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The Decline of Liberalism

A history of past greatness at home and abroad, and, since 1960, of growing weakness, hubris, and failure. 

By From the February 2011 issue

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AMERICAN LIBERALISM, synonymous today with big government, the exact opposite of the liberalism of Edmund Burke and other British champions of individual liberty, arose essentially from the use of the state to alleviate the most severe economic inequalities in society. In Great Britain this began in the competition between the Liberal and Conservative leaders, William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, between 1865 and 1880, and among major European powers with the quest for an unthreatening working class with the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck. Britain had a great battle over pensions under the chancellor of the exchequer just before the First World War, David Lloyd George.

The assassination in 1914 of the distinguished French socialist leader Jean Jaures, for advising against a headlong plunge into general war, was a grim harbinger of what was to come: ineffectual socialist pacifism that facilitated the advance of totalitarian regimes of hitherto undreamed of evil. Between the wars, in the aftermath of the hecatomb of World War I and through the Great Depression, there was a general drift to higher taxes, a more extensive social safety net, and the rise in Britain and France of democratic socialist parties to principal opposition status and a few turns at government (Ramsay MacDonald and Leon Blum).

In Germany, where the picture was much complicated by the bitterness of defeat in war and rampant inflation in its aftermath, the democratic socialists were outflanked and outmatched by the Communists, the National Socialists, and the principal upholders of Germany's fragile democratic heritage, the mainly Catholic Christian democratic parties that were revolted by the authoritarian paganism of the Nazis and the totalitarian and atheist materialism of the Communists. The triumph of the Nazis and the dithering and waffling of France and Britain between conservative appeasers and pacifistic socialists, when crowned by the most cynical alliance in world history between Hitler and Stalin, infamously catapulted Europe into the Second World War.

From 1865, while the more advanced European countries were slowly conceding a larger share of public policy concern and fiscal largesse to improving working conditions, tighter restrictions on commercial fraud and exploitation of consumers, wider franchises and education, and some concessions to organized labor, and financing these reforms with increased taxation on higher incomes, the United States was in the full flower of economic growth, fueled by a colossal 60-year wave of immigration: economic growth rates generally exceeded 10 percent annually for most of that time. In such a climate, nearly 28 million immigrants arrived in America between the Civil and First World Wars, helping almost to triple the country's population from 33 million to 98 million.

In this heady atmosphere, while there was labor unrest, individualism and pure capitalism reigned, and American exceptionalism had little time for what was generally considered proletarian, foreign-originated sniveling on behalf of the self-pitying indolent. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made a few gestures to restrain monopoly, assure a stable money supply, and discourage fraud in vital industries such as food processing and packaging. Several of these attitudes showed twitches of meliorism in respect of the working class, but it didn't go much further. Immigration was rolled back in the 1920s. Federal taxation of incomes was only made constitutional in 1913.

WHAT IS CALLED LIBERALISM in America today had scarcely seen the light of day in the United States until Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president on March 4, 1933, to face an unemployment rate generally reckoned at somewhere between 25 and 33 percent, with the banking and stock and commodity exchange systems collapsed and shut down, no direct federal relief for the unemployed, farm prices beneath subsistence levels for 75 percent of farmers, nearly half of residential accommodation in the country threatened by mortgage foreclosure, and no guarantee of any savings deposits. FDR led the country out of the Depression, saved 95 percent of the existing institutions and social framework with emergency relief and by bolting a safety net onto them, and channeled economic envy and anger against nonexistent groups (economic royalists, war profiteers, monopolists, munitions makers, malefactors of great wealth, etc.), and ultimately against the nation's real enemies: the Nazis and Japanese imperialists. If he had once named any plutocratic wrongdoers, mobs would have burned down their houses, but he preserved the moral integrality of the country.

