its gloominess is H. W. Brands’s The Strange Death of American Liberalism. The chief benefit of this book is that it is very short. Brands is a good historical popularizer and has the confidence necessary to breeze past huge topics in a paragraph or two (a confidence which still eludes yours truly). The chief drawback of the book–from a conservative perspective–is that Brands is so completely unpersuasive and transparent in his anti-Reagan stuff, it makes you question his historical judgment. (The inability of leading liberal historians to understand their own times is a fascinating subject and worth discussing more elsewhere).

A better book from, in my opinion, a better historian is Alan Brinkley’s Liberalism and Its Discontents. This is actually just a collection of essays, but they are very, very good and fair-minded all in all. In fact, I’ve never been disappointed by anything Brinkley has written, even as I’ve been angered by some of it. Another Brinkley book worth reading is The End of Reform. It’s a lucid and penetrating examination of the New Deal. His Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression is simply brilliant. In a sense, the book reminds me of Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers, in that even committed partisans in the fight over Chambers and Hiss could agree on the brilliance of the book. Voices of Protest is such a careful work that, no matter where you come down on the events Brinkley describes, you have to agree that his description is fair and compelling. I particularly recommend the very useful appendices.

This brings us to books about specific periods in the history of liberalism. The most important periods in that history are pretty easy to identify: The Progressive Era, which basically runs from around 1890 to 1920; the New Deal which runs from 1932 to the onset of World War II; and “the 1960s,” which took place from around 1966 to 1975.

There are certain things you need to look for when measuring the honesty of liberals writing about certain periods. For the Progressive era, they need to admit that civil liberties often mattered very little to the champions of “reform.” When it comes to the New Deal, they need to acknowledge that on the specific terms used to justify the New Deal–i.e. ending the Great Depression–the New Deal was a failure (the best recent conservative book on this point is Jim Powell’s FDR’s Folly). Moreover, they need to acknowledge FDR’s numerous shortcomings in terms of personal honesty and intellectual heft. I’m not saying that you have to think FDR was a lying dullard, or that the New Deal was a bad thing, to be an honest historian of the period, but you have to deal with those allegations thoughtfully.

As for the 1960s, you have to admit that at least some of the rebellion was little better than a pose; that fear of Vietnam and not high-minded pacifism was a major motive for the protest movement; and that some of the participants in the 1960s were either damaged people or became damaged because of their participation.

By my lights, William Leuchtenberg is the best general historian of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, which is ironic, because he has a book called Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. His The FDR Years is a collection of immensely useful essays. The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt is an excellent primer on the Supreme Court under FDR.

As for the Progressive Era, Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent : The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 is a fast moving and thorough history which will horrify conservatives, in no small part because, as you read the thing, you discover that the author is not in fact horrified by what the Progressives were up to. Meanwhile, the classic on the subject, The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter, is still extremely worthwhile. Its prose is crystal clear, and the whole book is very short but packed with insights. The downside is that Hofstadter has come under steady assault from all angles over the years, often for good reason. So if you tell a contemporary history professor that you think Hofstadter had the final word on the subject, you might get yourself in some trouble.

As for the 1960s, I don’t have any raves. I just don’t like the subject and subjects enough. By this I mean that even the very good books on the subject start with the assumption that the “heroes” of the 1960s are heroes, and they aren’t in my book. Conservative books start from the premise that ’60s radicals were villains. Maybe it’s just too soon for more evenhanded history. That said, there have been several good books on the subject which strived to treat the era responsibly, albeit from a left-liberal perspective. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s by Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin is a fairly academic book, but worthwhile. The Sixties by Todd Gitlin seems to be the standard text, and I generally like Gitlin’s writing. Reassessing the Sixties by Stephen Macedo is my favorite book on the Sixties, but it doesn’t quite count since, while it’s edited by a liberal, it’s really a collection of essays, half of which are conservative (and that’s the half I like best).

There are some philosophical books worth taking a gander at, too. But, honestly, I find these to be very frustrating. As a philosophy, modern liberalism annoys me because its adherents tend to cherry pick what counts as liberalism, and (to switch metaphors entirely mid-sentence) they use the escape hatch of pragmatism whenever they get themselves into trouble. Or, they don’t really mean liberalism at all, but they know they can’t call it “socialism” without their books getting tossed on the remainder pile. Two books I found rewarding in one way or another were Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country and Stephen Holmes’s The Anatomy of Antiliberalism. The Rorty book is blessedly short and easygoing; you could read it in an afternoon. It sets down where the court philosopher of liberalism thinks liberalism should go and who its heroes should be. Save for his ridicule for generations of liberals and leftists who looked to Russia–of all places!–for inspiration, I disagreed with almost all of it. Holmes’s book is more serious, rigorous, and thought-provoking, though he’s received some well-deserved criticism for distorting the views of liberalism’s critics. And I’d have to look at it again to offer more sustained comments (of all these books I mentioned above, it’s the only one I haven’t read or revisited in the last couple years while working on my book).

Anyway, I hope this is of some use or interest to someone. And my guess is it might be–at least to the people who made it to this sentence. I’m off to try to acquire a taste for haggis.


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