The Death of Liberalism
By R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
(Thomas Nelson, 208 pages, $19.99)
In the army of American conservatives, Bob Tyrrell packs a unique punch. Not for him the heavy artillery of a Charles Krauthammer or a George Will, nor the shock troops of the Kristols and Podhoretzes, père et fils. Instead, Tyrrell resembles the Navy SEALs: a special force who operates behind enemy lines, light on his feet and breathtaking in his daring. He has been harrying the forces of the left for nigh on half a century, but he has never lost his taste for hand-to-hand combat, nor his impish wit. When Bill Buckley died, the American Right lost its intellectual leader, and he has yet to be replaced; but as long as Bob Tyrrell has anything to do with it, conservatives will go on taking the fight to their opponents. It is not in his nature to adopt the comfortable role of Grand Old Man; he may be a veteran of countless journalistic campaigns, but his eagle eye is firmly focused on the future of the republic. In fact, the aptly named R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. may only just be reaching his prime. Proof that Tyrrell possesses the elixir of eternal youth is his new book, The Death of Liberalism. This obituary for the Obama era is as sprightly and mischievous as we have come to expect from his pen, but it gains additional force from two factors.
The first is the sheer awfulness of the destination toward which the land of Manifest Destiny seems to be headed under the enlightened despotism of the Community-Organizer-in-Chief. Thus the diagnosis of what ails America that Dr. Tyrrell has been giving us for forty years has now been overtaken by events; hence his prognosis is more likely to be taken seriously. It will be taken seriously, that is, at least by those Americans (the vast majority) who love their country, do not relish the wave of pessimism now sweeping it, and, rather than treating its decline as a given fact, want something to be done about reversing it. It is not, after all, America that is in decline, but American Liberalism. Only someone who identifies completely the fortunes of Liberalism with those of the United States; who regards those who do not share his Liberal politics as Un-American; who thinks those who “cling to guns or religion” are of no account; only such a person could occupy (I use the word deliberately) the White House for three years without any discernible inkling of what makes America exceptional.
The second factor is the thoroughness of his post mortem on the cadaverous relics of Liberalism. Whether in theory or practice, the grisly evidence that rigor mortis set in long ago is laid out here on the slab for inspection. Tracing the history of the movement from its heyday in the Thirties and Forties, through the Coat and Tie Radicals of the Sixties to the Stealth Socialists of the present, Tyrrell gives the reader chapter and verse of who said what, when, and to whom. But that is not all. The intellectual defects of the Liberal project are also set out in clinical detail, from Rousseau to Rawls and Rorty, along with the follies of the academic and journalistic cheerleaders for the (now somewhat moth-eaten) New Politics, who have done their best to indoctrinate generations of students with the historical inevitability of Liberalism.
Tyrrell follows Buckley in making an orthographical distinction between the classical liberals of the remote past—for whom the preservation of liberty really was a touchstone—and the Liberals of modern times. That capital “L” stands for a radical ideology that is the very opposite of the political creed of the Founding Fathers and their greatest successors, from Lincoln to Reagan. They all subscribed to ideas which are nowadays regarded as conservative—fidelity to the Constitution and the Rule of Law, to the Judeo-Christian ethics of the Bible, to the freedom of the market, a limited government, and representative democracy. Tyrrell traces the origins of postwar Liberalism back to the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century. One of their leaders, Woodrow Wilson, demonstrated a characteristic Progressive attitude when he demanded “permission...to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle,” by which he meant that “a nation is a living thing and not a machine.” But as Tyrrell points out, the Founding Fathers intended no such thing. Their checks and balances, their separation of powers, already incorporated the evolutionary principle that Wilson invoked, allowing interests to compete but preventing the tyranny of the majority or of Big Government.
THE ARROGANCE OF the Progressives was inherited by the Liberals, whose sense of moral superiority sometimes renders them incapable of engaging in debate with conservatives—especially when that moralism is augmented by intellectual and social snobbery. It is ludicrous to suppose that the Liberal media would condescend to give a white working-class Catholic the same generous treatment as they once gave a black middle-class Harvard academic. Yet former Senator Santorum has at least as strong credentials to run for President as Senator Obama had four years ago.
The suffocating self-righteousness of the Liberal establishment blinds it to the fact that it has, as Tyrrell shows, turned its back on the very people who once formed the backbone of the Democratic Party. And those electors in turn have turned their backs on the Liberals: the striving, upwardly mobile working and middle classes that elected Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson have mostly given up on a party that no longer speaks for them or the things they hold dear. Hubert Humphrey was one of the last of the old-style Democrats who could properly claim to speak for this grand coalition of working and middle-class voters, which used anti-Communist labor unions, church, and synagogue to incorporate ethnic communities into Democratic politics. The coalition had proved so formidable that even an arch-conservative like Nixon was obliged to trim his sails in order to defeat Humphrey in 1968. Yet within a few years, the Democrats had chosen George McGovern, a Liberal of the most extreme hue, as their leader. Ever since McGovern, the Democratic Party has been held hostage by well-heeled Liberals, even if most presidential candidates have run as moderates. And, as Charles Murray shows in his new book Coming Apart, these upper class Liberals loathe middle-class values.
