alterman.eric at gmail dot com
News and Bio
Liberalism's rise and fall is the subject of journalist Eric Alterman's new book. Historian Kevin Mattson contributed some outlines, but this is Alterman's magnum opus. A columnist for the left-wing Nation magazine and the author of seven previous books on politics (and one on Bruce Springsteen), Alterman is well-placed to tell the history of his ideology....Alterman's book stands as the definitive work on its subject.
What makes "The Cause" so valuable is its combination of detail and empathy. Though clearly on the left side of the spectrum, Alterman has important critiques of left-wing identity politics, the 1960s New Left, and aspects of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. He is sympathetic to the need for Democratic politicians to hedge toward the center, even as he laments that fact. He recognizes that Americans are deeply hostile to the notion of a powerful central government, even as they approve of many of the individual actions it undertakes.
For most of "The Cause," Alterman's fiery temperament is restrained by shrewd judgment, compassion and judiciousness. It is only when he gets to the Obama era that he is unable to see the positive achievements of the current president.
From The Boston Globe:
What a relief it is, then, to read Eric Alterman’s superb new book, “The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.”...
Rather than seize on high-profile victories, the book moves chronologically through the advances, false starts, missteps, and triumphs of the decades that followed FDR’s inauguration. The leading characters in the unfolding liberal play are woven into the story, along with the conflicts that sometimes accompanied them. Because it is a history, set in the context of the times and the players, Alterman doesn’t weigh the book down with ex post facto arguments — what is gained now, in the 21st century, from making the case for Social Security or assailing its critics? — but treats the need for government intervention as a given and lays out how the ensuing policies were shaped and realized.
Alterman, despite his strongly held views, does not rant; he knows what liberalism is all about, why it matters, and why, in his view, it should be the basis for American governance. He is an intellectual, not a flack, and his book is long (more than 500 pages), dense, and complex, full of events, decisions, and big personalities. But it would be a mistake, whether you are a conservative or a liberal, not to read it....
Like the most admirable of true believers, Alterman does not feel it necessary to hammer away at the arguments of others. He has his opinions — he is among the best known, and best, of today’s liberal commentators — and one can find his views easily enough in these pages, but he is content to let liberalism speak for itself and to show us how it came to be and why it has enjoyed the support of so many Americans. In these pages you can argue with or cheer for the people and the ideas that underlie so much of what we today take for granted — I would happily take up some of those debates myself — but if your goal is to learn about, and understand, one of this country’s most potent political forces, this book belongs in your hands.
From Publisher's Weekly:
In this ambitious work, journalist Alterman (Kabuki Democracy) and historian Mattson (When America Was Great) present an encyclopedic history of liberalism, a movement devoted to equality, justice, and freedom, and a powerful engine of change in the 20th century. With a huge cast ranging from political to cultural figures as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Gloria Steinem, Richard Rorty, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more, the authors tell the tortured story of the liberal fight for social justice. Against the backdrop of the lives and works of these men and women, they undertake an exhaustive exposition of legislation, election campaigns, foreign policy decisions, theoretical books and journals, and other cultural artifacts. The liberal devotion to rationality leads to the problem of “how to inspire passion for a philosophy that itself distrust[s] passion.” Alterman and Mattson suggest that, in our current era, liberalism has “pledged itself to rationality in a political culture in which anti-intellectualism runs rampant,” and in which the enemies of liberalism are effectively mobilizing populist fear and ignorance. Though the book loses narrative focus due to the slew of mini-biographies spliced throughout, it remains an illuminating history of postwar politics, international relations, culture, and philosophy—all in one scrupulously researched volume.
From The Daily Beast:
“Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the great literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in the preface to 1950’s The Liberal Imagination. That does not mean there’s no conservatism—just that its impulses do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” A look at the current Republican landscape, and you’ll see this is still perfectly true. But The Cause shows why this is also completely false. Eric Alterman, a columnist for such publications as The Nation and The Daily Beast, wrote the book with the help of academic Kevin Mattson, and the two chronicle an intellectual (and actual) history of liberalism that even Trilling would approve of. Alterman follows this story leftward with his keen compound eye for the schemes that mattered in the last 70-odd years (FDR’s legacy, civil rights, feminism), and what perhaps shouldn’t matter (Reaganomics, neocon), as the world increasingly mistakes the gestures that “resemble ideas” to be actual ideas. But Alterman’s greatest strength is pointing out the failures of liberalism. As you read this coherent and excellent version of our recent past, keep in mind what Alterman believes is Trilling’s biggest flaw: not only the liberal imagination but ideas in general are cursed to “proceed not with excitement or enthusiasm, but with caution and modesty.” Look around—we have arrived at today.
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, the Nation Institute and the World Policy Institute.
Alterman is the author of nine books, including most recently The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (2012, co-author), Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (2011), Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009), and the national bestsellers What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004, co-author). The others include: When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005). His Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992,1993, 2000), won the 1992 George Orwell Award and his It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award, and Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998).
Termed "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today" in the National Catholic Reporter, and author of "the smartest and funniest political journal out there," in The San Francisco Chronicle. In recent years, he has also been a columnist for: Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Moment, The Forward, the Daily Beast, Worth, The Sunday Express (London), MSNBC-TV and MSNBC.com, and a history consultant to HBO Films. He has also been the winner of the George Orwell Award, the Jack London Literary Prize and the Mirror Award for media criticism.
A former Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU and Columbia, Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in US History from Stanford. He lives in New York City. He lives with his family in Manhattan