Stevenson and the Intellectuals (Winter 1954)

Stevenson and the Intellectuals (Winter 1954)


Reprinted from Dissent magazine, Winter 1954 (Issue 1)

FOR AMERICAN radicals these are not times of easy political choice. They are all the more difficult if we continue to think in terms of elections, candidates and parties. Raised, as most of us have been, in a tradition of supporting only socialist or labor candidates, we find the immediate problem of the elections perplexing: what shall we do and advise others to do? It seems obvious that the running of independent socialist candidates can, at best, have only occasional local value; the trouble with protest candidates in major elections is that they no longer register any significant protest.

Some socialists continue to favor a rigid intransigeance: no support to either of the two capitalist parties. Others say that an incipient labor- liberal party, the hope for a revived American left, is slowly growing within the loose structure of the Democratic Party, and that socialists should support this incipient movement conditionally and critically—e.g., by voting for Stevenson while making it clear that this does not mean a political bloc with the dominant liberal trend. I incline myself to the latter point of view, though with considerable hesitation; but I am strongly convinced that in the absence of any significant socialist movement, it is a problem of tenth-rate importance, almost a matter of personal choice. What is of major importance, however, is the general attitude one takes toward the dominant political drift of American society, whether one floats along or tries to maintain a sharp, fundamental criticism.

I want therefore to put aside the question of whom socialists and liberals should have voted for; I am far more concerned with the terms and the nature of the support the liberal and left intellectuals gave to Stevenson. So that if I speak harshly, as I shall, about the intellectuals, it is not here to challenge their formal choice but to evaluate the assumptions behind it and the kinds of behavior that accompanied it.

Only the eggheads surrendered unconditionally. When Adlai Stevenson made his rather cryptic remark about “egghead ecstasy,” he was registering a certain irritation with the cult that sprang up around his image in the intellectual world. Whether he objected from a principled dislike of hero worship or from a fear that it would hurt his chance with other, somewhat larger segments of the population, we don’t know. Probably he meant both. In any case he completely captured the intellectuals, not least of all those who had declared themselves irrevocably disabused with the political life.

One wonders: why this sudden burst of uncritical enthusiasm? Surely not because Stevenson was a liberal or a New Dealer; the ideological explanation seems weakest. For if it was Stevenson’s forthright liberalism that endeared him to the intellectuals, then they should have been fonder still of Truman, a man considerably more forthright. And it is common knowledge that they were not very fond of Truman: even their efforts to admire him bad a way of turning into condescension.

In foreign policy Truman and Stevenson—as, for that matter, Eisenhower—had few significant differences, while in domestic policy Truman was, if anything, slightly to the left of Stevenson, who let it be known throughout the campaign that he was a moderate, sensible Democrat.

Which suggests the possibility that Stevenson won the admiration of the intellectuals not because he revived the tradition of American liberalism but because in several important ways he deviated from it.

I have recently been going through Stevenson’s campaign speeches, trying to discover the secret of his success with the intellectuals. Part of the secret, I should think, must be that he so vividly symbolized their mixed feelings toward politics itself. The American intellectuals felt that their fingers had been badly burned, though by comparison with the Europeans they had merely suffered a slight singe; they were bored with crusading accents yet still enjoyed a mild idealistic lilt; they were tempted to abandon politics entirely yet felt themselves forced—indeed, trapped—into a lukewarm, gingerly participation; they wished for liberal humaneness but felt that to identify with any social class or group was outmoded, deficient in tone. And here was this remarkable man from Illinois, so charming and cultivated, so witty and so…well, somewhat weary…come to represent and speak for them. Roosevelt might be admired for things he had done, Stevenson was to be admired and identified with simply because of what he was.