His New Deal unfolded in five phases. The first New Deal (1933-1934) consisted of gigantic workfare projects to absorb the unemployed in conservation programs and what would today be called infrastructure construction; a comprehensive banking reorganization with guarantees of deposits; agreed rollbacks of agricultural production, voted by sector, to assure viable pricing; encouragement of cartels and collective bargaining to raise wages and prices; evaluation of the dollar and a departure from the gold standard apart from international transactions; and legislated improvements in working conditions.

The second New Deal, 1934-1938, included Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, some remodeling of the pyramidal corporate structure of the hydroelectric industry, and higher taxes as a sop to the demagogic political movements chipping at the two-party system. In the latter half of this phase, the workfare and conservation programs were rolled back, and the federal deficit was reduced. Depressive conditions began to reappear and Roosevelt reapplied workfare pump-priming on a massive scale in 1938-1939 (third New Deal), and shifted to the greatest peacetime arms buildup in history, including America's first peacetime conscription, the fourth New Deal phase, which carried into the war, 1939-1945. Counting the workfare program participants as employed (which is as logical as including European military draftees and defense workers as employed), unemployment was severely reduced by 1935; counting them as unemployed, the unemployment numbers came down to the low teens by 1936, descended below 10 percent in 1940, and unemployment was completely eliminated before the Japanese attack plunged America into war in December 1941.

The final phase of the New Deal came posthumously to Roosevelt, 1945-1949, but was his GI Bill of Rights, which gave university tuition and a stake to start a business or buy a farm to 13 million returning American servicemen (almost 10 percent of the entire population), and effectively turned the working class into a middle class, having saved them from joblessness, trained and led them to victory in war, and staked them to new careers. The Roosevelt program kept extremists from making any headway in American elections. The Socialist Party vote declined by 85 percent from 1932 to 1936, and when asked if Roosevelt wasn't carrying out the Socialist program, perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas replied: "Yes, carrying it out in a coffin."

THERE HAS BEEN A good deal of revisionist comment recently that Roosevelt's policies did not end the Depression, but as U.S. GDP doubled in his 12 years in office and unemployment declined from roughly 30 percent to 0.5 percent, that case is difficult to sustain (and is in fact, nonsense). From this point on, the tussle between American liberals and conservatives has been over what emphasis to give unrestricted economic activity, which promises relatively high growth, but with sharp cyclicality of booms and busts; and alleviation of substandard social conditions through anti-poverty and health care programs. Most of Western Europe, as it rebuilt from the devastation of war, fearful for notorious historic reasons of the anger of the urban working class and of small farmers, has been lumbered by a system of social benefit and subsidized living that paid Danegeld to traditional disturbers of social peace at the price of minimal economic growth, though they are relatively high-income societies.

In the United States, conservative and liberal issues became tangled in foreign policy as well, as liberals tended to believe that stability in the world could be had with minimal recourse to force and with reliance on international organizations, while retaining a military adequate to deter direct national attack on the United States and defend its principal allies, and conservatives have been generally more proactive in seeking an improved strategic balance, by a combination of diplomatic innovation and assured peace through enhanced military strength.

In foreign affairs, President Truman devised the great instruments of anti-Communist containment -- NATO, the Marshall Plan, etc. -- and defied Stalin with the Berlin Airlift and resisted the Communist takeover of South Korea. President Eisenhower, the first Republican in 20 years, maintained virtually everything FDR and Truman had done, but did not expand the state socially (though he did build the interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway), and in foreign affairs, he ended the Korean War along the compromise lines sought by Truman, contrary to the wishes of more conservative Republican hawks, including Douglas MacArthur, Richard Nixon, and John Foster Dulles. Eisenhower refused to touch Vietnam as the French were pushed out of it, and cut the defense budget while relying on "more bang for the buck": massive retaliation to deter aggression. He threatened a nuclear response to everything, even over the trivial Formosa Strait islands of Quemoy and Matsu. It was brinkmanship, but it worked. Eisenhower also began the de-escalation of the Cold War, with the first summit meeting in 10 years, at Geneva in 1955, where he proposed his "Open Skies" program for reciprocal aerial military reconnaissance.

