Thomas Jefferson, who believed the government that governs least governs best, is often called a liberal. So is Thomas "Tip" O'Neil, whose long political career was dedicated to the proposition that every human problem deserves a government program and that every such program deserves to be bigger. Dozens of books have been written to make sense of this enduring anomaly. George Packer has contributed on more, Blood of the Liberals, in which he uses his own family history to try to understand and defend liberalism.
Packer's maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, was born in 1869 in Tennessee, worked his way into a successful law practice, and was elected in 1914 to the U.S. House of Representatives from Birmingham, Alabama as a populist Democrat. (As late as 1924 he was urging William Jennings Bryan to undertake a fourth run for the presidency, and Huddleston himself was considered as Robert La Follette's running mate on the Progressive ticket that year.)
Huddleston served eleven terms in the House. In 1935 he found one of the New Deal's array of regulations too intrusive for his Jeffersonian sensibilities. The next year he lost a Democratic primary to a challenger more loyal to FDR. The provision Huddleston objected to, in a bill on utility holding companies, had been drafted by two of Roosevelt's leading brain trusters, Benjamin Cohen and Thomas Corcoran. Packer says that the fight between these New Dealers and his grandfather marked the moment when liberalism, trying to square the circle of increasing individual freedom by increasing central power, "lost its connection to something vital from the past. In the summer of 1935, to the harm of both, liberalism and populism, the brain truster with his briefcase and the one-gallused dirt farmer, parted ways."
Cohen, Packer writes, "was an early example of the modern liberal—born into a sophisticated society, wholly identifying with the beneficent power of government, more comfortable with ideas than with the 'toiling masses.'" As such, he resembled Packer's father, whose family had come to New York from a Jewish ghetto near the Polish-Ukraine border. Herbert Packer went to Yale, joined the Navy and fought the Japanese, then returned to study at Yale Law School, which took him to a legal career in Washington, D.C., then a position as a law school faculty member and university administrator at Stanford.
The tragedy shadowing this entire memoir is Herbert Packer's massive stroke, which he suffered in 1969 when he was only 43. "He lived for three more years," his son writes, "struggling to walk again, thick of speech, increasingly despondent," and finally took his own life in December, 1972, in a San Francisco hotel room. The author blames the stroke in part on the effect that student protests at Stanford had on his father, who had become a vice provost in 1966. "In part I've never shed the idea I learned at home as a boy: that the 1960s screwed up my family, that…the radicals helped kill my father, that the students in their moral arrogance nearly destroyed a fragile and priceless institution."
Having told his grandfather's and father's stories, Packer uses the third and final section of Blood of the Liberals to tell his own. Though he is a published novelist (as are his mother and sister), Packer's story is the least compelling one in the book. After Yale, he went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, which led him to the edge of a nervous breakdown and an early trip back to the U.S. From there it was on to Boston to work as an unskilled laborer on construction sites, volunteer in a homeless shelter, and join (in 1989!) the quixotic Democratic Socialists of America. Then came Birmingham, where he explored his family roots, attended black and with evangelical churches, and dropped by the Promise Keepers rally in Washington, D.C., as a non-participating but sympathetic observer.
Packer relates his wanderings as the tale of a young man who is both personally and politically lost. With sympathies that situate him on the left wing of the Democratic party, Packer laments being born just in time to spend his life watching American liberalism self-destruct. Blood of the Liberals makes a political argument while it goes about the business of telling a family story. The story is moving and told with the skill of a talented writer.
To call his argument murky, however, would be generous. Packer's central concern is to expunge from liberalism the varieties of snobbery that divide well-educated reformers from unsophisticated people. The latter need, in his view, not only material benefits that liberal programs can confer, but also respect for the worth of their views and circumstances that liberals' attitudes too often deny. Packer even has a kind word to say for William Jennings Bryan's position at the Scopes trial.
Where these kinder, gentler attitudes would leave the American liberalism is utterly unclear. Last chapters of the books on contemporary politics, where the author gets to say what his book means and where we go from here, are always the hardest to write and almost always disappointments to read. Packer's is weaker than most.
The closest he comes to a program is to say a few words on behalf of the idea that no one who works should be poor, a pedal on the organ that has been pressed many times already. Packer interrupts his sympathetic hearing for a white Alabama evangelist when the man expresses skepticism about a $10-an-hour minimum wage. But if the preacher's concern that such a law would cost jobs or hurt economic growth is so narrow and unimaginative why does Packer limit himself to $10? If a new agenda for a new liberalism is as simple as all that, why not do it right and seek a minimum wage of $25 or $50 an hour?
Many of the criticisms Packer makes of liberalism—about its moral preening, the vaporousness of its ideas, and the thin line that separates its compassion from its disdain—will sound familiar to conservatives. But Packer has no patience for conservatives, even when he knowingly agrees with them.
It is impossible not to admire a son's loyalty to his father. It is also impossible not to wish that George Packer had shown greater respect for his readers. The best authors deserve readers who are prepared for a book to change their lives, or at least to change their minds, or at the very least to give them pause about beliefs they had not stopped to examine. But to deserve such openness a writer must offer it, and for all the questions Blood of the Liberals raises, it never entertains the possibility that there is anything more to conservatism than the justification of meanness and greed. George Packer has found an affecting way to tell his family's story but squandered an opportunity to make America's political arguments more intelligent and productive.