Roy had an interesting post the other day commenting on several different pieces -- mainly from the right -- wondering at the absence of a liberal canon governing our political world view (as opposed to our friends on the right who all, evidently, read Ayn Rand, Friedrick Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Tim LaHaye). The most serious of these pieces was by Beverly Gage at Slate, although it struck me as fairly ahistorical with observations like this:
Once upon a time, the Old Left had “movement culture” par excellence: to be considered a serious activist, you had to read Marx and Lenin until your eyes bled.
I think that if one looks back over one hundred plus years of liberal/left thought in the United States, the number of people who read Marx and Lenin "until their eyes bled" would have had a difficult time filling a small coffee shop. Marxist ideas, distilled and popularized, may have had some impact on the way the American left viewed the world, but I would say outside of a small cadre at City College in New York in the 1930s, that the number of Americans who were conversant in Marxists or Leninist theory and writings was decidedly small and generally not a crucial part of liberal/left movements. (Yes, for a period of time there were members of the U.S. Communist Party who were active in the American labor and civil rights movements, but they were a distinct minority.) As I've noted here before, "American exceptionalism" was originally a commentary about the failure of mass-based socialist political parties to ever make much of a dent in the American electorate.
American liberalism has never been a particularly ideological tendency. Its crowning achievements have been a combination of pragmatic top-down social reform -- embodied by the New Deal and the Great Society -- and successful mass movements -- the labor movement, the battle for black civil rights, women's equality, and lately, gay rights. There are all kinds of strains of American liberalism, with origins in any number of causes -- labor, the environment, feminism, civil liberties, pacifism, civil rights, sexual freedom, and so on. Most of us have overlap in all or many of these areas, while perhaps having a central passion that we think of as our core political identity. We contain multitudes.
I have never been a big political theory man. I came to liberalism as a kid through a combination of watching things happening growing up in the 60s -- what the fuck kind of monster do you have to be to grow up rooting for the southern sheriffs? -- reading history -- again, who roots for the slave owners? or the late Nineteenth Century factory owners? -- and, strangely enough, taking some of the classic Catholic Sunday school stuff seriously. Probably the most important book that I read in terms of solidifying my political world view was The Glory and the Dream, William Manchester's history of the United States from 1932 to1972, which I read when I was 14. Manchester begins his account by describing the hideous assault on the Bonus Army marchers led by Douglas MacArthur in the summer of 1932, just another manifestation of the inhumanity of the Hoover Administration. From there, it's on to the heroic days of the New Deal and FDR's extraordinary leadership, the labor movements struggles to organize the steel and automobile industries, the sit down strikes, John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther and Sidney Hillman -- a hundred or two hundred pages in I knew what side I was on. For life. (Again, who reads this stuff and sides with Hoover, MacArthur, or Henry Ford?)
As I got into my late teens and early twenties, I did read the works of some of the leading voices for social democracy in the United States -- Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, Michael Walzer, and Barbara Ehrenreich come to mind. But with the exception of Walzer, these thinkers tended to be less interested in the theoretical and more in tune with describing the way things were and why they needed to change not from some abstract philosophical point of view, but from a gut level sense of human justice. Later still I would take a shot at John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, but despite agreeing with most of its premises, found it too dense to get through. I didn't feel the need to have a grand theory for my politics -- I tended actually to agree with Pat Buchanan, who suggested that one arrives at one's politics through a visceral sense of the world and then you incorporate theory in later as a kind of post hoc means of reinforcing that which you already felt.
It seems to me that there are a whole lot of paths one could take to liberalism and texts that could lead you in that direction -- from the Other America to Silent Spring to the Death and Life of Great American Cities to the Feminine Mystique to the Autobiography of Malcolm X to Backlash to Nickel and Dimed. Music, movies, and popular culture generally are also underrated in terms of promoting liberalism. My guess is that something like marriage equality has been advanced far more by occurrences in the popular culture than by works like Virtually Normal.
Roy suggests that western literature is our canon, an answer I also quite like -- just from an American perspective think of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Sister Carrie, The Jungle, Elmer Gantry, A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Light in August, Catch-22, Invisible Man, Giovanni's Room, American Pastoral, A Boy's Own Story, The Things They Carried etc. as examples.
Liberalism is, at its core, pragmatic and humanist. It does not elevate abstractions over real live human beings and it looks to real results in terms of outcomes rather than theory. It is a fractious political tendency, which is a strength even if it doesn't always feel that way. It is a world view big enough to encompass voices as different as those that people the lefty blogosphere, from Amanda Marcotte to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Glenn Greenwald to Josh Marshall to Duncan Black to John Cole. It is a community in which dialogue and diversity are celebrated, even if we sometimes get infuriated with our compatriots.
Finally, it is a quintessentially American world view in the best sense of the world -- or at least the part of the American tradition that has fought for and gradually broadened the categories of people to whom freedom and equality apply.
The right wing canon is strangely foreign -- Rand, Hayek, and von Mises, all people who bear the deep scars of life lived in other parts of the world and who, I would suggest, are not very American in terms of their thinking. It's a strange group of thinkers to idolize really. Throw in the contradictory religious primitivism that also shapes the right and it is little wonder that right wing governance has proven such a disaster in recent times.
Ultimately, I will take our more chaotic influences any day than be a part of an inhuman, abstract cult.