By Kim Phillips-Fein
The Paradox of
Graduating from Harvard Law School in the year 2000 is nothing to complain about; it assures an ambitious youngster of a fat salary and a secure social status. But even the best-paid mergers-and-acquisitions dealmaker must sometimes dream of the halcyon days of the Great Depression, when, quicker than a young man could get his J.D., he'd be called to the capital to head an important new agency or work out an exciting bit of regulation. As one contemporary told it: "A plague of young lawyers settled on Washington. They all claimed to be friends of somebody or other and mostly of Felix Frankfurter and Jerome Frank. They floated airily into offices, took desks, asked for papers and found no end of things to be busy about. I never found out why they came, what they did or why they left."
For liberal journalists, lawyers and scholars shut out in the wilderness during the dark days of Ronald Reagan, and the barely brighter ones of Bill Clinton, stories like this one only twist the knife in the wound. Running the country is their calling in life. But economics Ph.D.s from MIT and the University of Chicago get all the good jobs, the regulatory agencies are in retreat, and would-be public servants are consigned to lifetimes peering in at power from the outside or training the next generation of corporate lawyers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, disappointed liberals often have blamed the New Left for the demise of the New Deal order. One standard narrative of liberalism's decline lays the responsibility squarely on the radical Weatherfolk, the anti-war movement and black power extremists, who frightened off the solid blue-collar core of the country. Liberals, unable to control the centrifugal forces of fringe politics, began to seem morally permissive and impotent, incapable of anything but spending other people's hard-earned money.
It's to the great credit of veteran political journalist and liberal commentator John B. Judis that he rejects this story out of hand in his new book, The Paradox of American Democracy. Instead of attacking the left for the decline of liberalism, Judis convincingly argues that a resurgence of "class struggle" in the '70s was primarily responsible for the destruction of the Great Society. The assault on unions and government in the '70s and '80s, far from being a revolt of the moral majority, was carefully planned and executed by what a historian starting from a different set of first premises might call an energized ruling class. Corporate leaders "turned against union organizers, environmentalists and consumer activists with the same resolve that an older generation of business leaders had turned against the AFL, the IWW and the Socialist Party." In so doing, "they turned American politics decisively away from democratic reform."
But while Judis' historical analysis of the decline of postwar liberalism is compelling, his overall political philosophy, derived from thinkers like Herbert Croly, the guiding spirit of Progressivism, has all the strengths and weaknesses of that movement, which, as Richard Hofstadter once said, "despised the rich, but feared the mob."
Kim Phillips-Fein, a contributing editor of The Baffler, frequently writes for In These Times.