If you want to know why liberals had so much political trouble in the 1980s, you could do worse than read Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge. The book itself is a partisan account of politics from 1973-1976, but what stands out is Perlstein’s framing device: Reagan stole the chance of liberal critics to redefine America. Perlstein writes of a friend who hated Reagan because
all that turbulence in the 1960s and ’70s had given the nation a chance to finally reflect critically on its power, to shed its arrogance, to become a more humble and better citizen of the world—to grow up—but Reagan’s rise nipped that imperative in the bud.
It isn’t entirely fair to describe this as a leftwing history. It is more a history from the perspective of a subgroup of the left. Perlstein establishes the book’s theme when he writes:
What does it mean to truly believe in America? To wave a flag? Or to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag-wavers—to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent?
One first notes the historical arrogance. America is a complicated country, but the country that produced Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has a history of reflecting that did not being with the 1960s and ’70s. One also notes the arrogance towards their contemporaries. Perlstein and his friends analyze while others flag-wave.
This is not about analysis. It is about a certain kind of politically self-defeating social positioning. George Packer wrote that the point of 1980s leftwing activism “often seemed to be to antagonize the sensibilities of ordinary Americans.” When a friend of Packer’s asked the radical priest Phillip Berrigan whether they would prevail, Berrigan responded in the negative, “But we’ll save our souls trying.” It wasn’t about convincing anybody of anything. It was about flaunting claims of leftwing moral superiority in the public’s face. It was that unearned sense of historical uniqueness and unearned sense of superiority that was so frustrating to some liberals in the Reagan Era. They were so much better, and America had turned away from them to someone who embodied everything they hated.
Perlstein describes those better Americans as the “suspicious circles.” They are notable for questioning everything but their own probity. The rest of the population is in search of “innocence.” The problem with this duality is that it leaves no room for the reality that people often see politics in terms of competing priorities and trade-offs. What Perlstein calls the search for “innocence” is often just what happens when people end up with political opinions that Perlstein dislikes.
Perlstein’s conceptual framework does not leave room for the person who thought that the Vietnam War might have been a mistake and that the Soviet Union had to be stood up to and that the United States should not be reckless in doing so. It does not leave room for the blue-collar worker who did not trust business, supported Nixon’s across-the-board wage and price controls, but would not vote for George McGovern.
These voters were not What’s the Matter with Kansas liberals who had suddenly gone abortion-crazy. The events of the 1970s would teach them to doubt the efficacy of price controls, while bracket creep and rising municipal taxes would push them to sympathize with the tax revolt. These voters weren’t really centrists either. They were not looking for a preppy George H. W. Bush with his less ideological style and his familial ties to the Republican party’s upper-class liberals.
Reagan was a master at work in this complicated space with these complicated people. The class of Reagan haters that Perlstein speaks for could not see this because they could only see Reagan as a cartoon and—more importantly—they could only see those people as cartoons. Where those people were conflicted and ideologically up-for-grabs, the self-regarding members of Perlstein’s “suspicious circles” saw rednecks, Archie Bunkers, and (later) yuppies. Perlstein isn’t so crude. They were just childish, shallow, flag-wavers who were searching for innocence. That those voters might have had legitimate concerns that were better addressed by Reagan than by public acts of self-love by members of the “suspicious circles” is not up for consideration.
But not all liberals were that hectoring—at least not all the time. Ross Douthat described “an impressive celebration of leftwing patriotism” just before President Obama’s Inauguration. Even Reagan was favorably quoted. No doubt the thousands of celebrants knew that their country had been terribly imperfect in the past and was imperfect in the present, but they could still celebrate their country without irony or displays of self-loathing (or rather displays of loathing for their less enlightened countrymen thinly disguised as “questioning”). Good for them.
There is also a lesson for conservatives. Perlstein’s framing device (which does a disservice to his sometimes interesting book), is mistaken in how it dismisses a wide swath of the American populace. How different was Mitt Romney’s contempt for 47 percent of his fellow countrymen? It is easy to mock the class of Reagan critics that Perlstein represents, and their pretensions to being a dispossessed moral elite, but Perlstein is a left-wing journalist and a nonacademic historian. Romney was the Republican presidential candidate. Maybe the joke is on us.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.