Admired and identified with, above all, because he didn’t seem really to like politics. His most remarkable speech—the speech of acceptance—was a prolonged exercise in ambivalence, a skillful teetering between the desire to pull out and the appetite to plunge in: I say “skillful” to suggest, that he was a man both torn by doubts and shrewdly able to exploit his state of division. At times Stevenson resembled a debutante who had contracted a hasty marriage and despite the use of the most advanced precautions had been blessed with issue: and there she stands, uncomfortably holding a diaper between thumb and forefinger. Yet this stance could not have been entirely without a disingenuous element, for Stevenson was hardly a political novice. He had been in and near the Democratic Party for years, he had worked with that old Tory Frank Knox, he had served as the candidate of Jake Arvey’s Illinois machine, which has never been noted for fastidiousness. Stevenson had not really “earned” his air of withdrawal and distance—he was not Henry Adams languidly collapsing on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Or if he was, then one could not help taking seriously the charges of such a malicious reactionary as James Burnharn that Stevenson was unfit to be President through temperamental disability.

In his introduction to his collected speeches Stevenson has written a remarkable passage about his campaign experience:

You must emerge, bright and bubbling with wisdom and well-being, every morning at 8 o’clock, just in time for a charming and profound breakfast talk, shake hands with hundreds, often literally thousands, of people, make several inspiring, ‘newsworthy’ speeches during the day, confer with political leaders along the way and with your staff all the time, write at every chance, think if possible, read mail and newspapers, talk on the telephone, talk to everybody, dictate, receive delegations, eat, with decorum—and discretion !—and ride through city after city: on the back of an open car, smiling until your mouth is dehydrated by the wind, waving until the blood runs out of your arm, and then bounce gaily, confidently, masterfully into great howling halls

I have italicized what seem the key phrases: phrases of dissociation which Roosevelt would have been too shrewd to utter and Truman would never have felt any desire to. Precisely this sense of separation from his audience, as from his public self, made Stevenson seem an emblem of the intellectual condition. Under the circumstances it hardly mattered to the intellectuals what he said, just as to the bulk of the middle class it hardly mattered what Eisenhower said.

Not only could the intellectuals identify with Stevenson’s public indecisions and hesitations; they could admire the spectacle of such behavior on a higher social level than their own. Had Stevenson really been an intellectual in the limited “professional” sense of the word, his proclamations and gestures of delicacy might have seemed annoying, since there is nothing very novel in the sight of an intellectual turning squeamish about tasks he has set himself. But for the intellectuals to see their attitudes acted out upon the public stage by a patrician who, unlike FDR, made no effort to be anything but a patrician, by a man whose grandfather had actually been Vice-President of the United States, by a man who had married into wealth with apparent ease and out of it with obvious forbearance—this, indeed, was pleasant. In an age of “the liberal imagination” and “the new conservatism,” those Siamese twins of cultural adaptation, the intellectuals themselves were beginning to cast a warm eye on that restrained yet elegant style of life which Stevenson so beautifully embodied. It seems a blunder of history that it had to be Eisenhower, a country boy turned warrior, who became President of a University graced by such figures of worldly cultivation as Gilbert Highet and Jacques Barzun. Does it take any effort of the imagination to see Stevenson presiding at a faculty tea in Morningside Heights?

Just as Stevenson bewitched the intellectuals by miming, from on high, their political impulses, so did he fail to attract very much enthusiasm among the workers. By and large they voted for him, but with little of the fervor they had felt for Roosevelt and Truman. At one time Roosevelt had seemed a savior, a man who crossed the social tracks never to return. Truman was one of the plebes, and after his triumph over Dewey there was a remarkable elation in the Detroit auto plants for the workers felt, and with some reason, that they had put Truman in the White House. To some extent, the suspicion of Stevenson indicated the usual anti-intellectualism, but this could hardly have been the whole cause, since I’m told that even among those secondary UAW officials who make an effort to avoid the more obvious forms of anti-intellectualism there was a distinct coolness toward Stevenson. He was admired for his cleverness and praised for his vocabulary, which was large for a presidential candidate; but he was clearly not one of “the people,” he didn’t pretend to be, he was the candidate who would rise above mere group interests.

Stevenson was the first of the liberal candidates in the post-Wilson era who made no effort to align himself with the plebeian tradition or with plebeian sentiments; Stevenson Was the candidate whom the intellectuals, trying hard to remove plebeian stains, admired most. There is no way of “proving” this to be a causal relationship, but it would be naive to suppose it a mere coincidence.

