Fried Siegel has a fair and enlightening review of Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power in the latest issue of Democracy. I haven’t read the book, so Starr might disagree, but Siegel seems to honestly wrestle with the arguments in Starr’s book. Siegel’s primary concern is that, by ignoring liberalism’s past dalliances with radicalism, it makes it less likely that modern liberals will learn from those mistakes:
But Starr’s zeal for a purified, ahistorical liberalism makes it impossible for him to come to grips with its past failures and future opportunities, a reckoning necessary for a liberal rebirth.
I’m all for recognition of political and policy failures, but I also think a bit of ahistoricism is a good thing. Like Peter Beinert’s The Good Fight, these sorts of books are less about real historical accounting than creating new narratives for the contemporary political order. Inaccuracies are a problem, but omission is a greater sin for historians. If Starr doesn’t include Republicans in his narrative of Clintonian welfare reform (as Siegel chides him for), well, there might be some honest disagreements.
But part of contructing new narratives is choosing what to highlight and what to downplay. All political parties do this; witness Cameron’s Conservative Party in England, which styles itself more after the New Labor of Tony Blair than the Thatcherism of the 1980s. Today’s liberals already highlight FDR’s social welfare programs and war record, while downplaying his less impressive record on civil rights (with the reverse for LBJ, minus the war). Political traditions being a long and varied thing, you grab which strands you can use for the political moment.
Siegel goes awry, however, when he falls for some of the EU conventional wisdom: Continue reading