Roosevelt's social programs were left essentially unaltered for 20 years after he died, until President Lyndon Johnson cut taxes while expanding the social ambitions of the federal government with his Great Society War on Poverty, and massive job retraining efforts, coupled to great and long-delayed advances in civil rights. Kennedy and Johnson favored civil rights more actively than had their predecessors, and backed conservatives into pious humbug about the Constitution not allowing for federal imposition of voting rights and official social equality for African Americans. Johnson overcame that opposition and it was one of liberalism's finest hours. But the long Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower consensus frayed badly when Johnson, who had been a congressman during the New Deal years, determined to take it a long step further and proposed a policy extravaganza that promised to buy the end of poverty through social investment. As all the world knows, it was a disaster that destroyed the African American family and severely aggravated the welfare and entitlements crises.

And in foreign and security policy, Kennedy abandoned massive retaliation, promised limited war by limited means for limited objectives, in unlimited locations, and the Communists took him up on it. Having claimed a nonexistent missile gap, he then squandered the U.S. missile advantage in favor of Mutual Assured Destruction; i.e., no advantage. Worse, he drank his own bathwater over Cuba. Before that crisis (1962), there were NATO missiles in Greece and Turkey, no Russian missiles in Cuba, and no assurance against U.S. invasion of Cuba. After the crisis, there were no NATO missiles in Greece or Turkey, nor Russian missiles in Cuba, and a guarantee of no U.S. invasion of Cuba. U.S. intelligence had not realized that there were already 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba in the autumn of 1962, and that the nuclear warheads were already there and could be attached in 24 hours. The famous and photogenic sea blockade was closing the gate after the Trojan horse had entered. It was a triumph for Kennedy, in that he didn't commit to an invasion that would have been a very rough business in a nuclear-capable theater and that would presumably have precipitated countermeasures in Berlin. (Khrushchev could not have sat inert while the U.S. overpowered two Soviet divisions in Cuba.) But it was no strategic victory, and discerning judges, especially de Gaulle and Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon (who lost the race for governor of California as a result of the perceived Kennedy tour de force in Cuba), saw that.

However, the liberal leadership thought they had a new and foolproof technique of crisis management, the critical path of graduated escalation, and that led us straight into Vietnam, with no notion of how to fight such a war; while LBJ's application of overreach to domestic affairs drove America into the mire of the Great Society.

RICHARD NIXON ENDED Mutual Assured Destruction by starting anti-missile deployment; pursuing what he called "nuclear sufficiency," which in practice was a restoration of U.S. nuclear superiority, based on technological advantages, especially Multiple, Independently Targeted warheads (MIRVs) on the same missiles; and using this strength to "build down" through the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks process, thus impressing hawks with his enhancement of American military strength and doves with the greatest arms limitations agreement in history, in 1972.

Vietnam by 1966 was killing 200 to 400 American draftees every week, with no prospect of victory. The greatest military blunder in U.S. history was failure to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when public opinion would have supported it. President Johnson effectively gave up in Vietnam in October 1966 when he offered a joint withdrawal of all non-South Vietnamese forces from the South. Ho Chi Minh declined this, because he wished to defeat the U.S. directly, signaling a decisive victory in the Cold War of the Communists over the West. He could have won his declared objectives by accepting the joint withdrawal and then returning six months later. He knew the U.S. would not commit ground forces again to the war. That he did not accept Johnson's offer demonstrates the fervor of his ambition to defeat the United States itself.

Richard Nixon handed the Vietnam War over to the South Vietnamese, bought them time to ramp up their war effort by wiping out the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia as he drew down U.S forces, and resumed heavy bombing of North Vietnam when that country overtly invaded the South in 1972. Nixon opened relations with China, which helped propel a reduction in tensions with the USSR, and he detached both the Chinese and the Russians from support of Hanoi's effort to defeat the U.S., as opposed to just unifying Vietnam. Nixon enabled the South to hold its own on the ground with heavy U.S. air support. He ended the Vietnam War with a non-Communist government in place in Saigon and believed it could have been preserved if the U.S. had retained its readiness to respond with heavy air reprisals to a renewed North Vietnamese invasion of the South. For that reason, he sent the peace accord to the Senate for ratification, although he was not obliged to do so, to gain Senate support for the enforcement of the treaty if necessary.

