Is Traditional Liberalism Vanishing?
"Mighty Ira," a documentary about legendary former ACLU chief Ira Glasser, is simultaneously inspiring and unnerving
There’s a scene at the beginning of Mighty Ira, an elegant and thought-provoking documentary about longtime ACLU director Ira Glasser, where the movie’s eponymous hero walks along the grounds of Ebbets Field Apartments, home of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Glasser was obsessed with the Dodgers as a kid, becoming a fan at the age of 9, in 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the team. He describes cheering in the stands next to 35- and 40-year-old black men, an experience white children could not have anywhere else in America at the time.
As Glasser puts it, the stands at Ebbets field were probably the “only fully integrated public accommodation in the country,” and would forever be a symbol to him of what America could be and was supposed to be, at its best. But the team was disappeared, “kidnapped” to Los Angeles by owner Walter O’Malley, described by Glasser as one of history’s three great villains, the other two being Hitler and Genghis Khan (“I've always rooted for the San Andreas Fault to take care of the Dodgers in Los Angeles ever since,” Glasser quips). He describes driving past as the baseball cathedral was torn down in 1960 and seizing up with horror, an experience like “losing a parent.”
Now, nothing is left but a plaque in the ground where home plate once sat, and he can’t process the idea that there might be washing machines “doing somebody’s dirty laundry” on the ground where Robinson once stole home. He sees a commemorative sign, but it’s “not real.” When a little girl walks by, she has no idea there was ever anything but a block of apartments there. “Standing here,” he realizes sadly, “has no resonance for me.”
It feels like an odd way to open a film about one of the more controversial figures of 20th century America. However, it makes sense as we realize we may soon also miss Glasser’s brand of liberalism in the same way. Glasser is best known for his leadership of the ACLU after the organization’s much-pilloried decision to represent neo-Nazis who wanted to march in a suburb of Chicago called Skokie, Illinois. The shorthand outlines of that episode are known on Twitter, but the deeply thought-out reasons for the ACLU’s actions back then belong to a pre-Internet era.
The film was produced and co-directed by Nico Perrino, Vice-President of Communications for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a modern speech rights advocacy group. Perrino is 31. He met Glasser at the funeral of former Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, and didn’t know who he was. Once he got to know the former ACLU icon, he realized that his story was “completely lost on my generation,” but also increasingly relevant, for reasons that become clear minutes into the film.
The 1978 case was horrifying on its face. Skokie was home to thousands of Jews, including many survivors of the Holocaust, to whom the mere idea of Nazis walking past their door evoked not only the terrors of the camps, but the shame and regret of inaction as Hitler’s party ascended in Germany. That was a time when many Jews elected to just pull the shades down as Nazis marched past, in the hopes that they would eventually go away.
What monster could agitate, in the courts, to bring about a repeat of such a scene? If ever there was a moment when speech could be “harm,” rubbing salt in the wounds of camp survivors, who’d spent decades convincing themselves that this leafy suburb in the American midwest was a safe haven, had to qualify.
Mighty Ira traces the reasoning of people like Glasser and ACLU attorneys like David Goldberger, as they connect their decision to defend Nazi leader Frank Collin in Skokie to their years of advocacy in the sixties for black civil rights workers in the South. You couldn’t have one without the other, they argue. “If you give the government the power to stop the right-wing marching in the street,” Glasser says, “they will acquire the power to decide who they think is dangerous enough to stop.”
Glasser doesn’t hide behind technicalities, either, noting that the myriad tricks localities in and around Chicago used to make the speech debate appear to have moved into the private arena, amounted to the same First Amendment obstruction. Requiring that marchers post a $350,000 liability insurance bond, when no private insurer would grant it, was equally a violation. “Those insurance bond requirements had been a classic mechanism by which white Southern towns used to ban civil rights demonstrations,” Glasser said.
