On April 23, 2012, the University of Illinois Press will publish Making Sense of American Liberalism, edited by Jonathan Bell and Timothy Stanley. The volume contains ten essays which offer refreshing and intelligent new perspectives on postwar American liberalism. Jonathan Bell, a senior lecturer of history at the University of Reading, England, answered our questions about the new book.
Q: What is the biggest myth about liberalism in the United States?
Bell: I suppose the biggest ‘myth’ involves comparing American social progress in areas like public health, welfare state building, and the like to other countries and finding it wanting, rather than taking American politics on its own terms and examining how liberalism has engaged with the U.S. political system and managed to make things happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Many are attracted to the notion of the United States as a ‘conservative’ country because conservative rhetoric is often louder and more colorful and rhetorically savvy – just take the case of the current debates over Obama’s health care plan. It’s all about delving beneath the surface of American politics to find out what’s going on at the level of policy.
Q: What are the main problems liberals encountered in the 20th century?
Bell: Well, myths are based on some fact! The United States has a complex political system that does not deliver radical change easily, and a political culture that prizes partisan and aggressive posturing over considered policy debate. Times when liberals have achieved huge successes, like the New Deal or Medicare, have tended to be times when liberal Democrats have been massively represented in Congress (1930s and mid-1960s): these occasions are rare. There is a deeply engrained suspicion of government in U.S. political culture that makes big government programs a harder sell than in, say, Europe.
Q: What strategies of change have liberals implemented to deal with these problems?
Bell: A variety of things: adapting the rhetoric of reform to an American setting is something FDR did very well in the Great Depression, using homespun stories to sell his recovery and reform policies. Capitalizing on favourable political winds, like LBJ did when launching the Great Society after JFK’s assassination when conservatism was in abeyance. Associating liberalism and reform with an optimistic campaign message is key, something that has become hard to do since the economic travails of the 1970s in many sense limited the appeal of liberalism as optimism.
Q: With the presidential election coming up, do you see any changes being implemented in the Obama campaign?
Bell: He has no choice but to embrace the progressive message of health care reform and stimulus spending: to abandon them will alienate the core liberal movement whose enthusiastic support he must have to get out the vote on the left of the spectrum. Moderates are up for grabs, but lose the core base and he will lose. Plus any action by the Supreme Court and conservative activists to scrap health reform will mobilize the liberal base.
Q: What liberal organizations do you believe currently hold the most power in the United States?
Bell: Liberal bloggers and online publications like Huffington Post are important, but so are elected Democrats at the state level – in a state like California they hold much of the responsibility for keeping some of the more generous social provision states like that have. Compare with Wisconsin, where they are a minority against Scott Walker’s Republicans, and you see why it’s important to remember elected politicians do matter.
Q: How did you choose the essays that are included in the book?
Bell: We held a conference at Boston University in 2009 that showcased some of the best names in liberal historiography in the US as well as newer talent. We wanted a range of subject matter that crossed chronological and thematic boundaries, and we think we achieved that with essays on different groups, periods, and themes in the history of American liberalism from labor to moderate Republicans to idealistic McGovernites.