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Tall Order

Liberalism Has the Ideas–but Does It Have the Will to Impose Them?

This magazine’s own history reflects liberalism’s halting progress. Can it, and we, do better?

A man wearing a hat with a card that reads 'Bread Or Revolution' during a rally in New York's Union Square, April 1914.
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
A man wearing a hat with a card that reads “Bread or Revolution” during a rally in New York’s Union Square, in April 1914.

The editors ask if today’s liberalism is equipped to win “this battle,” too sprawling a question rooted in too runny a concept. We have more than just one current battle! Then, after the mystery of the “battle,” there’s the gooey concept of “today’s liberalism.” For this historian, “today” reaches back into the early twentieth century, where “liberalism” as a living, breathing, inspiring-but-myopic phenomenon resides in my own historical imagination. I know histories of liberalism date its origins to anti-monarchy, to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. But in American history, where monarchy was a foreign idea and slaveholding handicapped the Founding Fathers’ civic imagination, liberalism only truly starts to come alive in the Progressive era. The founding of The New Republic in 1914 embodied liberalism institutionally. While definitions of liberalism vary tremendously, The New Republic and its history offer means of thinking about a concept with a political history that is, in large part, a partisan history.

Erstwhile TNR editor Franklin Foer sees former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt as a crucial figure in The New Republic’s birth. Roosevelt’s 1912 National Progressive Party presidential campaign did not succeed, but his campaign platform called for including a minimum wage and “a single national health service.” Roosevelt’s blessing signaled TNR’s founders of the approval, Foer says, of “T.R.’s social set—Harvard and Yale men with an intellectual proclivity and a progressive bent.” At the time, they were most likely Republicans.

TNR’s founders were the crème de la crème of American “progressivism,” a description they initially preferred to “liberalism,” which they associated with Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s Southern, states’ rights, small government creed. TNR’s founders’ book titles broadcast their optimism: Herbert Croly, a Harvard man married to a wealthy wife, had published The Promise of American Life in 1909 and Progressive Democracy in 1914, both with the Macmillan Company, among the most prestigious publishers of the time. Walter Weyl, a Wharton School-Penn man who also married into wealth, published The New Democracy: An Essay on Certain Political and Economic Tendencies in the United States with Macmillan in 1912. Another founder, Walter Lippmann, also a Harvard man, had published his influential A Preface to Politics with the New York publisher Mitchell Kennerley in 1913. These were no obscure, self-publishing radicals, and they received sizable and repeated infusions of money from the cotton-gin-Whitney heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney and her investment banker husband, Willard Straight, a Cornell man.

The Progressive Party’s 1912 platform included a brief “Equal Suffrage” plank advocating voting rights for women but made no mention of the disfranchisement of Black men in the South. This omission carried over in the Progressive Party’s credentials committee’s recognition of white Southern delegates and its refusal to seat Southern Black delegates. This is where early-twentieth-century liberalism gets personal for me.

I never met my grandfather Charles Hosewell McGruder, who was born in 1877 and died sometime before my parents married 60 years later. At the time of the Bull Moose campaign of 1912 and the founding of The New Republic two years later, my grandfather was the principal of the colored high school in Victoria, Texas. He had been educated at Straight University, now a part of Dillard University in New Orleans, and served on its faculty in the early twentieth century. A lifelong believer in public service, he was a member of the Texas Equal Rights League. Perhaps as a courtesy to a leading colored man, white society might have allowed my grandfather to vote. This would have been purely honorific, for most Black men in Texas had been disenfranchised after the passage of a poll tax law in the state in 1902. Texas’s white primary law, which declared the Democratic Party a private institution, was enacted in 1923. Even so, I know from family lore that Charles McGruder was active in as much civil life as his race allowed.

Had my grandfather sought to attend the Bull Moose convention in 1912, he would have been among those turned away, for early-twentieth-century liberalism did not make Black citizenship rights a priority. In 1914, The New Republic ran articles on politics in Ireland, Germany, and Mexico, and on immigration and labor in the United States. TNR took what passed as correct, nonsentimental positions on poverty, avoiding the mistakes of socialists on the left and standpatters on the right. Black civil rights were not liberalism’s pressing concern, even in its quintessential achievement: the New Deal. The New Deal made liberalism Democratic, just as Democratic partisan politics kept racial justice out of the New Deal’s signature liberal achievements of Social Security and minimum wages. These policies mostly bypassed Black Americans, 90 percent of whom still lived in the Democratically controlled South in 1930. Workers in the categories where most Black workers were employed—farmwork and domestic service—were excluded from New Deal protections.