Ultimately, the ACLU argued that Skokie was a Tower-of-Babel moment for American law. If you grant the village of Skokie the right to ban hate speech, or require insurance bonds, or prevent anyone in a military uniform from marching, the constitutional edifice comes down and every town in the country will soon be making its own rules. Next thing you know, Forsyth County, Georgia, might be banning Hosea Williams from marching on Martin Luther King Day. “Do you want every little town to decide which speech is permitted?” Glasser asked.
Glasser won the argument then, narrowly, overcoming significant opposition within his own organization. Once he won in court, the Nazi leader Collin decided not to march in Skokie, and was eventually humiliated first by a giant counter-demonstration in Chicago, then by a child molestation charge that landed him in prison.
The episode ended up looking like a powerful affirmation of constitutional principle, helping explain why Robert Kennedy — as Glasser notes, “hardly a man of the left… a guy who had worked for Joe McCarthy and wiretapped people” — had urged Glasser to join the ACLU in the first place. The organization held a unique place in American society, Kennedy told him, dedicated to neither right nor left, but to defending the “root ideas” that held us together.
Mighty Ira spends a lot of time on stories like Glasser’s unlikely friendship with William F. Buckley, or his tearful meeting years later with Skokie resident Ben Stern, who lost his family in concentration camps and vehemently opposed Glasser in the seventies. “I love you,” the 96-year-old Stern says. “I’m so proud of you.”
Glasser’s amiability, sense of humor, and sincere dedication to principle end up impressing even his political opponents, who may not change their minds, but at least become convinced that people who disagree may become friends. “I had to force myself to remember how awful you and your influence are,” Buckley joked in a congratulatory note, after Glasser’s retirement dinner.
“The central goal in talking and working with people who you don't agree with,” notes Glasser, “is to persuade them that there is a common interest between us.”
This seems like the main message of the movie. However, the film isn’t quite so trite or easy. If you pay attention, you will spot hints of darker issues to come dotted throughout the movie. 1978, and Skokie, turns out to be the zenith of the ACLU’s influence, and the brand of liberalism Glasser represents begins slipping from the culture almost from the moment the case ends — kidnapped, seemingly, just like Glasser’s beloved Dodgers. Where did it go?
I watched Mighty Ira for two reasons. One, I saw an interesting review of it called “The Disintegration of the ACLU,” by James Kirchick in Tablet, who called it an “elegy to a world that no longer exists,” when “personal affinity wasn’t contingent upon ideological affinity.” The other was that I interviewed Thomas Frank the other day, after the author of The People, No! got blasted for defending free speech in The Guardian. The discussion ended up being an exercise in mutual puzzlement. What happened to the Glasser-style liberalism we grew up with?
Between the New Deal and the civil rights movements of the sixties, the Democrats’ identification with poor and working-class people especially gave them something close to a permanent majority in congress. As Frank noted, “Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives from the early 1930s all the way to the mid-1990s, with two short GOP interludes.” This is why, in the eighties of our youth, Tip O’Neill’s role as House Speaker felt like a lifetime appointment.
What did liberalism mean back then? As a young person helping to read off test questions as my single mother prepared for the LSATs, I had a vague idea of it as a school of thought that believed strongly in the law and due process, and was concerned with protecting the rights of people without means or clout. It seemed also to embrace art, music, and the power of free inquiry, opposed war, believed in self-determination and universal human rights, sided with unions over bosses, had copies of Catch-22 and The Autobiography of Malcolm X somewhere in the house, and laughed at both Jerry Falwell and the “This is your brain on drugs” commercial.
As the son of a reporter I also gathered it had something to do with questioning authority, because power corrupts and the people who had it tended to abuse it. As Glasser says in Mighty Ira, “Anyone in power is going to violate civil liberties sooner or later,” which is why “we end up suing everybody, including our members.”
