November 2, 2006

Alterman Defends ‘Demonized’ Left

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To The Nation’s columnist Eric Alterman ’82, the defining characteristic of a liberal today is that “you aren’t crazy.” But despite the military, economic and internal problems that the conservative party has faced, Alterman does not believe that Democrats will take over Congress after Tuesday’s Midterm elections. Alterman gave a historical overview of what he deemed the “death of liberalism” and its effect on the upcoming elections in a lecture yesterday in McGraw.

Alterman first outlined the tenets of the Republican platform, which he believes the Bush administration has failed to follow through with.

During his campaign in 2000, Bush promised to change the country’s tone of debate and to embrace “compassionate conservatism.” But, said Alterman, “[The party] gave up trying to speak from the center and became hard-right conservatives.”

Another aspect of the platform, public morality, was dashed by the Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff and Bill Frist scandals, he said.

In addition, the Republican’s mission to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq has resulted in “massive failure.”

“Iraq is worse than Vietnam, even though [the number of casualties] is less,” Alterman said. “When we lost Vietnam, it didn’t matter much who controlled the area and if the country was Communist or not. We don’t have that same luxury in the Middle East.”

According to Alterman, most Americans also believe that Bush is more to blame for the Iraqi war than Saddam Hussein.

In addition, the 33 percent of Americans who consider themselves “conservative” perfectly matches Bush’s current 34 percent approval rating. Bush’s policies, said Alterman, have completely isolated moderate voters.

Yet Alterman believes conservatives will still continue to control the government after Nov. 7.

“The election will be very close,” he said. “The Democrats might eek out a victory in the House but will probably not win the Senate.”

But if Republicans have committed so many egregious mistakes, what’s preventing the Democrats from a landslide victory?

Alterman believes that the connotation of the word “liberal” has become so demonized that it has rendered the Democratic Party incapable of winning American trust.

“‘Liberal’ has become such a poisonous word,” he said.

Attempting to capture the negative sentiment that surrounds Democrats, Alterman said that many conservatives view liberals as, “tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show[s],” to quote the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.

Alterman largely blames the downfall of liberalism on racial issues. Liberals, Alterman believes, have historically isolated lower class whites with their emphasis on race-based social welfare projects.

“Affirmative action increased the insecurity of working class whites that their way of life would be threatened,” he said. “Liberals, [on the other hand], thought the working class was racist.”

The Vietnam War, in particular, resulted in the downfall of liberalism, Alterman said, as the war led to severe economic problems, such as high inflation and taxes, declining spending power and a lack of self-confidence in the country.

Those who were affected the most by the war felt that liberals ignored their plight and were more focused on social welfare programs.

While Alterman does not have a solution to the problems that face liberals, he still optimistically believes, “liberals … are in a better place than conservatives.”

Students who attended Alterman’s lecture praised his enthusiasm and knowledge for his subject.

“Alterman was very passionate about his ideas and stood by his opinions,” said Evan Hellman ’07. “I liked when he spoke about how the Democratic Party needed to tweak a few things, correct its rights and wrongs and could eventually come back on top.”

Nessia Sloane ’08 agreed, saying, “It was evident that Alterman had done all his research, as he clearly had a breadth of historical knowledge. The talk was extremely thorough and comprehensive.”

After graduating from Cornell with degrees in history and government, Alterman received his masters in international relations from Yale, as well as his Ph.D. in U.S. History from Stanford.

Alterman is currently a professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He is a senior fellow and blogger for Media Matters for America, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. and a history consultant for HBO Films.

He is also the author of several books including “What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News,” “Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy,” “It Ain’t No Sin to be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springstteen” and “The Book on Bush: How George W. Bush (Mis) leads America.” His newest book is “When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences.”