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Reviews in American History 34.3 (2006) 372-378
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A House Divided:
Race, Class, and the Dilemma of American Liberalism
The last forty years have been troubled times for American liberalism. Today, liberalism is so much on the defensive that most progressive candidates for office shy away from using the term "liberal" to describe themselves, assuming that for many Americans, "liberal" has become a dirty word. In spite of the conservative-dominated Republican Party's growing problems, liberals have found it difficult to mount a successful campaign to reestablish the dominance they once enjoyed in American politics and are now seriously divided over the best means of attempting to challenge conservatives' hold on power. Some argue that the Democratic Party must strengthen its appeal to the center by disassociating itself from the kinds of governmental activism and cultural experimentation that became associated with liberalism in the 1960s. Others contend that if liberals are ever to offer a compelling and winning alternative to Republican conservatism, they will have to return to their progressive roots and develop a comprehensive reform agenda that addresses the fundamental socio-economic problems that are creating an increasing divide between privileged and ordinary Americans.
Carol A. Horton attempts to place the current plight of American liberalism in historical context by focusing on the crucial role of racial concerns in shaping liberalism's development since the Civil War. At the heart of her argument is the claim that liberalism has long been plagued by "the difficulty of creating and sustaining political movements that possess both the desire and the capacity to tackle the intertwined problems of racial and class inequality" (p. 225). This difficulty has had a long history, but it was powerfully brought to the fore by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which not only created a white backlash that helped set the stage for a conservative resurgence, but which also created rifts among American liberals that have not yet been fully healed.
Although Horton focuses on the crisis of what she calls "left-of-center liberalism," she argues that even in today's era of so-called "conservative" [End Page 372] dominance, the liberal tradition, as described fifty years ago by consensus historian Louis Hartz, continues to provide the basic ideological framework in which most Americans think about politics and society.1 Thus, Americans have consistently prioritized "the value of individual rights and liberties, limited and representative government, private property and free markets, constitutionalism and the rule of law" (p. 5). She notes, however, that liberalism over the last 150 years has taken on many forms, and that in the development of competing versions of liberalism, contrasting approaches to dealing with the nation's race problem have been central. Part of the appeal of today's "conservatives" is that, in fact, they use the language of liberalism to attack such policies as affirmative action. Neo-conservatives thus accept the legitimacy of the 1960s civil rights laws that ended de jure segregation and protected the right of African Americans to vote, but oppose affirmative action as a form of "reverse discrimination" that is inconsistent with their conception of an equal-opportunity, "color-blind" society.
Horton's study of the development of American liberalism examines two separate periods in American history. She devotes four chapters to the years from 1865 to 1896 that witnessed the First Reconstruction and the rise and fall of "producer republicanism" as represented by the Knights of Labor and the Populist movement, and another four chapters to the years from 1945 to 1980 that saw the liberal victories of the 1960s, the subsequent collapse of the New Deal order, and the ultimate triumph of Reagan's "right-of-center liberalism" (p. 223).
Horton's discussion of what she calls "anti-caste liberalism" in the period immediately after the Civil War does not depart significantly from what are now standard treatments of Reconstruction...