But there were other, more important reasons. To understand Why the ADA, for example, was so enthusiastic about Stevenson it would be well to remember that originally it was enthusiastic about Eisenhower. This fact the ADA would as soon forget, but for its own good we should be so unkind as not to let it. After the election Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a slashing piece for Partisan Review about the troubles and timidities of liberals in a nation that had not chosen Stevenson; had he discussed why the ADA, in which he is a leading figure, had first proposed Eisenhower, his article would have been an act of high courage.

It may be argued that the ADA acted from ignorance, that it did not know how mediocre and reactionary Eisenhower would prove to be. That must certainly be true. Had the ADA favored Eisenhower with full knowledge that he would soon show himself a political weakling and a captive of Big Business, it would not have been a liberal organization at all; it would have been a conservative or reactionary one. What made it, characteristically, a liberal organization was that it stood ready to support a man about whom it knew nothing except that he had been, it was reliably said, a competent general.

Yet there seems to me to have been a certain unconscious consistency, if not a very strong devotion to liberal principles, in the ADA endorsements of both Eisenhower and Stevenson. Consider, by way of introduction, the following points:

1) In a mild way, Eisenhower’s political appeal was of the kind called “Bonapartist.” Appearing at a moment of national bewilderment, when the Korean War seemed likely to continue for ever and the Truman administration was shown to be shot through with corruption, Eisenhower, that stern yet homely figure, could speak as one who was not a professional “politician” yet “sound” in his views, a man alive to every need yet beyond the claim of any class or group. He was an unknown quantity, a chaste vessel into which every voter could pour his own desires. People voted for Eisenhower not merely because he promised to clean up the mess or because he satisfied the conservative moods of the new managerial strata; they chose him because he, in his stammering inscrutability, would relieve them of their burdens and take upon himself the whole intolerable weight of the nation. Traditionally, this has been the appeal of the Bonapartist leader. I do not mean to imply that Eisenhower had dictatorial ambitions, merely that he won because he was endowed, in the public eye, with the supraclass characteristics of the Bonapartist leader.

2) The favorite theory, at the moment, of American liberals about the nature of our society is advanced in economic terms by Kenneth Gailbraith (“countervailing powers”) and in more general terms by Daniel Bell. The Marxist scheme of a conflict between two major classes, says Bell, does not apply very well to America: here, instead of a class struggle we have a jockeying among competing yet not incompatible power groups or interest blocs (labor, farmers, business, veterans, minority groups, the aged, etc.). Instead of ruling class and ruled we have a sharing, with desirable friction, of political power. I have argued elsewhere that Bell’s theory is inadequate because it fails to recognize those patterns of subordination among interest which depend upon relationships of social classes; but I fancy that neither Bell nor those who agree with him are likely to heed this criticism…The theory he advances is perfectly adjusted to, as it is a faithful reflection of, a moment of social stasis resulting from the full production of a war economy. It is a theory that replaces the image of basic social conflict with an image of controlled or controllable social competition among peer groups. Nothing is at present more likely to appeal to liberal intellectuals. Even those who have never heard of Galibraith or Bell hold similar views.

3) But if American society consists of an essentially healthy jostling among equally hearty social appetities, where do the intellectuals come in? Which is their interest group? They are too weak to stand independently, and at present are largely disinclined to stand in alliance with any other group. More important, what happens, given this theory of society, to the ideal claims and aspirations of the intellectuals, those claims and aspirations that are so deeply ingrained in their tradition? One may feel comfortable in the kind of society described by Bell but one can hardly find it a cause for enthusiasm. In the past, when radical intellectuals identified with the working class, it was with the expectation and hope that the working class, preparing the way for a new society, would abolish itself in common with all other social classes. But if today the struggle of labor, or any other social group, is merely for a little more of the contaminated swill—well, all right; but it can hardly stimulate those latent impulses toward the ideal which the intellectuals cannot quite (though they try hard enough) obliterate in themselves.

What happens now if we bring together these three observations? The appetite for a Bonapartist leader above classes was quite prevalent in this country in the period before the election; it was shared by the liberals, e.g., the ADA’s endorsement of Eisenhower not despite but because of its ignorance of his social views. At the same time the liberal intellectuals, committed to a theory of American society that is “realistic” in the worst sense of the word, found themselves without a social place or tie, yet with an appetite for “transcending” even while retaining the theory of interest blocs. This appetite, in turn, is related to and perhaps is an aspect of that yearning for a social savior I have previously mentioned.

