An intellectual autopsy of the movement.
IN THE TUMULTUOUS HISTORY of postwar American Liberalism, there has been a slow but steady decline of which the Liberals have been steadfastly oblivious. This pose has called for admirable discipline, for the evidence was all around them. Yet Liberals, who began as the rightful heirs to the New Deal, carried on as a kind of aristocracy, gifted but doomed. They dominated the culture and the politics of the country unchallenged from the beginnings of the Cold War to the first Nixon administration. With the general populace, however, they increasingly faltered. Now they are down to around 20 percent of the electorate. They have the nation’s librarians, most of the professoriate, students so long as they remain relatively untaxed, labor leaders, and career Democrats. After that it gets tricky. Conservatives accounted for 42 percent of the vote in the recent election, maintaining roughly a 2-1 margin over liberals, which has been true for decades. In the last election, the independents, the second most numerous group, voted with conservatives. They were alarmed about the economy, and will probably remain alarmed for a long time.
Liberals are going the way of the American Prohibition Party. It is time for someone to tell them: “Rigor mortis has set in, comrades.” They could be oblivious during the Nixon Crisis or while Ronald Reagan sleepwalked through history, as many Liberals still say; but today their obliviousness amounts to a kind of madness. The house is afire, but there is a whole string ensemble madly playing their fiddles.
AT FIRST GLANCE, the decline might appear to have begun with the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy when historians noted the first sightings of what was to become Liberalism’s distinctive trait, overreach. At times Liberals promise too much. At times they attempt too much. Occasionally, they actually achieved too much, and many Americans fear for their wallets and their liberties. As a consequence larger numbers of the electorate have been voting for conservatism, a movement that began in the 1950s when anti-communists combined with proponents of limited government and advocates of American traditionalism. For years it was a small, struggling movement, challenging Liberalism intellectually until Richard Nixon availed himself to parts of it. Then in the 1970s it became an intellectual and electoral force, and with the presidency of Ronald Reagan it became the dominant force in American politics. The Liberals remained oblivious.
Kennedy’s soaring oratory frequently attained the sublime meaninglessness of romantic poesy. It was lovely, but it roused the Soviets, led to the Vietnam quagmire, and put America in the role of Doctor Democracy to the world, not leaving us with much room to maneuver. It was, in truth, an extension of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Even further back it echoed President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. It was infectious and admirable and it even impressed later generations of conservatives, but it was susceptible to overreach and of course it was a bit dishonest. For instance, there never was a missile gap, as Kennedy claimed, or any other cause for his histrionics. Moreover, on the domestic side the oratory set in motion what was to be catastrophic overreach, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
In a way JFK’s stirring language represented a break with the Burkean understanding of President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike, whether he articulated it or not, wanted to put the Great Depression and the dangerous confrontations of the early Cold War behind us. He wanted to return to “normalcy.” Yet JFK departed from Ike’s more prudent course when he said in his first Inaugural, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He kept up the rhetorical barrage. Then on April 12, 1961, the Russians sent Yuri Gagarin into space. A week later Kennedy betrayed ambivalence at the Bay of Pigs and immaturity at his June summit with the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, who told his aides that by comparison Ike “was a man of intelligence and vision.” Kennedy was inert as the East Germans built a wall around Berlin in August, and only reacted vigorously when he had the Cuban missile crisis on his hands in fall of 1962. Then the Great Blah began, as Richard Rovere wrote in the New Yorker that the showman in the White House had achieved “perhaps the greatest personal diplomatic victory of any president in our history.” Perhaps! Now, however, the Russians were roused, and America was on a path much more perilous than that which Ike had envisioned. It led to a red-hot Cold War in Kennedy’s day and to Vietnam. It fixed America’s stance in the world as defender of democracy. It led to the inevitability of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically it set us on the path to a behemoth Big Government.
STILL, IN LOOKING FOR Liberalism’s decline the historian’s eye falls on an earlier event as a precursor to Liberalism’s present entombment: the civil war that broke out in the aftermath of World War II between what we might call the radical Liberals led by Henry Wallace and the advocates of what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. would call in his book “The Vital Center,” more practical Liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Joseph L. Rauh, and Walter Reuther. They were hard-headed and patriotic, and their desiderata for their constituents were reasonable by comparison with the radicals’ wild ideas.
Yet, even here in 1947 they introduced the excesses that were to grow much worse. They instilled their Liberalism with a disturbing moralism and even worse, the first Big Lie of modern American politics. Others would come, for instance the allegation that anyone who questions their most recent panacea for racial relations is a racist or for alleviating poverty hates the poor, and that Bill Clinton was virginal. When he, as president, dissembled about Monica Lewinsky under oath it was a minor offense. The Big Lie was that Alger Hiss, Dexter White, and the other security risks were not Communists. We now know with the opening of the Venona files that they were. We further know from a careful reading of history that in the late 1940s such figures as Dean Acheson and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes knew that they were. Yet these Democrats thought the truth did not matter. Hiss was an eccentric or an idealist. What mattered was keeping the Republicans out of government. Maybe they were right that Hiss’s communism was a harmless thing, but they did not have to lie about it. The Hiss debate envenomed our politics right up to the present and brought discredit to Liberalism.
