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Losing the Center

Losing the Center: The Decline of American Liberalism, 1968--1992

Jeffrey Bloodworth
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Losing the Center
    Book Description:

    Many Americans consider John F. Kennedy's presidency to represent the apex of American liberalism. Kennedy's "Vital Center" blueprint united middle-class and working-class Democrats and promoted freedom abroad while recognizing the limits of American power. Liberalism thrived in the early 1960s, but its heyday was short-lived.

    In Losing the Center, Jeffrey Bloodworth demonstrates how and why the once-dominant ideology began its steep decline, exploring its failures through the biographies of some of the Democratic Party's most important leaders, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Bella Abzug, Harold Ford Sr., and Jimmy Carter. By illuminating historical events through the stories of the people at the center of the action, Bloodworth sheds new light on topics such as feminism, the environment, the liberal abandonment of the working class, and civil rights legislation.

    This meticulously researched study authoritatively argues that liberalism's demise was prompted not by a "Republican revolution" or the mistakes of a few prominent politicians, but instead by decades of ideological incoherence and political ineptitude among liberals. Bloodworth demonstrates that Democrats caused their own party's decline by failing to realize that their policies contradicted the priorities of mainstream voters, who were more concerned about social issues than economic ones. With its unique biographical approach and masterful use of archival materials, this detailed and accessible book promises to stand as one of the definitive texts on the state of American liberalism in the second half of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4231-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction. Liberalism: Gone with the Wind
    (pp. 1-14)

    This time, Atlanta did not burn. One hundred thirty years after Union forces torched the city, it was ground zero for a decidedly different watershed event: the 1994 “Republican revolution.” Hardly a native southerner, the revolution’s architect, Newt Gingrich, nevertheless felt the weight of history. Instead of bearing the inherited stigma of disunion and defeat, the Republican had stomached Democratic dominion over the Congress and the old Confederacy. Frustrated, he fought to reverse the Democrats’ institutional and regional power. With Democrats controlling the House since Eisenhower and the South since Reconstruction, Gingrich battled deep historical attachments in his drive for...

  4. 1 Latte Liberals: Donald Peterson and the Birth of the New Politics
    (pp. 15-36)

    Lyndon Johnson never saw it coming. With party regulars, senate barons, and big city mayors in his back pocket, the president might have dealt with the nervous nellies in the antiwar movement, but his renomination seemed secure. Sure, gene McCarthy was challenging him, but the Minnesotan lacked credibility. Long seen as a liberal up-and-comer, by 1967 McCarthy had so soured on Senate life that colleagues regularly mocked his commitment. A decade prior, he had so burned with ambition that he forsook a safe House seat, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) chairmanship, and the Ways and Means Committee for a...

  5. 2 Revolt of the Joe Six-Packs: Charles Stenvig and the White Ethnic Revolt
    (pp. 37-56)

    In 1970, Milwaukee’s white ethnics ended Donald Peterson’s electoral career. Ironically, ten years prior, these very same Beertown southsiders proved crucial in another hotly contested campaign with national implications. In 1960, JFK and Hubert Humphrey squared off in the Wisconsin primary. Unlike 1970, when Peterson ignored working-class Poles, Kennedy and Humphrey vied for these voters.¹ With little policy differences separating the two, Catholic Democrats opted for their coreligionist. As in 1968, Humphrey also came up short in 1960. Proving their significance, white ethnics made the difference in all three elections, 1960, 1968, and 1970. New Politics liberals, nevertheless, simply discarded...

  6. 3 Too Big to Fail: Fred Harris and the New Populism
    (pp. 57-74)

    The jailers released the prisoner so he could to testify before the Senate. Clad in a plaid short-sleeve shirt, the sixth-generation farmer explained to the Washington powerbrokers: “You know, justice is not always brought and set in your lap. Sometimes, you have to stand up and reach for it.”¹ Wayne Cryts should know. In February 1981, he faced down a slew of federal agents as his ragtag band of five hundred farmers liberated thirty-one thousand bushels of soybeans from a Missouri grain elevator.²

    Igniting this entire episode was a grain company’s bankruptcy. When the Puxico, Missouri, granary went belly-up, legal...

  7. 4 Good Intentions, Bad Results: Harold Ford and Majority-Minority Redistricting
    (pp. 75-94)

    It all started in Harold Ford’s Tennessee. And, though the political fight was over a seeming cliché, “one man, one vote,” the brouhaha involved anything but. In 1962, this platitude scarcely reflected political reality in the Volunteer state or America. Indeed, for half a century, Tennessee’s state legislators had simply refused to redraw their legislative boundaries and reapportion representation. As a result, of ninety-nine statehouse seats, sixty-six went to rural areas, 40 percent of the population, while urban Tennesseans claimed a mere thirty-three seats. In terms of representative impact, one rural vote packed twice the wallop of an urbanite’s: so...

  8. 5 Liberal Interventionism: Senator Henry Jackson and the American Mission
    (pp. 95-114)

    The moral stakes were clear. By August 1978, the Khmer Rouge had murdered an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians. With nearly 20 percent of the country’s population butchered, one observer claimed that Pol Pot’s rampage made “Hitler’s operation look tame.”¹ Appalled at what he deemed “a clear case of genocide,” Washington’s most famous antiwar senator, George McGovern, did the unthinkable; he called for military intervention in Southeast Asia.² None other than William F. Buckley heartily endorsed the senator’s proposal, which was met with a mix of alarm, confusion, derision, and surprise.³

    In the wake of McGovern’s bombshell, a motley coalition of...

