Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country
- By Shelby Steele
- Basic Books
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Matthew N. Green
- April 30, 2015
A diagnosis of our nation's fissures that misses the mark.
Shelby Steele’s well-written but ultimately disappointing Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country seeks to explain the polarized nature of American politics and society. While the book will find an eager audience among those inclined to agree with Steele that the 1960s and liberalism are to blame for what ails America, it will frustrate not only those on the Left but any reader hoping for a persuasive, empirically sound argument that sheds new light on liberalism or American polarization.
Drawing in part upon his personal experiences as a conservative African-American who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, Steele attributes responsibility for American polarization to two strains of liberal thought that evolved out of anger over segregation, the Vietnam War, and other examples of American hypocrisy. The first strain is “dissociation,” or demonstrating one’s opposition to America’s faults by superficially embracing diversity and inclusion. The second is “relativism,” or bending principles of justice and equality in order to give benefits to certain minority groups. Behind these two strains, Steele argues, is a deep skepticism toward an America that “has evil embedded in its very character,” a skepticism that remains central to liberalism.
Steele is an excellent writer with a gift for clear and forceful prose, and there is more than a hint of truth to much of what he proclaims. He is especially compelling when he recounts his own experiences growing up with segregation, visiting Africa in 1970, and dealing with criticism as a rare black conservative public intellectual. In this respect, the book is reminiscent of George Packer’s Blood of the Liberals, which provides an historical account of how liberalism changed during the 20th century through the perspective of Packer’s own family history.
But Shame is much less compelling or persuasive than Blood of the Liberals. For one thing, Steele’s account of the 1960s is overly simplistic and deterministic. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam War protests had different origins, advocates, and ideological consequences.
Yet Steele lumps them together into a single set of phenomena that reflected or fed disillusionment with America (together with other movements, like women’s liberation, which peaked later). And there is little if any mention of major events since the 1960s that contributed at least as much to polarization in contemporary society, including Roe v. Wade, the rise of the New Right in the 1970s, and the spread of cable talk shows and incendiary blogs.
Even if the 1960s did durably shape liberalism, Steele’s depiction of that new form of liberalism is implausibly reductionist and menacing. Is today’s liberalism really founded on “anti-Americanism,” as he insists?
Is it true, as he writes, that “liberalism in the twenty-first century [is] for the most part a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequity and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs”? These broad generalizations ignore the complexity of liberalism and suggest that those who embrace it are either calculating Machiavellians or guilt-ridden bleeding hearts.
In addition, liberalism by Steele’s reckoning is unbelievably powerful and pervasive. The author goes so far as to suggest that Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” campaign was rooted in a political philosophy that wants to “engineer the transformation of American culture,” ignoring the more likely explanation that, like Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” it was little more than a catchy campaign slogan designed to win votes.
And if liberalism “won” the culture war, as Steele argues, it was a Pyrrhic victory: Consider the current dominance of the Republican Party in state and national government, the steady decline in popularity of affirmative action, and the growing number of Americans who believe that the individual right to own a gun trumps efforts at state-imposed gun control.
Steele tries to portray himself as an impartial observer, declaring early on that “for me, ideology does not precede truth,” and he occasionally expresses sympathy for traditional liberal constituencies. But he repeatedly places the blame for polarization entirely on the shoulders of liberalism and asserts (without evidence) that the Great Society, affirmative action, and similar government programs have been unmitigated failures.
Steele seems unwilling to consider the possibility that conservatism has undergone the same negative transformation as liberalism: many on the Left would undoubtedly nod their heads in agreement had Steele modified his previously mentioned sentence to read that “conservatism in the twenty-first century…downplays inequity and unfairness…in order to justify gutting” social programs.
Though progressives will be unhappy with Shame, thoughtful conservatives should be disappointed with it as well, for it represents a missed opportunity to carefully diagnose flaws and contradictions inherent in American liberalism. Books like Theodore Lowi’s The End of Liberalism and Samuel Huntington’s American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony are far more persuasive and insightful in explaining how liberalism has changed (Lowi) or the ideological origins and consequences of political conflict in the 1960s and 1970s (Huntington).
The irony of Shame is that the book will likely maintain the deep divisions that so distress Steele. Conservative readers will feel justified in seeing liberals as un-American, while liberals will reject it as a partisan rant. Like so many books of its kind, Shame claims to be the water that will help extinguish the flames of American polarization, but serves instead as another bundle of firewood thrown on the blaze.
Matthew N. Green is an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He teaches and writes about Congress, American party politics, and the city of Washington, DC. His most recent book, Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, was published in January by Yale University Press.