The practical Liberals won in the late 1940s, but in 1972 civil war broke out anew. This time the radicals won with the Democratic nomination of Senator George McGovern for president. The radicals had changed the rules of the Democratic Party, thus ensuring their victories in subsequent conventions. Simultaneously with this radical takeover of the Democratic Party, radicals took over the universities, bringing in nonsense studies and idiot enthusiasms. In the meantime, LBJ’s Great Society was an egregious instance of overreach, causing even some Liberals to warn against the “unintended consequences” of government programs. These straying Liberals were to be the first new recruits to modern conservatism, which was now growing fast. The radicals’ conquests of the Democratic Party and of the universities hastened the straying Liberals’ journey to conservatism. Such Liberals as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and, for a time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan were in Kristol’s words Liberals “who were mugged by reality.”
Meanwhile, the radical Liberals became more self-indulgent. They were of two types, the aging students who had in the late 1960s been called Coat-and-Tie Radicals and the more serious ideologues. The first became Delusional Leftists. The second either were or became socialists, though they dare not use the word — even social democrat was out. Only a crisis in the leadership of President Nixon allowed the electorate to ignore these transformations.
How grave Nixon’s misbehavior was in Watergate, I leave to history. I shall only say this. There is a formal and informal politics. In the formal politics we play by the rules. In the informal we break the lesser rules from time to time. Everyone in Washington suspected, when informed of Watergate, that Nixon had suggested sotto voce to his lieutenants, “Rid me of this problem.” LBJ had done it with such rogues as Bobby Baker. Truman had done it with numerous scoundrels, and FDR did it with a wide array from Maurice Parmelee, a practicing nudist, to Jesse Jones, his secretary of commerce. Most modern Big Government presidents say, “I don’t want to hear about it,” and the thing is dealt with by others. Perhaps it was the moralism of modern Liberalism that would not allow it in Nixon’s case.
At any rate, “Worse than the lie is the cover-up” became the new Washington truism, and in the subsequent cleansing much of Southeast Asia went Communist. It became dangerous to be numbered among America’s friends. By now Liberalism was becoming lost in its fantasies. Conservatives became evil while each Liberal became a moral colossus, a truth seeker, a poet. Possibly the first attempts at windsurfing were undertaken. More on this later. The Liberals began to confer with only the like-minded. They lost touch with America. They almost never establish communication with the American conservatives. When they were beaten by conservatives they really never knew what hit them.
CONSERVATIVES HAVE HAD Edmund Burke, the Earl of Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli), and the Founding Fathers as their cynosures. Sometimes they have provided conservatives with discipline and direction. Sometimes the conservatives have followed their own star. The problem for Liberals is they have been denied a cynosure. Some had looked to the British Fabians and some to Karl Marx, but since the late 1940s and the recognition of the Soviet Union’s costs in liberty (and at times lives) and social democracy’s costs to GDP, people like John Kenneth Galbraith became coy about their intellectual heroes. Some pointed to John Stuart Mill, but so did some conservatives. John Maynard Keynes was useful but too narrow. So the Liberals really have no formidable ancestor to claim — certainly no Burkes, not even a couple of the Founding Fathers. Maybe Jean-Jacques Rousseau or more recently Saul Alinsky, but the first is lost in dithyrambs and the second stole hubcaps or maybe whole cars.
Actually around the 1970s I can hear some clarions of the dead Liberalism claiming the Beatles as Liberal philosophes. After all since the 1960s rock ‘n’ roll had a special place in the Liberals’ Weltanschauung. Sean Wilentz, the modern-day heir to Schlesinger, has even written a scholarly study of Bob Dylan. Did Schlesinger ever write a book about Frank Sinatra or earlier Glenn Miller? As I say, Liberalism is dead.
By the 1980s the leadership of the Liberal cause could be divided into two types, the Delusional Left and a smaller camp, the socialists. The Delusional Left talked of global warming, some sort of government health care, and increasingly one world under one law — that sort of thing. They did not talk of socialism, but doubtless if the wind came up and filled out socialism’s sails, they would gladly be swept along. The true socialists lay low until very recently and even now they are not very candid, adopting a pose of “Read my deeds” rather than “Read my lips.” The Delusional Left have provided me with a lot of laughs: Al Gore’s historic kiss at the 2000 Democratic Convention, Jean-François Kerry the Vietnam war protester claiming to be the war hero. By contrast President Barack Obama is not so funny, though occasionally he comes up with such lines as “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
FROM THE NIXON ADMINISTRATION on the numbers have not been good for Liberals. In 1972 one state went for George McGovern, and that was not even his home state. He even lost the youth vote, though one would never know it from reading the press accounts. In 1976 Liberalism did better, but Jimmy Carter ran as a moderate and God gave him Watergate. Then came 1980. Reagan benefited from the ongoing electoral accretions that modern conservatism had attracted: the neocons, the evangelicals (aka the Christian Right), the Reagan Democrats. The Liberals could only claim feminists, gays, blacks, and Latinos. In other words, nothing new — just perpetrators of what we call Masked Politics. When the Mask slipped one could see all had been Liberals all along. During the eight years of Reagan, he changed the political center for years to come. His policies worked. As the Old Cowboy headed back to California, the political center was center-right: vigilance about big government; balanced budgets, low taxes, and peace through strength.
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