In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Postwar Liberalism as a Usable Past?:The Rewards and Risks of Historical Revisionism
  • Nick Bromell (bio)
When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism. By Kevin Mattson. New York: Routledge, 2004. 232 pages. $27.00 (cloth).
A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights. By Elizabeth Borgwardt. Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. 438 pages. $35.00 (cloth).
The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. By Peter Beinart. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 288 pages. $25.95 (cloth).

If there ever was a "liberal consensus," there is certainly no consensus today about what liberalism was, or is, or might become. Its left-wing critics believe that liberalism is a ruthless free-market ideology promoting the global hegemony of capitalism. Its right-wing critics believe precisely the opposite: that it's a "creeping socialism" hoping to curtail capitalism and destroy the free market. Left critics accuse liberalism of favoring a selfish individualism that denies the value of community. Right critics claim that it threatens individual rights with collectivist values and weakens communities with elitist conceptions of the "public good."

The sound and fury of these contradictory attacks on liberalism have succeeded until recently in shouting down more nuanced and balanced assessments. But as the Republican Party under George W. Bush steers the United States further and further to the right, a number of historians and political theorists have begun to view liberalism in a new light. Without espousing a nostalgic return to the good old days of liberalism's heyday, they argue that liberalism is not quite the demon its critics have made it out to be. They suggest that a more accurate understanding of liberalism might contribute to a vision of the national past that could prove useful today. [End Page 179]

Kevin Mattson's unfortunately titled When America Was Great appears at a moment when, in ASA circles, nationalism is regarded with deep suspicion and even the word "America" provokes alarm. But his book is not really about America, much less about a period of national "greatness." Mattson's actual subject is U.S. intellectual history, and specifically a handful of liberals associated with Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in the 1950s: Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Wechsler, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Taking the work of these four men to be representative of the essence of postwar liberalism, Mattson aims to rescue it from historical oversimplification and to argue for its relevance today.

Mattson defines liberalism as "a public philosophy that demands citizens think of themselves as members of a national community committed to greatness." Liberalism, in this account, is essentially an argument about the nature and responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Neither an economic theory, nor a political program, it is a continuously improvised effort to keep alive the fundamental values and principles of the democracy that has evolved in the United States over two and a half centuries. To be sure, national "greatness" is an abstract goal of this political philosophy, but it is a goal that serves as a means, not an end. For liberals, national pride is useful only insofar as it encourages citizens to aspire to a more fully realized democracy.

This account of postwar liberal nationalism calls to mind Tommie Shelby's recent description of "pragmatic" black nationalism as "the view that black solidarity is merely a contingent strategy for creating greater freedom and equality for blacks, a pragmatic yet principled approach to achieving racial justice."1 In both liberal and pragmatic black nationalisms, a powerful tension flows between the "pragmatic" and the "principled." On the one hand, these nationalisms eschew foundational thinking, essentialist categories, and absolute Truth; on the other hand, they somehow guide themselves with "principles." But these principles can serve their purpose only if they remain relatively fixed amid the surging waters of change and confusion. In short, both nationalisms rest on the apparent paradox that principles can be both enduring and contingent. And this is the core self-contradiction of liberalism that drives both radicals and conservatives crazy, provoking the former to accuse liberals of "compromise" and the latter to accuse them of...