A Liberal Dose | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

For a guy whose summer home just got flooded during the Northeast's torrential downpours -- and whose political party has barely withstood a conservative tidal wave -- Eric Alterman sounds surprisingly upbeat.


"I think there's much more reason to be optimistic about our ability to fight back," says Alterman from Long Island. Liberals are countering the conservative onslaught "in a number of ways. We've got MoveOn.org, the blogs. The union movement seems to be waking up some more. People are buying our books."


Actually, they've been buying Alterman's books for a while. A columnist for the venerable Nation magazine, Alterman has published tomes on the media's alleged bias (What Liberal Media?), lies told from the Oval Office (When Presidents Lie) and the revolutionary potential of Bruce Springsteen (It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive).


And on Oct. 27, he'll appear at a fund-raiser for a group long supported by The Boss himself: anti-poverty activists Just Harvest, whose efforts Springsteen routinely endorses at Pittsburgh concerts.


The topic of Alterman's speech, "Truth in Politics: Is there such a thing," is a familiar concern for him. "I want to talk about the various mechanisms through which an extremist, corrupt and incompetent group of people have managed to take our political system well beyond what the American people want," Alterman says.


But the Bush administration's conspicuous failures have shifted the tide. Citing a slew of recent polls, Alterman contends, "The public has watched the guy for five years, and they've decided he represents values that aren't their values. We're now seeing the true face of conservatism, with the failure of the invasion of Iraq, the destruction of the Clinton surplus, and even a shocking lack of basic patriotic concern for the good of the country. You can see they're much more concerned with their own well-being: You have the cronyism on the Supreme Court, a lack of concern for the military. The majority of people believe that we were misled into war. Most people no longer admire George Bush as a person, they say his presidency is failed, that his response to Katrina was incompetent. I think Bush's agenda is dead."


Whether Democrats can breathe life into their own agenda has yet to be seen. "I think [U.S. Sen.] Rick Santorum will go down," Alterman predicts. "If people voted on the issues, he wouldn't even be in the game." But for the most part, "I'm pessimistic about elections" because the GOP has an edge in matters like campaign financing and gerrymandered Congressional districts.


And Democrats have their problems too, with an activist base often disenchanted with party leaders who refuse to take a stand. Alterman, who has advocated for Al Gore as the Democratic nominee in 2008, says, "I'm not very sympathetic to purism. Politics is a matter of compromise and cooperation. None of these single-issue positions justifies not putting up the strongest candidate because [Republicans] are so dangerous."


That goes for the Santorum race, in which the presumptive Democrat, Bob Casey, is pro-life. "I want to emphasize that I'm pro-choice, but I think in many ways Roe vs. Wade was a terrible thing for American liberalism," Alterman says. "Those kind of battles need to be won politically rather than in the courts. Roe created an enormous degree of resentment among working-class people."


Such concerns are very much on Alterman's mind. He's currently working on a history of modern American liberalism, and he doesn't want it to be an obituary. "Liberalism went off the rails during the Great Society at some point. I think it went awry when it became perceived as a movement of victims, and you can't build a winning coalition on that. Liberalism has got to move back and speak in a way that connects with everyone."

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