In his 1948 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Whittaker Chambers, a writer and editor for Time magazine and a former Communist, identified Hiss as a Communist. Hiss adamantly denied the charge. He said he didn’t know anyone named Whittaker Chambers. Encountering his accuser in person, Hiss spoke directly to him: “May I say for the record at this point that I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make those same statements out of the presence of this committee without their being privileged for suit for libel?”Chambers took Hiss’s bait. In an interview on national television, Chambers repeated his charges. In response to the libel suit, he produced stolen State Department documents and notes that seemed to establish not merely that Hiss was a Communist, but that he had spied for the Soviet Union. Hiss was convicted of perjury.The conviction was stunning, for Hiss had been a member of the nation’s liberal elite. A graduate of Harvard Law School and a law clerk for the revered Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he held positions of authority in the Agriculture, Justice and State departments. He was tall, handsome, elegant, gracious, even dashing.
So how do we get from a perjurious traitor and his apologists to the Tea Party?Well, for one thing, the liberal establishment stood by its man. Again, Professor Sunstein:
At his 1949 perjury trial, an extraordinary number of liberal icons served as character witnesses for Hiss, including two Supreme Court justices (Stanley Reed and Felix Frankfurter); John W. Davis, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1924; and Adlai Stevenson, who was to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1952 and 1956.
But the real problem, says Sunstein, wasn’t that the liberal establishment was too clueless and too self-protected to recognize a dangerous traitor in its midst. It was that Hiss’s accuser, Whittaker Chambers, was “polarizing.” Here’s how Sunstein closes:
Chambers’ broader charge — that liberalism was a species of socialism, “inching its ice cap over the nation” — polarized the nation. His attack on the patriotism of the Ivy League elite reflected an important strand in American culture, and it helped to initiate suspicions that persist to this day.Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor. We can’t easily understand those accusations, contemporary conservative thought or the influence of the Tea Party without appreciating the enduring impact of the Hiss case.
This is a surprisingly lame ending to the piece. After all, if Chambers’ attack on the Ivy League “reflected an important strand in American culture,” then the Tea Party must have deeper roots than one half-forgotten cause célèbre. It’s also not clear what he means by the reference to false accusations against liberals for holding positions that they abhor. Is that what Sunstein thinks the Tea Party is about? That if those unfortunate and paranoid folks understood liberals better, they would oppose them less?There are some tinfoil hat types out there who think that President Obama and his cohorts are hiding Qu’rans in the White House and looking to introduce both socialism and Sharia as soon as they can. Nut jobs on both the left and the right and all kinds of cranky positions in between are an enduring part of American politics. But if Sunstein thinks that this is the energy that powers the Tea Party, he is very far from understanding either this phenomenon or American politics as a whole.The Tea Party is mostly something much more conventional: a libertarian, small government protest against the centralization of federal power, and a populist resentment of snooty Ivy League professors who think the common people aren’t very smart. We’ve had these movements in America ever since colonial times; when Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams’ re-election bid in 1828, the 19th century forerunners of the Tea Party were in full cry.We aren’t seeing a right-leaning populist surge today because of Alger Hiss; we are seeing it because many Americans believe that President Obama’s liberal and technocratic agenda represents a threat to a way of life they value. We are seeing it because many Americans blame the establishment of both parties both for the financial crisis and for the vast transfer of resources to the wealthy that came after the crash. We are seeing it because whether you look at foreign or domestic policy, the technocratic suggestions of the Great and the Good have not been helping ordinary Americans much for the last 20 years.Via Meadia isn’t a Tea Party house organ, and any tea parties at the stately Mead manor are more about Earl Grey than Ayn Rand. But we don’t think Tea Partiers are wrong to see President Obama’s political goals as fundamentally opposed to their own vision of what America should be. They aren’t angry because they are stupid, and deep disagreement with technocratic liberalism is not a mental disease.Some zealous Tea Partiers put two and two together and get eight, giving the Obama administration and its liberal backers credit for more foresight and cunning than they possess. There were those in 1800 who thought that John Adams was planning to introduce a monarchy into the United States. There were those on the right who thought that Franklin Roosevelt was a socialist; there were those on the left who thought Ronald Reagan was a fascist and that Margaret Thatcher hated poor people. But to confound a major current of American politics with the lunatic fringe is not a recipe for healing the nation or even for helping your side put some points on the board. There are birthers in the Tea Party, but the Tea Party is not the voice of birtherism.But Professor Sunstein does have a point. The Hiss case was not a cause of the Tea Party, or even of the anti-intellectual tradition in American politics that Richard Hofstader analyzed in the early 1960s. It was, however, a prominent manifestation of the class snobbery and intolerance that so often shapes elite liberal responses to political events and that so frequently fills so many Americans with loathing and disgust.For a generation after Alger Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury, American liberals went on to defend him as a plumed knight and a martyr. They slimed his accusers as knuckle dragging know-nothings and McCarthyite enemies of freedom. They never forgave Richard Nixon for helping Whittaker Chambers. As the evidence against Hiss mounted, they fought a long rear-guard defense. Even today, Cass Sunstein doesn’t quite come out with the ugly truth. Instead he gives us a mealy-mouthed formulation:
Most of those who have carefully studied the case, and who have explored evidence emerging long after the trial itself, have concluded that Chambers was telling the truth and that Hiss did indeed perjure himself.
No, as Sunstein says,
Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor.
Yes, liberals are the victims here. After decades of vicious invective and bile-spewing, liberals find the whole Hiss subject dull and don’t want to think about the case anymore—but they just hate it when other people don’t appreciate their selfless dedication to the public good.Over the years more and more liberals quietly reached the conclusion that Hiss was a perjurer and a traitor; John Kenneth Galbraith once told me that he thought that Hiss was guilty—though he still stood up for Harry Dexter White, another highly placed Stalinist mole of the era. But liberalism as a movement never really came to grips with the foolishness and ugliness of liberal behavior in the Hiss Affair. Even today it is rare to hear serious liberals asking just what it was that made so many prominent liberals so blind to the possibility that there were spies and traitors in their ranks. We haven’t had a good history—by a liberal—about the nastiness of the liberal response in the case and the class prejudice and ideological blindness that it laid so distressingly bare.Liberal apologists for Hiss do bear some significant responsibility for the virulent anti-Communism of Joseph McCarthy and his ilk. Seeing so many powerful liberals defend an obvious traitor and deny the possibility that Communists were active in the FDR and Truman administrations drove many people to embrace McCarthy and other overzealous investigators. Blacklists and anti-Communist hysteria (as opposed to rational and necessary anti-Communist vigilance) must be laid in part at the door of the vain and feckless liberals who let the country down in a critical time.If Professor Sunstein is hoping to launch a broader conversation among liberals about ways their own missteps have contributed to American polarization, then I certainly wish him the best. But it’s important to remember that the kind of behavior so painfully on display in the Hiss era is still with us today; it was not all that long ago that those who doubted that President Obama’s plans for humanitarian intervention in Syria constituted a masterful plan for ending the mass death were dismissed as raving loons and partisan hacks.