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Losing the Center

The Decline of American Liberalism, 1968--1992

Jeffrey Bloodworth

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. 1-4


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p. 5-5


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pp. v-vi

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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. ...

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1. Latte Liberals: Donald Peterson and the Birth of the New Politics

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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. ...

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2. Revolt of the Joe Six-Packs: Charles Stenvig and the White Ethnic Revolt

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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. ...

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3. Too Big to Fail: Fred Harris and the New Populism

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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. ...

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4. Good Intentions, Bad Results: Harold Ford and Majority-Minority Redistricting

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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. ...

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5. Liberal Interventionism: Senator Henry Jackson and the American Mission

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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 Mc- Govern, did the unthinkable; ...

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6. The Middle East of Domestic Politics: Jimmy Carter and Welfare Reform

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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. ...

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7. "America Ain't What's Wrong with the World”: Ben Wattenberg, the Vital Center, and Neoconservatism’s Liberal Roots

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pp. 133-154

The “Little Flower” understood schisms. Acknowledging, “The trouble with us liberals and progressives is that we’re not united,” Fiorello La-Guardia confessed: “Let’s not fool ourselves—we have more than fifty-seven varieties.”1 If anyone realized liberalism’s voluminous categories, it was LaGuardia. ...

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8. "Everybody is People”: Bella Abzug and the New Politics of Feminism

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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 ...

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9. Leave Us Alone: Morris Udall, the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the Reagan Revolution

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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. ...

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10. "Zero, None, Zip, Nada”: Lindy Boggs and Gender Gap Politics

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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 ...

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11. "There Is Nothing for Nothing Any Longer”: Dave McCurdy’s Quest for National Service

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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,” ...

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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. ...

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pp. 249-252

Writing and researching are lonely enterprises. No book, however, is the product of a lone author. In the seven years I labored to complete Losing the Center, scores of people contributed mightily to the project. I would like to take this opportunity to repay their kindness and hard work with my appreciation. ...


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pp. 253-324


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pp. 325-338


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pp. 339-346

E-ISBN-13: 9780813142319
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813142296

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2013