What is the explanation for this hijacking of one of the world’s most formidable electoral machines? In a word—and it is a word of Tyrrell’s coinage—it was the Kultursmog. Back in Truman’s time, his aide Clark Clifford observed with great prescience: “The ‘right’ may have the money, but the ‘left’ has always had the pen.” Throughout the New Deal and the war, FDR enabled Liberals to avoid making hard choices: they could flirt with Communism without embracing it. Then, in what Tyrrell calls “Liberalism’s first civil war” of the late Forties, the Liberals had to decide whether to support former Vice President Henry Wallace, who ran against Truman on a Progressive ticket, surrounded and manipulated by the Communists and fellow travelers he ludicrously dubbed “Gideon’s Army.” To their credit, the Liberals chose Truman. But over the next few decades, the tough-minded Liberal anti-Communism typified by Max Ascoli and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was supplanted by the sentimental, paranoid, and illiberal Liberalism that has gradually come to permeate so much of American public life. The Kultursmog is the cultural-political complex—Liberalism’s answer to the military-industrial complex.
Some of the characteristic vices of Liberalism have been there from the start: the arrogance and smugness; the readiness to spend other people’s money; the sense of entitlement, as if they owned the political mainstream and all other views were extreme. Other vices, however, have emerged mainly since the Sixties: the fear of progress and prosperity, propped up by a self-serving industry that feeds on apocalyptic anxieties; the assumption that the West in general and America in particular are always to blame and always in decline; the fatal embrace of libertine lifestyles and of moral and cultural relativism; the refusal even to engage with conservatives, let alone to compromise with them for the sake of all; the ascendency of feelings over facts, public displays of emotion as a substitute for action; above all, a total and lethal lack of any sense of humor.
Contemporary Liberalism does not add up to an attractive package of beliefs. This ought not to matter to those who are not Liberals and have no stake in their privileged status. But the regulation of professional and personal relationships by political correctness and the usurpation of the legal system by the hypertrophy of human rights mean that Liberal ideology has insinuated itself into more and more spheres of private and public life. Because Liberals have insisted that countless fields in which people used to mind their own business should instead become the Government’s business, dealing with the Liberal mindset has become everybody’s business. That is why Bob Tyrrell’s book is indispensable.
THE TITLE OF THE BOOK ALONE should lift the spirits. This is not one of those gloomy tomes that list endless outrageous case-histories of ordinary folks being humiliated by officialdom or that play on the conservative penchant for pessimism. In 2009, when the euphoria surrounding Obama’s victory had yet to be dispelled, Sam Tanenhaus rushed out an ephemeral exercise in Schadenfreude: The Death of Conservatism. With the birth of the Tea Party that year, even the most fanatical Liberals were forced to concede that reports of the death of conservatism had been exaggerated.
Tyrrell believes on the contrary that it is Liberalism, not conservatism, that is moribund, having been intellectually dead for decades, and he sets out to prove it. Marx claimed that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its contradictions; he was wrong, of course, but in 1989 his own brainchild, Communism, actually did just that. Its collapse did grievous collateral damage to social democracy (the European term for what Americans call Liberalism). The left suffered a mortal blow to its credibility everywhere at the hands of the peoples of Eastern Europe. Various bids were made to resurrect the old Liberal doctrines under new guises, but all failed. The most successful center-left politicians have been those, such as Tony Blair, who conceded that the game was up and embraced a more limited role for government, at least in the economy.
Then the financial crisis exhumed Liberalism from the graveyard of history. Barack Obama may not look like a zombie, but in Tyrrell’s view that is precisely what he is. His administration has no new ideas and can have none because Liberalism is intellectually dead. The President himself Tyrrell describes as the Stealth Socialist, because of his relentless drive to bring the U.S. economy under his control, while leaving posterity to pay the check. In just three years, he has nearly doubled national debt from 40.3 percent of GDP to 72 percent. Even if he loses in November, his legacy will be the fiscal equivalent of the Augean stables—but where is the Republican Hercules to clean them out? It is not easy to imagine Romney, say, getting his mitts dirty in the ways that will be necessary to get America back on track.
What, though, if Obama wins again? Stealth Socialism is not the end of the story. After that, argues Tyrrell, comes Friendly Fascism. Given a second term and control of both houses of Congress, the President would mutate into a dictator in all but name. “The blueprint for the future of the American left, if it can ever resurrect, is fascism with a friendly face.” From Obamacare to the Dodd-Frank Act, the net effect of Obama’s policies is to reduce democratic oversight over the executive. Sinister new agencies, such as the Consumer Federal Protection Bureau, will enforce the new order.
Tyrrell is not the first to issue such warnings: Jonah Goldberg wrote a book and a blog entitled “Liberal Fascism,” and others too have played variations on the theme. On this point I part company from Tyrrell, for the same reason that I don’t like it when Liberals accuse conservatives of being fascists—as the late Tony Judt denounces Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich in his posthumous book Thinking the Twentieth Century. Mussolini may have started out as a leftist schoolteacher, but Obama is no Mussolini.
Tyrrell, though, concedes that this Liberal fascism will remain “an unrealized American nightmare” if the electorate follows through the repudiation of the Democrats that began in 2010. “The numbers,” as Tyrrell repeatedly reminds us, “are against the zombies. They are outnumbered two to one by the conservatives, and when we throw in the moderates, or independents as they are called, it gets worse...President Obama is dead in the water.”
Amen to that. But there is a real danger: conservative pessimism. The Kultursmog would have us think that Obama is sailing to an easy victory. If the Republican candidate, whoever it may be, loses heart and starts to believe this, he may appear as what used to be called a trimmer—a wavering, havering appeaser, jettisoning moral principles as he goes in a last desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with voters. The danger to America is not that, given a chance, Obama would morph into il Duce in designer gear. It is that a pseudo-conservative Republican, lacking what the late James Q. Wilson called “moral sense,” will hand over the White House to the zombies for another four years.