The ACLU was central to what liberalism meant once, and not just because it had a history of pursuing social justice cases like Brown v. Board of Education (taking on school segregation) and Mapp v. Ohio (helping create the exclusionary rule to protect against abusive prosecutions). Skokie seemed to establish the willingness to take an unpopular stand in defense of a principle as another prerequisite for all liberal thinkers of my generation, especially young ones.
This was the joke of the eighties sitcom Family Ties, which lampooned American liberalism’s assumption that it had a hegemonic grip on both youth and cool. In that show, the ex-hippie parents desperately trying to hang on to the anti-establishment aesthetic of their youth through bleeding-heart platitudes and goofy facial hair were the squares. Meanwhile, Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton character, who worshipped Milton Friedman instead of Salinger and kept a portrait of Nixon where most kids kept the Blue Oyster Cult poster, was the rebel.
Family Ties was just one sortie in a massive corporate public relations campaign that began in the seventies and eighties, aimed at undoing the cultural hegemony of Glasser’s brand of liberalism. In books, movies, music, and TV, the acquisitive rich were recast as the edgy hedonists who got what America was all about and earned all the rewards worth seeking — as Madonna put it in Material Girl, “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right” — while liberals were losers.
Few today remember how completely the political tenor of pop culture changed from the seventies to the eighties. As friend David Sirota points out in his terrific and funny book Back To Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now, two of the three top-grossing movies in 1975 were the anti-puritanical romp, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, an anti-authoritarian drama written by beat novelist Ken Kesey. Meanwhile, three of the top seven TV shows in 1975 were liberal dramas like All in the Family, which cast Archie Bunker as the recalcitrant bigot-with-a-heart who had to be gently introduced to positive social changes by comic irritants Sally Struthers and Rob “Meathead” Reiner.
The eighties turned this around. Big-screen message after big-screen message spoke to the overreach of the sixties revolution, and by 1985 the top hits were Rambo: First Blood Part II, which blamed antiwar activists for losing the Vietnam War, and Back to the Future, one of the first in a series of big-budget efforts designed to offer the Eisenhower years as a replacement template for cool.
Alongside the nonstop nostalgia for the fifties — that time “before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad,” as Jennifer Grey’s Baby put it in Dirty Dancing — came an avalanche of political messaging. Even Nightmare on Elm Street was a right-wing commercial: Freddy Krueger is a psycho-killer free to torment children because in life, someone forgot to sign a search warrant and a drunk judge set him free. Earl Warren, with the help of Ira Glasser’s ACLU, sicced Freddy Krueger on your kids!
A film with even more prescience was The Star Chamber, a crime thriller starring Michael Douglas and the just-passed Yaphet Kotto, whose title referenced an ancient English tribunal that operated in secret, judging those too powerful to be tried in common-law courts. The eighties premise was that the post-Warren justice system let too many guilty criminals go — once again, including child killers — necessitating the creation of a secret “star chamber” of elite judges who’d send an assassin to precision-target liberalism’s glitches.
The thread that ran through that movie, and through hits like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and even shows like The A-Team, was that democracy doesn’t work, and the insistence on due process and rights just inhibits justice and enables bad guys. Therefore, the only way to guarantee society’s safety is to empower the right people to take matters into their own hands, a blunt right-wing message that would later be tweaked for blue-leaning audiences.
Around that same time, TV news began to push another angle. Not only were liberals over-educated dolts who loosed child killers on the world, they were wimps. Shows like Crossfire were framed as earnest debates, where someone “from the right” (Pat Buchanan?) took on someone “from the left” (Michael Kinsley?), but this WWE-style format always had the conservative on the attack while the “liberal” was always retreating and apologizing. Jeff Cohen, who briefly played the “left” host in a later incarnation of the show, described the Crossfire liberal as someone who “couldn’t punch back.”