The great watershed of modern American politics was the tawdry Watergate affair. Historians will long debate whether Nixon actually committed crimes or whether, as he claimed, he committed "mistakes unworthy of a president" but not crimes. Certainly, the impeachment counts presented to the House Judiciary Committee were outrages of partisan hysteria, and liberals in the Congress and the national media grossly exaggerated the significance of what was uncovered. Assisted by Nixon's inexplicable mismanagement of the affair, they hounded Nixon from office, diminished the presidency as an institution, and then, for good measure, cut off all aid to South Vietnam, ensuring that that country would fall to the Communists, that the United States would be completely humiliated, and, although they would not precisely have foreseen this, that millions would die in the killing fields of Cambodia, and drown when forced to flee Vietnam as boat people. And for Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, the liberal political and media establishment took a decades-long bow and claimed the status of redeemers of American democracy and integrity in government.

Nixon had saved America from the liberal debacle in Vietnam and the self-imposed cul-de-sac in the arms race, and Nixon ended school segregation without falling into the catastrophe of compulsory school busing between districts as was being ordered by the courts. He proposed, but did not get to enact, welfare reform, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, which he foresaw would become another faddish leftist hobby horse if conservatives were not sensible, abolished the draft, and reduced the crime rate. He had taken a great deal of the liberals' clothes, while holding the conservative majority in place, and his reelection by the greatest plurality in American history in 1972 (18 million votes and 49 states) showed the extent to which liberalism's failures under Kennedy and Johnson had been recognized and corrected.

THOUGH MANY LIBERALS were doubtless sincere in believing that Nixon was a menace to constitutional government, and he did have some completely unacceptable notions of executive privilege in national security matters (such as the claimed right to ransack the Brookings Institution and break into the office of a dissident Vietnam consultant's psychotherapist), Nixon was a patriotic American, a very capable president, and he did much more to stabilize constitutional government than to undermine it. The effect of the Watergate and Vietnam disasters was to criminalize policy differences and help turn the United States into a prosecutocracy terrorized by overzealous U.S. attorneys; propel the media to depths of investigative cynicism that made the lives of anyone trying to accomplish anything newsworthy unprecedentedly difficult; temporarily reduce the executive branch to less than its constitutionally allotted position of equality with the legislature and judiciary; cause scores of millions of Americans to be disillusioned with government and to abandon the national media for competing and new technology rivals as they became available; and introduce a period of aggressive Soviet expansion in southern Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan.

But Watergate and Vietnam hastened the decline of American liberalism. Jimmy Carter squeaked into office in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and failed in his quest for a more liberal state and a safer world through accommodation of the USSR. Ronald Reagan led the definitive takeover of the Republican Party by conservatives; he was as much to the right of Nixon as Nixon had been to the right of Eisenhower. He cut taxes and promised a defensive anti-missile system that effectively cracked the Soviet Union completely. Unable to envision a further increase in the percentage of GDP devoted to defense, scarcely able to maintain its hold over Eastern Europe and its own restive ethnic minorities, the Soviet Union quietly imploded and international Communism collapsed, as China, partly under the influence unleashed by Nixon's opening to it, became a hotbed of state capitalism. Reagan led the country to huge productivity increases, the creation of 18 million net new jobs, and the adaptation of the American economy to new techniques and technologies. Conservatism was triumphant.

