- Let Us Now Praise Progressives
The present travail of both political liberalism and the left in the United States hardly requires elaboration. One cannot feel surprised if out of that seemingly endless dark night there sounds a call to take heart by celebrating past glories and passions. This is one of the less complex usable pasts that historians (and others) can construct: inspiration. The political viewpoint commonly traced back to the New Deal seems all but dead, with our Democratic president assuring us, “The era of big government is over.” Now, amid funeral preparations, studies appear on the historiographic horizon commemorating political liberalism in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. 1 Others must be on the way, and some, not wishing to spoil the inspirational mood, just as surely will blur the admittedly permeable lines separating New Deal, Cold War, and Great Society species of liberalism. At moments of political weakness and disarray, a “Big Tent” approach will seem wise to many. There is, after all, safety in numbers.
Furthermore, if one blurs the salient distinctions in this manner, one can more easily summon the legitimacy of accomplishment, or that of moral vision, for the specific politics one wishes to absolve from the judgment of the present. In left-liberal discussions of the 1960s, these tactics are familiar. We should go easy on John Kennedy, since his oratory must have borne some relation to the idealism of young civil rights workers; the new left deserves a reprieve because it had something to do with ending the [End Page 859] Vietnam War, though we are not sure exactly what. Now, from the right, we hear that Ronald Reagan’s bungled and morally rancid domestic stewardship pales in significance before his contribution to the downfall of communist regimes in eastern Europe; never mind just how important were the links, really, between either the democratic forces of rebellion in that part of the globe, or the structural defects of those regimes, and the Reagan junta and its policies. 2 One maneuvers one’s protagonists within earshot of those who achieved tangible and widely revered results or of those with unassailable moral credentials; hopefully the heroes’ good names will rub off a bit, and no one will ask embarrassing questions.
John Egerton exercises the same tactic, to the tune of six-hundred-plus pages, in Speak Now against the Day: The Generation before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. This is the Big Tent treatment of southern liberalism with a vengeance. In these pages, gradualists and extremists, moderates and radicals, moral outcasts and establishment opinion-molders, prophets and temporizers, mingle promiscuously. Egerton offers heroes for every reader who is not a staunch segregationist. (He is possibly more deft in painting his villains, who of course are both plentiful and colorful.) Egerton has written several other books about the South, but he is not a professional historian. This is a popular history aimed at a broad educated audience, no doubt one cause for the excitement it has generated. In a sprawling narrative, the author seeks to cover the entire range of political and intellectual activity in the South between 1932 and 1954 as it bore on the issues of race relations and segregation. He discusses black and white, politicians and writers, power-brokers and insurgents. His clearest purpose is to excavate every white southerner in the relevant years whom he legitimately can call a “progressive” on racial, as well as economic, issues. The salience of this category points to significant problems in his framework of political analysis.
The book’s warm reception, more than the book itself, speaks volumes about the present predicament of liberalism in the United States. Egerton’s amateur status may excuse some of his book’s conceptual flaws, but Charles B. Dew calls Speak Now against the Day “magnificent,” and elevates it to the status of Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, and Lillian Smith’s Killers...