  9. 6 The Middle East of Domestic Politics: Jimmy Carter and Welfare Reform
    (pp. 115-132)

    Linda Taylor wore many hats. A voodoo doctor, bigamist, suspected child nabber, and overall con artist, the forty-seven-year-old Chicagoan also earned infamy in the 1976 presidential campaign.¹ Identified as the nation’s most notorious “welfare queen” by Ronald Reagan, Taylor found herself in the governor’s standard stump speech. Though the Gipper failed to capture the GOP nomination, “welfare cheats” became customary boilerplate for the New Right.

    Ronald Reagan understood the power of an anecdote. Cutting through the highfalutin fog of details, a well-told and -timed yarn emotionally connected voters to abstract issues. As he was wont to do, Reagan stretched the...

  10. 7 “America Ain’t What’s Wrong with the World”: Ben Wattenberg, the Vital Center, and Neoconservatism’s Liberal Roots
    (pp. 133-154)

    The “Little Flower” understood schisms. Acknowledging, “The trouble with us liberals and progressives is that we’re not united,” Fiorello LaGuardia confessed: “Let’s not fool ourselves—we have more than fifty-seven varieties.”¹ If anyone realized liberalism’s voluminous categories, it was LaGuardia. Indeed, the son of Italian and Jewish immigrants inhabited an extraordinary number of these varieties all by himself. Born in bohemian Greenwich Village, he grew up in the Arizona Territory, worshiped as an Episcopalian, worked in Italy, and joined the GOP—all before serving three terms as mayor of the multiethnic stew that was New York City.

    Taking full advantage...

  11. 8 “Everybody Is People”: Bella Abzug and the New Politics of Feminism
    (pp. 155-174)

    Bella jumped right in. For decades, the House swimming pool had been an all-male reserve. By tradition, the old pols and congressional bulls swam naked. To compensate for this inhospitable environment, Congress built a women’s gym—sort of. Lacking a swimming pool and other amenities, the facility was, in the words of one congresswoman, “ten hair dryers and a ping pong table.”¹ Never shy about confronting hypocrisy and inequality, Bella Abzug donned a swimsuit and dove into the pool, naked men and all. Shaming chauvinists into wearing swim trunks was merely a prelude to the congresswoman’s antics to come.²


  12. 9 Leave Us Alone: Morris Udall, the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the Reagan Revolution
    (pp. 175-194)

    Apparently, Democrats hated baseball—so much so that in Nevada, where the federal government owned 87 percent of all the land, the townsfolk of tiny Alamo had to petition Washington just to construct a Little League baseball field.¹ Located in the sparsely populated Lincoln County, Alamo was also situated near Area 51. The security needs of the experimental military airfield meant that the federal government controlled 98 percent of the county’s land, a reality causing bureaucratic headaches. Indeed, two and a half years after Alamonians asked for the building permit, it literally took an act of Congress before Little Leaguers...

  13. 10 “Zero, None, Zip, Nada”: Lindy Boggs and Gender Gap Politics
    (pp. 195-220)

    In 1984, Ronald Reagan roared to a reelection victory. The Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, struggled to win even his home state. And, though prognosticators had predicted the landslide, Geraldine Ferraro had also promised that a “silent [women’s] vote” would save the day.¹ Hardly a quip by an undisciplined candidate, Ferraro’s forecast referenced the Democrats’ strategy to defeat Reagan: women. On election night, however, the “silent vote” amounted to, in the words of Dan Rather, “zero, none, zip, nada.”²

    A wave of undetected female voters not only failed to emerge; the Gipper also won the very groups Ferraro supposedly represented: Catholics,...

  14. 11 “There Is Nothing for Nothing Any Longer”: Dave McCurdy’s Quest for National Service
    (pp. 221-244)

    Jesse Jackson yearned for relevance. Fresh from earning 6.9 million primary votes and electrifying the party faithful at the 1988 nominating convention, he nevertheless felt his political influence ebb. Denied the vice presidency, and then ignored by Michael Dukakis, he might have claimed that the “full scope of [his] leadership has yet to blossom and flourish,” but he sensed otherwise.¹ Dave McCurdy similarly burned with ambition. Unlike his rival, however, the Oklahoma congressman had political momentum and an organization, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).²

    Founded in 1985 and composed largely of southern and midwestern officeholders, the DLC originated from the...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 245-248)

    In 1992, Bill Clinton handily defeated George H. W. Bush and took the White House. At the outset of his presidency, it was New Politics liberals, not conservatives, who very nearly wrecked the administration. No longer insurgents, by 1993 they were the Democratic Party establishment. Chairing powerful congressional committees, and staffing the White House and federal bureaucracies, they largely controlled Clinton’s agenda. The former DLC chair might have campaigned as a New Democrat, but the lines between centrist and New Politics liberalism remained hazy and difficult to discern. As a result, the president stumbled.

    Allowing diversity politics to dominate the...

  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 249-252)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 253-324)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 325-338)
  19. Index
    (pp. 339-346)