Liberals’ myopia regarding Black human rights was not unique at that time or for many decades to follow. American conservatism built on the values of the slave-owning Founding Fathers and unfettered capitalism, but liberals’ blindness to the fundamental role of race in U.S. society cramped it right down into the second half of the twentieth century. With voting rights omitted from the New Deal, that advocacy fell to radicals like the Birmingham, Alabama, Communist Hosea Hudson (1898–1988).

Hudson joined the Communist Party of the United States of America in 1931, when Communists became the strongest defenders of the Scottsboro Boys, who were menaced with lynching after being falsely charged with the rape of two white women hoboing on the same train. In addition to vindicating the Scottsboro Boys, in 1937–1938, the CPUSA encouraged Hudson to organize his fellow steelworkers into a union and to urge them to register and vote. In 1980, Birmingham gave Hudson a key to the city in gratitude for his pioneering voting rights advocacy. Until his death in 1988, Hudson remained convinced that the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s could not have succeeded without the earlier work of Communists like himself. Hudson stayed in the party until his death, declaring it the surest means for the working people of the United States, and in particular the Black working people of the South, to exercise their civil rights.

Even down into the 1960s, prominent liberals like Daniel Bell (a Columbia man who taught at Harvard) did not have Black civil rights in their sights. In The End of Ideology, published in 1960, Bell looked backward to the “radicals of the thirties [who] fought ‘capitalism,’ and later, fascism, and for some, Stalinism.” He continued: “Today, intellectually, emotionally, who is the enemy that one can fight?” In the context of such common blindness, the question of Black Southern voting rights lay beyond liberalism’s ken until the 1950s and 1960s, when Black activists and their radical allies forced the issue into view, and leaders of the national Democratic Party wrested voting rights away from Southern Democrats.

Even though liberalism came late to Southern Black civic empowerment, liberalism has played an essential role in broadening its support. Here is where a liberal journal like The New Republic has done and can do important political work, for its social prestige brings policies deemed too radical into the mainstream. The mainstream of the Democratic Party, that is, for Republicans are seldom liberals.

Our most tragic, most vexing political and humanitarian crisis of this moment involves the conflicts within and among Israel, Hamas, and Palestinians. For me, this is not entirely new. Given my personal interest in Black civil rights, Martin Peretz’s New Republic of the 1980s moved me to discontinue my subscription. My own issue was the magazine’s relationship with the Republican President Ronald Reagan, an advocate of states’ rights who had opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I watched the Reagan administration reverse the Department of Justice’s protection of Black voters in the South. Peretz’s New Republic’s outspoken defense of Israel was not of crucial importance to me at the time, focused as I was on the domestic policies of the Reagan administration. Support for the government of Israel simply did not figure in my understanding of the conflict between liberalism’s Democratic history and a Republican presidency at that time.

In recent years, the Netanyahu government has snarled the long-standing association of liberalism, The New Republic, Democrats, and Israel by ostentatiously courting Republicans and their allies: American white fundamentalist Christians, anti-immigrant activists, and groups opposing race and gender minorities. In the tragic events of the last many months, the interrelated and seemingly insoluble tragedies of murderous terrorist attack, genocidal bombing, and settler aggression have divided liberals—that is, have divided Democrats. Some Jewish Democratic politicians have denounced Israel’s prosecution of the war, while others continue to offer unconditional support.

Thinking about—talking about—the intertwined conflicts of the Holocaust, nationalism, religion, government, Zionism, settlers, and two-tiered citizenship would seem to be too hard and complicated a problem for twenty-first-century American liberalism to solve. What liberals can do, what The New Republic can do, however, is to continue to use their lofty educations and journalistic prestige to clarify the issues, even the partisan conflicts, and to suggest remedies.

Thinking about how to solve Israel/Hamas/Palestinians is really, really hard. On the other hand, the great illiberal challenge of our times, Trumpist-Republican authoritarianism, is not at all hard. The remedies in law, voting, and political policies are straightforward. All we need to do is add “universal” to the suffrage plank of the 1912 platform of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party and rally support. Already in 1912, the need for universal health coverage was obvious. Still, in 2024, when the needs are even more obvious, liberalism knows what needs to be done. The American partisan politics around Israel/Hamas/Palestinians is infinitely hard, but if liberalism remains true to its long-standing values—from 1912, equal suffrage, government in the interest of “the people,” for “social and industrial justice”—it can recommend solutions to even this agonizing crisis.