A striking characteristic of Stevenson’s campaign, as distinct from Roosevelt’s or Truman’s, was that he did not speak in the name of the poor or the workers or “one third of the nation.” The conservative press was always delighted to praise him for not indulging in Truman’s “demagogy,” that is, for not employing Truman’s “anti-plutocrat” vocabulary. Whenever Stevenson spoke before a special interest group he went out of his way to declare himself not merely for it, like any politician, but also above it—the mark of a statesman, no doubt. Somehow he, Stevenson, represented no less than “the people as a whole.” In a way that he did not and could not specify, he and the Democratic Party were to provide a universal ideological binder in our society of competing yet not basically conflicting interests. Thus it was that Stevenson made it possible for the liberal intellectuals to see themselves as both realists and idealists at the same time: they could sanction a theory that American liberalism meant little more than the proper regulation of a division of the social spoils while yet invoking, through Stevenson’s soaring rhetoric, a vision of that good society which once, long ago, had some actual relationship to liberal politics.

A psychological equation can now be set up: the surrender of the managerial middle class to Eisenhower is as the surrender of the intellectuals to Stevenson. But some qualifications are necessary: the middle class had no critical tradition to abandon and when it saw Eisenhower as its patron it was not far from wrong. Both groups, however, succumbed to their respective heroes with an alarmingly naive faith, and in no way more alarming than for what it suggests of their future political behavior.

It would be easy to run through Stevenson’s speeches and point to the many patches of shabbiness and cant which show him to be not quite the Knight of Principle his intellectual admirers took him for. Let me cite only a few examples. Stevenson’s evidently sincere devotion to civil liberties was badly compromised by his readiness to support the Smith Act and by his praise of Truman for having “put the leaders of the Communist Party in this country where they belong—behind bars,” (as if that were any solution to the problem of Stalinism, or of civil liberties!) His advocacy of Civil Rights legislation was painfully qualified by his prolonged silence about the opposition of his running mate Sparkman to such legislation. His innumerable references to the split of the Republican Party into several parties seem rather cheap when one notices his refusal to face the equally obvious fact that the Democratic Party is also and indeed far more seriously split. His friendly references to the Negroes must be set against his shameful remarks in a Richmond, Virginia, speech where he placed “anti-Southernism” on a place of equal abhorrence with “anti-Negroism.” His courage in jibing at professional patrioteers at the American Legion convention is contaminated by such nonsense as his declaration that “Legionnaires are united by memories of war. Therefore, no group is more devoted to peace.” (That therefore is priceless.) And what is one to make of his preposterous declaration that “communist materialism” cannot be answered with “a different brand of materialism,” a statement worthy of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale; what is one to make of his utterly disingenuous remarks that the Truman administration should not be blamed for corruption since “corruption is personal and knows no party”— as if corruption might not be more indigenous to one party, or one kind of party, than another.

At this point: impatient interruptions. My liberal friends cry out, After all, Stevenson was the candidate of a major party, which means he was trying to get elected…No doubt. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t admire Stevenson as a principled idealist and then justify his evasions on the grounds that he was a candidate. I don’t mean to deny that principled people have to make concessions to expediency; but the whole failure of recent liberalism has been precisely its inability to distinguish between expediency within the framework of principle and expediency that undermine and rots away principle. Sometimes one has to blink, but that doesn’t mean to keep one’s eyes shut.

Only after the election did Stevenson reveal his full inadequacy. His round-the-world tour could be the subject of an article on the relationship between rhetoric and realpolitik, but here I would only say that his American admirers might at least have raised a whisper, or a whimper, of protest when he came out with praise for Chiang-Kai-Shek (which led one political wag to remark: keep that man away from Madrid) The breathless reports of Stevenson’s tour in The New Republic have had a kind of fabulous quality, as if Michael Straight had smuggled himself into Marco Polo’s party.