Americans calling themselves conservative as opposed to liberal were now at a ratio of about three to two. After the chaotic and violent convention of 1968, the Democratic Party took the nomination process away from the party bosses who had chosen and supported Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as the less successful but respected Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, and the elevation of a very improbable sequence of candidates resulted, from George McGovern in 1972 to Michael Dukakis. After Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush, succeeded him and mismanaged the economy, broke his pledge of "no new taxes," and ran a very inept reelection campaign after allowing an eccentric Texan billionaire to seize a chunk of Republican support, the Democrats won with a young, Ivy League-educated Southern governor, who ran as a "new Democrat," which in policy terms, meant essentially a Republican. Bill Clinton tried a turn to the left, especially on health care, was beaten badly in the midterm elections in 1994, and then produced budget surpluses, engaged more policemen, and proved too agile for the Republicans to catch. The country was, however, and in the new Watergate tradition, reduced to a demeaning impeachment hearing based largely on the president's rather undiscriminating extramarital sex life. In the midst of it, the Republican leaders in the Congress finally rolled back much of the shambles of the Great Society and rammed through comprehensive welfare reform.

The 2000 election was an uncertain draw between Clinton's vice president and Bush's son. The eight Bush years that followed were clouded by the preoccupation with terrorism after the suicide attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Bush mismanaged the budgetary deficit, and the Clinton-originated practices of immense current account deficits and the encouragement of the issuance of trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed debt, supposedly to facilitate home ownership, came home to roost in severe recession while the country's entire conventional armed forces capability was mired for five years in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is the result, after he deftly took the Clintons' party out from underneath them and liberated white America from its guilt complex after 350 years of mistreatment of blacks (and as a bonus, liberated them also from having to listen to charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Charlie Rangel as African American leaders).

Mr. Obama broke the glass ceiling barring non-whites from the highest office but tried to use the economic crisis to justify a sharp turn to the left, expansion of the state in health care and the environment, tax increases, and outright bribes ("refundable tax credits"), to the indigent. The resulting political and economic debacle gave a no-name, leaderless Republican Party a huge sweep as a reward for unimaginative denigration of the administration in November's elections, and if Obama is to have a chance of reelection, it will be by turning the balance of this term into, as has already begun, a tutorial from Bill Clinton on how to masquerade as a Republican. All polls now indicate that there are twice as many self-designated conservatives as liberals, but also almost twice as many independents as liberals.

AMERICANS ARE WORRIED about debt and tax increases, distrustful of government regulation, concerned at extreme income disparity and the loss of huge chunks of business, including energy supplies, to foreigners, and they associate liberalism with extravagance, the use of the welfare system to buy the votes of the underperforming (whether with a legitimate excuse or not), the belittling of America in the world, and a general erosion of cherished values. And the last liberal leader the people really liked was John F. Kennedy, and in that they were largely buying a public relations confidence trick, amplified by the horrible tragedy of his premature death. If the Republicans have a plausible leader, and the Bushes were no world-beaters, their program will win for them. Leaders of unusual stature or agility, such as Eisenhower, Nixon at his best, and Reagan, win heavy majorities.

Liberalism saved America and led it to its greatest days under Roosevelt and Truman. And it essentially continued under Eisenhower, a nonpartisan war hero who pretended to be above politics. Under Kennedy and Johnson and their inept Democratic successors, liberalism ceased to be perceived as helping the deserving and instead became taking money from those who had earned it and giving it to those who hadn't in exchange for their votes. Nixon saved the country from the Kennedy-Johnson failure to redefine liberalism successfully, but freakishly squandered the political credit for doing so. Reagan won the battle for the conservatives against the liberals, and the Democrats have only won since when they ran an ostensibly moderate candidate against a very weak Republican. (Bob Dole and John McCain, whatever their merits as senators, were hopeless blunderbusses as presidential nominees.)

Liberalism will revive, as conservatism did, when it redefines itself as something that is new, looks likely to succeed, favors economic growth, and is no longer tainted by envy, hypocrisy, and the mere bribery of voting blocs. This will take a leader of the stature of a Roosevelt or Reagan. No such person is now visible, in either party, but neither were they seen in that light before they were elected and became candidates for Mount Rushmore.

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About the Author

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, both published by PublicAffairs Books.