Why We're Liberals

Eric Alterman would make a terrible political strategist. In his new polemic, the liberal gadfly admirably rebuts all the right’s powerful canards about the left—that it’s soft on terrorism, or anti-American, or just a bunch of out-of-touch elites in bed with Hollywood. The problem is that he offers precious little real-world advice on how progressive politicians might actually combat criticism on the campaign trail, where conservative messaging has so often triumphed. Any insight into how Dems can prevent another fatal Swift Boat attack is conspicuously absent.

Beginning with a political history that charts the evolution of liberalism from its Enlightenment origins through its last hurrah­ (LBJ’s Great Society), Alterman maintains that the left’s ideological hallmarks—such as a commitment to reason and equality of opportunity for all citizens—still resonate with the vast majority of Americans. (Indeed, after seven disastrous years of the Bush administration, that’s even more true, he contends.) Then, in a series of chapters with tongue-in-cheek titles like “If Liberals Are So Peace-Loving, Why Do They Want to Murder the Unborn?,” Alterman disembowels the falsehoods conservatives have successfully deployed over the years.

Yet in marked contrast to his now-classic 2004 critique, What Liberal Media?, which persuasively corrected conservative charges of a biased press, Alterman’s latest treatise is hardly revelatory. Most of his readers know that conservative rhetoric about liberals is pure spin, and that key progressive agenda items like universal health care and multilateral diplomacy enjoy wide support among voters. But Republicans could still manage to win. Unfortunately, Alterman, privileging critique at the expense of pragmatic solutions, doesn’t attempt to explain how they can be stopped.

—Sean Kennedy

Alterman reads Mar 24, 2008.

By Eric Alterman. Viking, $24.95.