Shelby Steele calls his new book Shame. You bet it’s a shame. It’s a shame that as often as conservatives pose valuable questions about America’s past, the state of the nation, and, yes, what makes America exceptional, they continually afford us valueless, if not insidious, answers—answers that suppress the story of the making of American democracy, ignore the accelerating concentration of power and wealth, and deny America’s historic purpose and promise. And sadly, in his new book, the renowned black conservative intellectual Shelby Steele does just that.
A Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, and the author of several books, including the award-winning 1990 title, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, in which Steele rightly asked, What happened to the promise of the 1960s— the promise of the civil rights movement, the victories for freedom, equality, and democracy registered in the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts, and the initiatives of the Great Society and War on Poverty? He even led me to believe that he had critical and compelling things to say—things that might help us talk together about the pressing crises of the day from Ferguson to New York and D.C.
In the very first chapter of Shame, Steele offers a seemingly heartfelt lament that American public life since the ’60s has turned into a politics of tribalism in which left and right have their own cultural bases, communications media, and award systems, in which liberals have the universities, NPR, The New York Times, and MacArthur grants, and conservatives have think thanks, talk radio, The Wall Street Journal, and the Bradley Prizes (and he might well have added that liberals have the presidency and conservatives, the Congress). As he writes: “since the 1960s, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have come to function almost like national identities in their own right. To be one or the other is not merely to lean left or right—toward ‘labor’ or ‘business’—within a common national identity; it is to belong to a different vision of America altogether, a vision that seeks to supersede the opposing vision and to establish itself as the nation’s common identity.”
Indeed, I began to imagine that Steele was going to offer a serious historical argument about how we got here, how we might start to transcend what he himself calls “The Great Divide,” and how we might act to renew America’s promise. At the least, I expected he would attend honestly and critically to the developments of the past 50 years—a half-century in which, following world-historic democratic advances at home and abroad, we Americans have suffered not just the return of gross “Gilded Age” class inequalities and racially-based urban riots, but also concerted efforts to constrain workers from organizing, low-income minority citizens from exercising their voting rights, and women from controlling their own bodies. But I was wrong.
Steele is an undeniably good writer. His earlier works, whatever we might think of his intellectual politics, provocatively challenged the prevailing political correctness and sharpened the thinking of all of us. And at places in this new book he does not fail to say interesting, at times moving, and even, at other times, entertaining things. I particularly “enjoyed” the story he uses to open the book—the story of his participation in a weeklong conference on race and politics at the Aspen Institute, the liberal elite’s intellectual playground in Colorado.
Asked, along with his fellow panelists, to prepare a response to the question “What do you want most for America,” Steele apparently upset the assembled folk by saying that he wanted “an end to white guilt.” It’s not that he was absolving present-day whites of racism. Rather, as he goes on to relate, “I then used my allotted few minutes to define white guilt as the terror of being seen as racist—a terror that has caused whites to act guiltily toward minorities even when they feel no actual guilt. My point was that this terror… has spawned a new white paternalism toward minorities since the 1960s that, among other things, has damaged the black family more profoundly than segregation ever did.” In fact, he insisted, this “benevolent paternalism of white guilt had injured the self-esteem, if not the souls, of minorities in ways that the malevolent paternalism of white racism never had.” Finally, he relates how his words incited a young white man to stand forth and implore everyone not to believe what they had just heard: “He wanted to reassure them that blacks were still suffering … that racism, discrimination, and inequality were still alive—still great barriers to black advancement.” As Steele remembers it, his own remarks had “threatened [the Aspen crowd] with a kind of moral disgrace.”
As much as Steele’s provocation of the rich tickled me—though I think they were probably looking to be provoked, for why else would they have invited him, a famous black conservative, to their retreat?—he would soon disappoint me. Instead of trying to break new ground as some conservative intellectuals have recently sought, or at least purported, to do, Steele ends up offering a new, no less nasty, rendition of a story we have heard incessantly for more than 50 years from right-wing figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Rush Limbaugh: that liberalism is responsible for nearly everything that has gone wrong in America since the ’60s. Note that I say “liberalism” and not “liberals,” because Steele himself essentially reifies the politics and ideas of liberalism into a faceless god-like force. Rarely does he cite any politicians or writers or their words. And when he does refer to a liberal or progressive figure, he misrepresents them—as he does with the ideas and labors of Martin Luther King Jr.
Making nothing of 200 years of democratic struggles from the bottom up, Steele reduces the goals of the “civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s” to “classical Jeffersonian liberalism—that liberalism which sought freedom for the individual above all else.” Without question that great and forceful founding ideal was fundamental to the cause. But the postwar movement and campaigns for racial justice entailed more than the pursuit of 18th-century liberalism. Steele not only makes no mention of the struggles, advances, and legacies of the New Deal ’30s and World War II fight for the Four Freedoms pursued by Americans in all their diversity. Even worse, he utterly ignores the fact that King was a democratic socialist who campaigned both for black and minority civil and political rights, and for economic justice and the rights of working people and the poor of every color. Never forget that the 1963 March on Washington organized by socialist black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, with the active support of UAW leader Walter Reuther, at which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was a “March for Jobs and Freedom.”
