Just why are we liberals?

To say that I am a huge fan of the work of Eric Alterman is a bit of an understatement. I’ve been following his work since I read “What Liberal Media?” in my senior year of high school. Since then I’ve read most of his books and read his daily work over at Altercation. Alterman is one of my idols, he manages to combine historical scholarship, political/media journalism, and public intellectualism into one nice, attractive package.

So, yeah, it’s an understatement to say I was excited to buy his newest book “Why We’re Liberals” last week. Sadly, though, it was a bit of a disappointment.

The book is broken into two parts (after a very good & lengthy introduction). The first (about 1/4 to 1/3 of the book) lays out just what exactly American liberalism is and the problems it faces. The second (from 3/4s to 2/3s of the book) argues that everything conservatives have said about American liberalism for the last 40 years is wrong.
Alterman seems to have four central arguments in his book: (1) that liberalism is not some aberration (like Ann Coulter or Mike Savage would have you believe) but a natural part of American politics; (2) that liberalism needs (for lack of a better term) to “grow a pair” and really begin to combat conservatives and articulate what they believe; (3) that liberalism needs to reclaim its label in a positive way; (4) that modern conservatism has been lying about what liberalism stands for to cover up their own problems as a governing ideology.

All of these arguments are well taken. I think the problem is that the first 2 or 3 get very little space in the book, as they are mostly covered by the too short first part of the book. Most of the book seems to be about conservatism more than liberalism, in that for the largest portion  Alterman takes to task conservatives and corrects their lies and distortions instead of promoting liberalism. Basically, the book is too negative for a book titled “Why Were Liberals”. Alterman doesn’t spend enough time answering that question. He fails really, to lay out a positive case for liberalism on its own. I wish the content ratio had been flipped with 2/3s of the book laying out a positive case for liberalism and what it stands for and only 1/3 dealing with conservatives distortion of liberalism.

Perhaps I feel that way because I’ve seen Alterman go after conservative distortions  before in his blog and his previous books and was hoping for something fresher.

Now, this is not to say that “Why We’re Liberals” is a bad book. It is not. It is very good book. As always Alterman’s prose is clear and accessible. He does a great job of articulating his ideas and has a great eye for the telling anecdote. And, most of all, the man is a genuine funny writer, several of his quips caused me to laugh out loud. There is some great media criticism here to, which one can always expect from Eric Alterman.

Essentially I can recommend anyone interested in a good political book for the 2008 election season. Especially if you’re not a frequent Alterman reader. Big Alterman fans like myself may find the book a bit disappointing. That disappointment is less with the book than what it could have been.

Of course, I continue to wait for Alterman’s sure to be excellent study of post-war liberalism. From the bits of it we got in “Why We’re Liberals”, I’m sure it will be fantastic.

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2 Comments on “Just why are we liberals?”

  1. […] You can read my review of Alterman’s new book here. […]


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