It was eye-opening to see Kinsley’s cameo in Mighty Ira. He got his start as an “examiner” in Buckley’s Firing Line show, and could be heard introducing the premise of a debate between Glasser and Buckley: “Resolved: the ACLU is full of baloney.” It wasn’t an accident that when CNN went looking for someone to play the “liberal” on its phony debate show, they picked someone with the correct pedigree (Cranbrook, Harvard, Oxford, The Washington Post) instead of a Flatbush type like Glasser. There was nothing particularly “left” or liberal about Kinsley, but he had the characteristics Hollywood and Madison Avenue associated with liberals: Jewish, nerdy, vacillating, and analytical. He also had the right look and sensibility for TV, helping make Crossfire a hit by serving as a toothsome, uncomplaining punching bag for Buchanan.
Campaign journalists, then and now, pushed the same theme. They swarmed over Mike Dukakis, a Kinsley-esque monotone nerd who looked like a dink in a tank and wouldn’t defend his wife when Bernard Shaw invited America to fantasize about her rape and murder on national TV. Mighty Ira shows Glasser bursting with pride when George H.W. Bush denounces Dukakis as a “card-carrying” member of the ACLU, but the way the press roasted the Duke as a prototypical liberal weenie foretold bad things. This was part of a broader campaign to connect Glasser’s brand of politics with failure and weakness in the public consciousness, and it worked.
Bill Clinton supposedly changed all of this. He presented an image of a Democrat and sixties child who was also a winner. However, Clinton won by hurling overboard most of the meaningful principles of liberalism. Over and over, his DLC strategists worked the same theme: switching out a working-class political template for an upper-class, authoritarian substitute. Liberalism was pro-labor: Clinton Democrats embraced NAFTA and accelerated the Reagan-era export of the manufacturing economy, which allowed them to attract Wall Street donors and end their dependence on union money. Human rights were non-negotiable for true liberals: Clinton gave Most Favored Nation trading status to China. Liberals opposed the death penalty, and favored criminal justice reform: Clinton went out of his way to execute mentally impaired Ricky Ray Rector in the middle of an election campaign, and worked with future president Joe Biden to pass a crime bill that did everything but “hang people for jaywalking.”
By the end of Clinton’s run, not much was left to connect the party to either its New Deal or Great Society legacies, and the apparently self-evident logic of his two wins versus the crushing losses of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis (as well as the embarrassing one-term “malaise” of Jimmy Carter) made old-school liberalism infamous among the pundit class. Instead of Norma Rae, Silkwood, and The China Syndrome, Hollywood’s idea of liberalism was The American President, made by the Meathead himself, in conjunction with the monstrous aristocratic bore, Aaron Sorkin.
The movie depicted politics as a palace drama led by a heroic Clinton figure who bombed Libya (but felt bad about it) and dated a lobbyist who burned a flag “with her ACLU pals.” Michael Douglas’s Andrew Shepherd stands up for Sydney Ellen Wade in the way Dukakis didn’t stand up for Kitty, and declares with manly pride that “I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU” — but the truth was, Clinton Democrats of the type Shepherd was supposed to represent were running full-speed in the opposite direction from the brand of working-class liberalism the ACLU represented.
Mighty Ira shows Glasser debating Rudy Giuliani about Broken Windows policing, which “encouraged the police to do what they already do, violate the rights of many innocent people in order to catch a few who are guilty.” It’s true that Giuliani was responsible for ushering in the stop-and-frisk model of policing, but that same system became the template for local Democratic politicians across the country. Baltimore Mayor and future presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s incredible record of arresting 100,000 people in a single year (in a city of 640,000) fit in with the new tough-on-crime image the likes of Clinton and Biden pushed at the federal level.