Of course, I should have seen it coming. But I had hoped, rather naively, that Steele intended his Aspen Institute tale to introduce something other than one more over-the-top assault on liberalism. After all, he proceeds directly from that story to his lamentation over America’s prevailing political tribalism—a lamentation that seemed to position him to chastise left and right alike: “When we let nationalism shape the form of our liberal or conservative identities—when we practice our ideological leaning as if it were a divine right, an atavism to be defended at all cost—then we put ourselves on a warlike footing.” Reading that allowed me to hope that he was going to treat how the powers that be, both liberal and conservative, were culpable for jeopardizing America’s historic purpose and promise.
But forget it … Taking to the very warpath he seemed to want us to avoid, Steele accuses “liberalism” of creating a political and economic order that not only has failed to fulfill the promise of the ’60s, but, even worse, has subjected minorities to a new, apparently-benevolent but fundamentally evil “white paternalism.” Determined to sustain its political and cultural hold on America, liberalism, he charges—without presenting us with any solid historical evidence—has fostered, in the wake of the transformative ’60s and the shattering of America’s traditional narrative, an ideology of anti-Americanism that portrays the United States as “characterologically evil” (racist, sexist, imperialist), denies American greatness, goodness, and exceptionalism, and inculcates in minority Americans a world view that obscures the changes and opportunities afforded by the victories of the ’60s and burdens and disempowers them by imbuing them with grievances instead of challenges. That damn liberalism: “Superficially it is very ‘caring’ towards blacks, minorities, and the poor,” he writes. “It befriends them, promises them all manner of programs and policies. It makes a show of being deferential toward their woundedness, of bowing before their past victimization as before an irrefutable moral authority. But, of course, all this deference is seduction. The new liberalism does not pursue the actual uplift of minorities and the poor. It pursues dispensation from America’s past sins for whites—the imprimatur of innocence.”
And guess what? Having indicted liberalism for waging a “culture war” that has not only served to divide Americans into political tribes, but also to wed “the formerly oppressed” to a sense of themselves as still very much oppressed, Steele directs our attention to a new “politics of idealism,” “the new counterculture,” which, you got it, is contemporary conservatism: “a faith in free market capitalism, smaller government, higher educational standards, the reinforcement of family.”
Come on: Free market capitalism? Assuming there is such a thing as a free market, haven’t we suffered enough of it these past several years? Smaller government? Who among us wants to give up the hard-won democratic programs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, Environmental Protection, Workplace Safety, Consumer Protection, etc., etc., etc. … And in the face of overwhelming and engrossing corporate power, who really wants to reduce the countervailing power of democratic government?
Enough with the political questions. Let’s consider the history that Steele ignores. For a start, he ignores the fact that American greatness depended not simply on a commitment to Jeffersonian liberalism but also on public action and largesse from the days of the 19th-century Homestead Act to those of the New Deal, with its the CCC, WPA, PWA, REA, and NYA, to the Second World War GI Bill, all of which not only built or rebuilt the nation, but also built or rebuilt generations of working Americans. Hell, the real tragedy of liberalism’s War on Poverty was that it wasn’t big enough and did not do enough. Just think of how successful LBJ’s initiatives might have been had they included a serious effort to create public works and employment for black young people—not to mention, if he had refused to pursue the war in Vietnam, which drained resources from the War on Poverty.
Furthermore, while Steele insists that liberalism has won the culture war and that we are all the worse for it, our minority fellow citizens especially, he makes absolutely no mention of the right and corporate rich’s continuing 40-year-long top-down war on popular democracy—a class war from above that has succeeded in destroying American industries, undermining the nation’s infrastructure, devastating middle-class communities and widening class inequality, and sending millions of Americans into the ranks of the working poor.
But let’s not leave it at that, for while Steele does not do what I hoped he would, he has essentially challenged liberals and leftists to think anew about American exceptionalism. And whether or not we have all denied, disdained, or disparaged the idea as Steele claims, we have clearly allowed conservatives to lay hold of it, tell a story about it, and dictate its meaning. And doing so, they have used it not only to lambaste the left, but also limit American memory and imagination. In short, those of us who want to create a more democratic America must recover and reassert the original radical, indeed revolutionary, meaning of American exceptionalism.
The Founders—not just the likes of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton, but all the more Thomas Paine’s people, American artisans, farmers, and laborers—projected the United States as a grand experiment in democracy. By their words and actions, they articulated America’s historic purpose and promise. For all of their terrible faults and failings, they envisioned, demanded, and made real the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy. And when ensuing generations of Americans confronted crises that placed the nation and its historic purpose and promise in jeopardy, they felt that democratic imperative and impulse and found it in themselves—led by Lincoln and FDR, respectively—to confront and prevail over their enemies not by suspending or abandoning the nation’s finest ideals, but by advancing them.
Steele and his fellow conservatives do not want us to remember that history, that purpose and promise, that exceptionalism. And so far, contrary to Steele’s contentions, they—with the deference, if not collusion, of all too many moderates and liberals—are actually winning not just the class war, but also, in a most critical way, the culture war, as well.
Steele had an opportunity to make a critical difference. But if he truly wants to do that he needs to rethink American history as much as do many of my fellow leftists.
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014).