More serious is Stevenson’s failure to speak up with any sort of firmness against the Eisenhower administration. Here, one would think, is a golden opportunity for a liberal opposition. This administration of sanctioned mediocrity and open alliance with Big Business; this collection of moral weaklings who tremble every time McCarthy lets out his breath; this incredible group of blunderers and reactionaries—could there be a better target for liberal criticism? But Stevenson is no mere politician, he is statesman; he is responsible and restrained; he believes in calling a spade implement for the lifting of difficult objects.

Why does Stevenson remain silent? Because, writes Richard Rovere, fears that “the attacks will in many parts of the world be read as a repudiation of American ends rather than as criticism of Administration means.” One would think that the only possible way of reasserting “American ends” would be through a prolonged and sharp criticism of “Administration means.” But that would be the way of a politician and not of a statesman who can quote from William James until the intellectuals quiver with delight. What is perhaps equally disturbing is that Mr. Rovere repeats this sort of thing in a tone of sympathetic understanding, as if to imply that we liberals, so raucous in the past, now possess a statesman too; and Mr. Rovere is announced as an editor of a forthcoming publication to be called Critic.

The only intelligent discussion of Stevenson that I have seen comes from an English journalist, G. L. Arnold, who reported on Stevenson’s trip through England in The New Leader. This report is so germane to my remarks that I would quote at some length:

…The fact is that, to put it bluntly, Stevenson struck the British as unduly anxious to conform with the prevailing American popular mood; and it so happens that this mood has few defenders here, even on the extreme Right or the Tory party, let alone among people further to the left.
…[Those who heard Stevenson] had come expecting to hear and see a man who could be trusted to continue the Roosevelt-Truman inheritance in foreign policy. What they got was a more graceful and less bumbling edition of John Foster Dulles.

Again, there was his curious evasiveness about McCarthy. Admittedly he must be getting bored with having to explain that McCarthy is no Hitler, but then no one suggested that. He was simply asked for his views. They amounted to this: that McCarthy’s ‘methods’ were not perhaps all they might be, but that it was a good thing to draw attention to the Communist menace. This was not merely inadequate and evasive; it revealed a curious reluctance to say anything that might cause unpleasantness at home. . . One can hardly suppose that Stevenson really believes McCarthy is basically doing a good job; in that case, why not say so and thus take some of the poison out of the current anti-American campaign? It is no exaggeration to say that his hearers were hoping, above all, that he would help them to project the image of a genuinely sane and liberal America. They received no assistance from him. What they got was a display of agility in ducking awkward questions.
…The general consensus among the initiated was that [Stevenson] seemed a very likable kind of liberal Republican and that it was a pity he could not be included in the Eisenhower Administration. It may, of course, be that the British have an altogether mistaken view of what the Democratic Party is, and that these various puzzled reactions just show our ignorance and naivete. But, such as they are, they suggest that there is a gap between our image of American liberalism and the actual movement that goes by this name. And one begins to suspect that Mr. Stevenson’s little bodyguard of friends and admirers, with their literary contacts and facilities for the projection of their views, are not altogether innocent of having allowed this gap to become so wide.

Very likely, for some years to come, American socialists will have no electoral course of their own. We shall probably be confined to the basic job of advancing and clarifying our ideas as to the nature of modern society and the need for a radical social change, and to serving as a radical gadfly to the labor-liberal movement, demanding from it what is at present no small or inglorious thing: that it remain faithful, at least, to the tradition of liberalism. But for the liberal-labor movement to do this, it will have to come into increasingly frequent collision with whatever administration, of whichever party, happens to be in power. In a permanent war economy there are certain to arise grave conflicts between the needs of the bureaucratic state and the masses of trade unionists over issues ranging from civil liberties to taxation. Let but such figures as Walter Reuther and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. stand firm in behalf of their own tradition, and they will have to invigorate their liberalism with far more critical spirit—they will have to make it more radical—than they thus far have.

Even if this were to happen, we would still be far from any basic solutions to our social problems—but then, we are far from seeing it happen. To prod and criticize, in firm but friendly terms, the dominant labor-liberal tendency is not, one must admit, an obviously exciting perspective, certainly not as exciting as that which lies open to the socialists of England, where there is a real possibility of leading a democratic transition to socialism. But it is a perspective that is likely to keep us thoroughly employed. From what we have seen of the liberals in the recent election, we need not worry that they will render criticism from the left superfluous.