The Failed Party

The Democratic Party hasn't just taken over the title of The Stupid Party, as Professor James W. Ceaser characterizes it in his much-admired article of the same name in The Weekly Standard. Professor Ceaser insightfully argues that today's Democratic Party is what it is because of philosophical diffidence readily exploited by the bullying of a "network of techno-thugs," all Leftists.  But his erudite argument confines itself to the realm of ideas.

In the world of facts on the ground, the Democratic Party is also The Failed Party. The larger truth is that liberalism, as a governing philosophy, is a spent force.  Its failures are manifest, and those failures started to be evident in the 1960s. 

Professor Ceaser characterizes the convulsions experienced by the Democratic Party in the 1960s as "tragic, in that it involved the fall of something worthy, however flawed."  Scruffy student radicals, barbarians that breached the Democrats' gates, did so, according to the professor, because liberalism lacked a "firm theoretical foundation." 

This foundational weakness is attributed to the discrediting of the idea that progress is inevitable, and that "social intelligence" could be smartly applied to nudge progress along.  In other words, absent the fanciful notions that progress is a given and that government, dressed up as "social intelligence," could boost progress, liberals were unmoored and open to the challenges of Tom Hayden and others in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose fealty to the Socialist Ideal and anti-Americanism made accommodations with the liberal establishment unthinkable.

The professor's argument that the New Left brought down liberalism misses the other story.  The leftist enemy within played an important hand, but the failure of liberal governance and the developing critique of liberalism by conservatives were great factors in the unraveling of the dominant liberal consensus.

The philosophical or theoretical collapse of liberalism was compelling, extremely meaningful in particular to intellectuals, while allowing the hard left to gain power. But the policy failures of the Democrats in the 1960s spoke not just to activists and intellectuals, but to the American street.  These failures were dramatic and sweeping and obvious.  Vietnam is the glaring example.  Lyndon Baines Johnson waged the war poorly and left it to Richard M. Nixon and General Creighton Abrahams to win, which they did, for all intents and purposes, by the early 1970s (only to have that victory undercut by the Democrats in the mid 1970s).  Not incidentally, Johnson's failure in Vietnam was the engine that drove much of the New Left's challenge to liberal Democratic dominance.  Race riots convulsed major American cities.  Crime and illegal drug use were on the rise, and liberal judges were correctly perceived as lenient in their treatment of criminals.  The Great Society, which was the height of the "social intelligence" fallacy, and much ballyhooed at the time, proved to be a failure in solving the problem of poverty and its attendant social ills.  And it was Johnson's tax and spend policies that wound up damaging the economy by the early 1970s, damage not undone until the Reagan presidency in the 1980s.      

Today, one argument goes that liberals need a big, new idea to reinvent themselves and, thereby, recapture the Democratic Party for the rank and file, which isn't as left-leaning as the techno-thugs that Professor Ceaser mentions.  And while the party's mainstream may not be as left-leaning, today‘s Democrats are further left than a generation ago -- most definitely further left than Democrats of 1960s vintage.  A simple explanation is that many of today's Democrats, in party leadership positions and in the rank and file, were student radicals or leftist sympathizers in their youth.  And most contemporary Democrats are philosophically attuned to a greater role for government in society.  Some variant of socialized medicine is all the rage among Democrats, despite its failures elsewhere, and despite the failure of big government programs here at home (the looming collapse of Social Security, for example). 

Professor Ceaser cites Paul Starr, who argues that no re-invention of liberalism is necessary. "[Liberals] have only to reclaim the idea of American greatness as their own."  Rediscovering their old values and standing up to the cultural left is Professor Starr's prescription. But here, again, liberalism's failure is not only philosophical, but practical.  What exactly would it mean to resurrect the old liberalism?  Dusting off FDR's alphabet agencies (CCC, WPA, and so on)?  Bulldozing more inner-city neighborhoods to erect public housing projects, as was done during the Johnson presidency?  Pouring more taxpayer money into antipoverty programs? Dumping more tax dollars into nonperforming public schools?  Or raising taxes -- yet again -- to prop up Social Security? 

Government activism is at the heart of contemporary liberalism, and it is that activism that has proved wanting over the past four decades.  As to a social safety net for citizens unable to care for themselves, conservatives concurred long ago with that idea. 

Where liberals would be wise to recapture their past is in the foreign and defense policies of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.  But that would require a rediscovery of American Exceptionalism and a renewed belief that America is a force for good in the world.  It would take a moral foundation that rejects the Left's excuses and rationalizations for the evil perpetrated by our enemies, and that rejects the sophistry of leftist intellectuals and opinion leaders who seek to assign at least some of the blame for those evil acts to ourselves.  With the exception of a Joe Lieberman, where are the liberals who see with such moral clarity? 

Liberalism is a spent force today, not only because of a philosophical undoing, but because it has been tried, tested and failed in critical ways and at critical times over four decades in social, economic and national security matters.  It is conservative ideas in practice that have reinvigorated and sustained our economy for two decades, reduced welfare dependency and put criminals behind bars, for example.  And it is the conservative embrace of American greatness that permits the nation to confront and defeat its enemies.  Conservatives are generating original ideas for societal renewal and transformation, and those ideas center on moving the nation away from the outmoded big government/welfare state model created by liberals in the last century to a society where choice, initiative, responsibility and hard work are rewarded, not penalized.

The future of the nation will not be decided by a renewed liberalism, but by a principled, dynamic conservatism. 