Forget factories, coal mines, and courthouses. This was the West Wing era, which depicted politics as a gang of sanctimonious upper-class pseudo-intellectuals rescuing humanity by huffing their own farts and coming up with genius ideas like slashing Social Security to “protect FDR’s legacy.” The fact that a generation of Obama and Biden officials had their worldviews shaped by that asswipe atrocity of a soap opera (as did media figures like Lawrence O’Donnell and longstanding Vox buddy movie Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias) should tell you everything you need to know about what happened to liberalism during those years. It was replaced by a marketing campaign that before long saw almost complete reversals on everything from war to deficits to surveillance to financial bailouts — leaving America in such a weird place politically that Donald Trump, famous until then solely as a rich pig who fired people for fun, could successfully paint his Democratic challenger as a tool of the wealthy.
One of the most telling scenes in Mighty Ira shows Buckley on TV, teeing off on the ACLU over Skokie. “The leading social problem in America is the loss of moral coordinates,” Buckley says. “The need for civilized restraints has met with encouragement for people who want to parade in Skokie with their Nazi banners… The ostensible aims of the ACLU are admirable — it is a national pity that it has now become, to use Sunday suited ramblings, a bunch of baloney.”
With worse syntax and better looks, that seventies version of Bill Buckley could easily be a 2021 MSNBC host, or a New York Times editorialist preaching journalism’s return to “moral clarity.” The Democratic Party and its supporters have undergone so many changes in the last forty years that big parts of its platform sound indistinguishable from what was once called Buckley-esque conservatism. It’s yet another switch. Buckley is dead, but his politics are enjoying a posthumous rebrand, while Glasser has been forced to watch his ideas recast as regressive and racist.
Mighty Ira goes shows scenes from Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer, which serves as the obvious bookend tale to Skokie. The two narratives are eerily similar. The locals awaiting the arrival of white nationalists in 2017 make exactly the same declarations the Skokie residents made, about how “we’re not going to have it here.”
That Charlottesville ended in bloodshed while Skokie did not is blamed on bad policing, the one moment in the movie where Glasser seems to be copping out. The reality is that Skokie could have and probably would have ended in much the same way, had Collin chosen to march. The more honest answer to the question of why Glasser chose the path he did isn’t so much that it’s the safest or most effective in preventing violence (although in the long run, I think that’s true also), but that democracy is messy, and all the other options are worse.
We hear Heather Heyer’s mother make this exact argument, saying, when asked if those white nationalists should have the right to speak again, “I do, and that’s not a popular opinion.” She adds, “I think once we take away the right to free speech, we may never get it back. My big concern is… who makes the decision, what speech is allowable and what is not?”
In the age of Trump, huge portions of the Democratic electorate are willing to take their chances on that front. As Mighty Ira goes to great pains to point out, minorities and the poor tended to have an easier time understanding the ACLU’s Skokie decision, because the history of the wealthy using restrictive power against labor, communists, and civil rights activists is so long. As a result, they tend to grasp that they’ll eventually be targets of speech rollbacks.
The West Wing set does not have such an experience, though, so calls for companies like Facebook and PayPal and Google to impose “civilized restraints” make more sense to them. Modern elite politics believes, as Perrino puts it, that “all that is good and noble has been decided,” a new version of the End Of History delusion that assumes problems are simple binary choices best decided by the push of a button, and has no interest in the idea that things have to be worked out through struggle and debate, over time.
Glasser’s politics were based on the idea that good ideas eventually win out over bad ones, and people will tend to find common ground if they talk enough, preferring to make friends instead of enemies. A theme of the movie is Glasser just talking and talking. We see him hanging out at the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street in New York — Glasser probably could have been a comic, not something one can say about a lot of current activists — engaging with a table of comedians, who push him hard on where exactly the line is between speech and violence. “You’ve gotta make a distinction between speech, including symbolic speech, and conduct,” he says, coming alive. He loves it. He believes what he says will convince you. But throughout the movie, you can feel the skepticism of the Internet age closing all around him.
The old-school liberalism Glasser represents believed in that model of constant engagement and constant dialogue, which is probably what RFK was talking about when he said the ACLU defended the “root ideas” of the country. That optimism is vanishing, though, and just like Ebbets Field, a generation may grow up now never knowing it was there.