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A Wrong Turn Led to the 'L-Word'

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Why are liberals the way liberals are? What is it about the L-word that has become so offensive to so many? It has become such a turnoff that countless liberals dare not admit to their own label.

At its best, liberalism is about the defense of the underdog, of minority rights, of social justice, of active but restrained government, of civil liberties, of openness and tolerance.

In their own defense, those who still admit to being liberals would argue that the very fact that they have stood up for minority rights -- including, heroically, for civil rights in the 1960s -- made them unpopular, sometimes with a majority of the country.

They also argue, correctly, that the demonization of their creed goes all the way back to those who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt's program of reform at home and internationalism abroad. The reaction to FDR bred McCarthyism and the libelous charge that liberals were, at best, "squishy soft" on communism.

But liberalism has also become associated with elitism, arrogance and disdain for the values of average Americans. Think of the consumer preferences tossed at liberals from the right as epithets: brie, chablis (now updated to merlot), Volvos, lattes, vacations on Martha's Vineyard. Never mind that it's conservatives who want to eliminate inheritance taxes on those Vineyard mansions.

How all this happened is complicated, but some important clues are contained in the most important political book of 2006 that is not a book about politics at all.

David S. Brown's "Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography" offers us the life of one of our country's most revered historians. Hofstadter, the author of such enduringly popular works as "The American Political Tradition" and "The Age of Reform," shaped modern liberalism in ways that we must still grapple with today.

Anyone who loves American history owes a debt to Hofstadter, and that would include me. I was blessed with two inspiring high school history teachers, Jim Garman and Norm Hess, who stoked my passion for the subject by introducing me to Hofstadter.

Along with thousands of students, I was entranced by Hofstadter's grace of expression, his gift for aphorism and his icon-smashing approach to America's heroes. He was a liberal who was as tough on progressives, populists and reformers as he was on right-wing mass movements, anti-intellectualism and the countryside's disdain for the city. To this day -- we can dream, can't we? -- I still aspire to Hofstadter's clarity and to his gift for synthesis.

But reading Brown is also a reminder of where Hofstadter may have misled the very liberal movement to which he was devoted. There was, first, his emphasis on American populists as embodying a "deeply ingrained provincialism" (Brown's term) whose revolt was as much a reaction to the rise of the cosmopolitan big city as to economic injustices.

Many progressives and reformers, he argued, represented an old Anglo-Saxon middle class who suffered from "status anxiety" in reaction to the rise of a vulgar new business elite. Hofstadter analyzed the right wing of the 1950s and early 1960s in similar terms. Psychological disorientation and social displacement became more important than ideas or interests.

Now, Hofstadter was exciting precisely because he brilliantly revised accepted and sometimes pious views of what the populists and progressives were about. But there was something dismissive about Hofstadter's analysis that blinded liberals to the legitimate grievances of the populists, the progressives and, yes, the right wing.

The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter's students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting "political criticism in psychiatric categories," Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves "from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation."

Lasch added archly: "Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds."

This was, I believe, a wrong turn for liberalism. It was a mistake to tear liberalism from its populist roots and to emphasize the irrational element of popular movements almost to the exclusion of their own self-understanding. FDR, whom Hofstadter admired, always understood the need to marry the urban (and urbane) forms of liberalism to the traditions of reform and popular protest.

Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970, much too young at the age of 54. Few writers have left behind so much good work, books steeped in the paradoxes and ironies of our national story. I'd like to think it's an honor to Hofstadter's legacy that we might subject his own history to the kind of revisionism he practiced with such skill. Liberals owe a debt to Hofstadter, and they owe themselves an argument with him, too.

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