Jeffrey Schmidt is a political and public affairs consultant in Pittsburgh.
The Democratic Party hasn't just taken over the title of The Stupid Party, as Professor James W. Ceaser characterizes it in his much-admired article of the same name in The Weekly Standard. Professor Ceaser insightfully argues that today's Democratic Party is what it is because of philosophical diffidence readily exploited by the bullying of a "network of techno-thugs," all Leftists.  But his erudite argument confines itself to the realm of ideas.

In the world of facts on the ground, the Democratic Party is also The Failed Party. The larger truth is that liberalism, as a governing philosophy, is a spent force.  Its failures are manifest, and those failures started to be evident in the 1960s. 

Professor Ceaser characterizes the convulsions experienced by the Democratic Party in the 1960s as "tragic, in that it involved the fall of something worthy, however flawed."  Scruffy student radicals, barbarians that breached the Democrats' gates, did so, according to the professor, because liberalism lacked a "firm theoretical foundation." 

This foundational weakness is attributed to the discrediting of the idea that progress is inevitable, and that "social intelligence" could be smartly applied to nudge progress along.  In other words, absent the fanciful notions that progress is a given and that government, dressed up as "social intelligence," could boost progress, liberals were unmoored and open to the challenges of Tom Hayden and others in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose fealty to the Socialist Ideal and anti-Americanism made accommodations with the liberal establishment unthinkable.

The professor's argument that the New Left brought down liberalism misses the other story.  The leftist enemy within played an important hand, but the failure of liberal governance and the developing critique of liberalism by conservatives were great factors in the unraveling of the dominant liberal consensus.

The philosophical or theoretical collapse of liberalism was compelling, extremely meaningful in particular to intellectuals, while allowing the hard left to gain power. But the policy failures of the Democrats in the 1960s spoke not just to activists and intellectuals, but to the American street.  These failures were dramatic and sweeping and obvious.  Vietnam is the glaring example.  Lyndon Baines Johnson waged the war poorly and left it to Richard M. Nixon and General Creighton Abrahams to win, which they did, for all intents and purposes, by the early 1970s (only to have that victory undercut by the Democrats in the mid 1970s).  Not incidentally, Johnson's failure in Vietnam was the engine that drove much of the New Left's challenge to liberal Democratic dominance.  Race riots convulsed major American cities.  Crime and illegal drug use were on the rise, and liberal judges were correctly perceived as lenient in their treatment of criminals.  The Great Society, which was the height of the "social intelligence" fallacy, and much ballyhooed at the time, proved to be a failure in solving the problem of poverty and its attendant social ills.  And it was Johnson's tax and spend policies that wound up damaging the economy by the early 1970s, damage not undone until the Reagan presidency in the 1980s.      

Today, one argument goes that liberals need a big, new idea to reinvent themselves and, thereby, recapture the Democratic Party for the rank and file, which isn't as left-leaning as the techno-thugs that Professor Ceaser mentions.  And while the party's mainstream may not be as left-leaning, today‘s Democrats are further left than a generation ago -- most definitely further left than Democrats of 1960s vintage.  A simple explanation is that many of today's Democrats, in party leadership positions and in the rank and file, were student radicals or leftist sympathizers in their youth.  And most contemporary Democrats are philosophically attuned to a greater role for government in society.  Some variant of socialized medicine is all the rage among Democrats, despite its failures elsewhere, and despite the failure of big government programs here at home (the looming collapse of Social Security, for example). 

Professor Ceaser cites Paul Starr, who argues that no re-invention of liberalism is necessary. "[Liberals] have only to reclaim the idea of American greatness as their own."  Rediscovering their old values and standing up to the cultural left is Professor Starr's prescription. But here, again, liberalism's failure is not only philosophical, but practical.  What exactly would it mean to resurrect the old liberalism?  Dusting off FDR's alphabet agencies (CCC, WPA, and so on)?  Bulldozing more inner-city neighborhoods to erect public housing projects, as was done during the Johnson presidency?  Pouring more taxpayer money into antipoverty programs? Dumping more tax dollars into nonperforming public schools?  Or raising taxes -- yet again -- to prop up Social Security? 

Government activism is at the heart of contemporary liberalism, and it is that activism that has proved wanting over the past four decades.  As to a social safety net for citizens unable to care for themselves, conservatives concurred long ago with that idea. 

Where liberals would be wise to recapture their past is in the foreign and defense policies of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.  But that would require a rediscovery of American Exceptionalism and a renewed belief that America is a force for good in the world.  It would take a moral foundation that rejects the Left's excuses and rationalizations for the evil perpetrated by our enemies, and that rejects the sophistry of leftist intellectuals and opinion leaders who seek to assign at least some of the blame for those evil acts to ourselves.  With the exception of a Joe Lieberman, where are the liberals who see with such moral clarity? 

Liberalism is a spent force today, not only because of a philosophical undoing, but because it has been tried, tested and failed in critical ways and at critical times over four decades in social, economic and national security matters.  It is conservative ideas in practice that have reinvigorated and sustained our economy for two decades, reduced welfare dependency and put criminals behind bars, for example.  And it is the conservative embrace of American greatness that permits the nation to confront and defeat its enemies.  Conservatives are generating original ideas for societal renewal and transformation, and those ideas center on moving the nation away from the outmoded big government/welfare state model created by liberals in the last century to a society where choice, initiative, responsibility and hard work are rewarded, not penalized.

The future of the nation will not be decided by a renewed liberalism, but by a principled, dynamic conservatism. 

Jeffrey Schmidt is a political and public affairs consultant in Pittsburgh.