Liberalism and its Discontents
Last month's solemn 50th year remembrance of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its confluence with an event of eventual monumental insignificance provides a useful context in which to contemplate the current state of national politics. The one reminds us of a political impulse that was at one time predominant and the other places in stark relief the ideological project that replaced it.
We use labels as a handy mechanism for describing complex concepts. "Liberalism", as a political term, did not come into broad currency in the United States until the after the First World War. It described a proto-ideology that envisioned a muscular central government reimagined as an engine for social organization in contrast to the benign protector of liberty envisioned by the Founders. In ignoring the assumptions of the Founding, it was not particularly out of character for politics at the time. Other than pro forma invocations of the pantheon of Founding heroes, no one really made much reference to Founding principles in political discourse. They did not have to, of course, since the basic governmental paradigm remained largely intact even in light of the eclipse of state prerogative in the wake of the Civil War.
Though they sought to move on from first principles, they did so, they thought, as an accommodation to modernity, not as a rejection of the idea of America. They thought of liberalism as progress; as an improvement on basic concepts, as a part of an evolutionary continuum of ideas rooted in American tradition. They were, largely, patriotic. They believed in Founding ideals. Though many demonstrated a disquieting receptiveness to foreign ideas, they were, at root, still nationalists who believed in a greater America.
Liberalism became not so much a movement as an overwhelming theoretical assumption and its reach extended far from the politics with which it started, to all corners of society, from literature to music to education to social mores. By the 1950s, it was, quite simply, the predominant philosophical presupposition of American life. It was the more predominant for the absence of any organized countervailing ideological force.
When a component of the liberal zeitgeist, the very real undercurrent of seditious leftism, demonstrated too clear a sympathy to foreign authoritarian impulses -- a purer form of the fundamental leftist philosophical doctrine out which liberalism evolved -- mainstream American liberals wrote hardcore leftists out of the movement and adopted a vigorous anti-Communism. Many became ardent Cold Warriors. John Kennedy ran for president arguing that a missile gap made the nation vulnerable to Soviet adventurism. Far from running on the notion of diverting defense dollars to social programs, he argued for increases in military spending and a more vigorous foreign policy to contain Communist expansion.
President Kennedy did not say "Ich bin ein Berliner" to suggest appeasement but as a statement of solidarity between Americans and free Germans against Communist tyranny. He did not face down the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis because he believed Communism to be an alternate political lifestyle that should be understood instead of defeated. He did not go into Vietnam expecting to contain North Vietnam. He went there intending to defeat it. He had been shaped by the transformative experience of World War II and the self-confidence and triumphalism that informed American politics in its wake.
These, among many other Kennedy Administration initiatives, are why a revisionist cottage industry has lately emerged that suggests that Kennedy was actually a conservative. He wasn't, of course, but liberals of that tradition were not hard wired to leftist ideology. They still believed in the idea of American freedom and individualistic self-definition. They believed in the heroic. They celebrated individual initiative and accomplishment and their twins, self-discipline and responsibility. They continued to celebrate fundamental American values and to identify with traditional American heroes. They believed in an America worth fighting for.
As the predominant political philosophy, liberalism controlled all levers of government. Democrats held the presidency and 2/3 majorities in both houses of Congress throughout much of the 1960s and again in the 1970s.
The fact of overwhelming liberal political power is why '60s radicals reserved their greatest disdain for liberals, not conservatives. First, of course, after Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, conservatism went into eclipse and presented no viable opposition to the radical project. Second, it was liberals who transacted a muscular foreign policy, undertook a foreign war and steadfastly opposed Communism and Soviet expansion.
But 1968 marked the decline and eventual disappearance of the liberalism that, until then, animated the Democratic Party and dominated American life. After the radical Chicago riots and the children's revolt represented by Eugene McCarthy's abortive presidential candidacy, intellectually exhausted Democratic Party liberals implemented party reforms that allowed its seizure by radical organizers. The devolution of party power from power brokers with a grounding in American traditionalism to street radicals and narrow interest groups warped more by grievance than a notion of a greater good rooted in Americanism, marked a fundamental intellectual shift and the eclipse of liberalism as an energetic force in American politics. The nomination of George McGovern for president in 1972 only confirmed what everyone knew by then: Liberalism had been replaced by unalloyed leftism as the predominant ideology of the Democratic Party. And there it has remained, except for a short detour toward the center during the Clinton years.
The difference between liberalism and the leftism that replaced it is that the latter is less moored to American notions of liberty and individualism than to an authoritarian European redistributionist tradition that celebrates the primacy of the collective over the rights of the individual. That is why it is so foreign to American sensibilities. It is foreign and it is unrooted in any strain of traditional Americanism. It rejects the assumption of individualist achievement embracing, rather, government as the instrument of a "justice" that contemplates taking from those who do to give to those who do not.
Its very terminology rejects the basic assumption of American freedom: the power of the individual to transform society and his consequent entitlement to the fruits of his labor. The term "redistribution" suggests that there has been some sort of initial overarching random societal distribution of wealth that improperly conferred prosperity on some and not others. Individuals do not earn - and therefore have the right to retain -- what they derive from their labor. It is given and can therefore be taken by a "just" society that "redistributes" it in accordance with the whim of a government dedicated not to the protection of its citizens but to the shaping of a society. That is why the term is so abhorrent, assuming, as it does, something that is fundamentally and transparently false.
The rise of conservatism required a label with which to identify its adversary. "Liberal" was chosen because it was a term citizens understood and had been freely adopted by those who stood in contrast to conservative intellectual aspirations. It also avoided inevitable vilificationand blithe dismissal as "McCarthyism". But it was not quite right. By the time Ronald Reagan managed to discredit the term and the philosophy that accompanied it, liberalism was largely exhausted and had been replaced by a more pernicious leftism. Today's "progressives", as they now describe themselves, are not the liberals of old, like John Kennedy, who wanted to implement programs he thought would improve the nation but were compatible with national principles. Modern progressivism is much more dangerous because it has as its project not improvement but destruction and rebuilding in its own ideal image. It does not want to improve on the American project but to replace it with a pernicious utopianism and they are not fastidious in how they do it. European leftists have never had moral constrains in their manner of political warfare.
Progressives reject the common assumptions that bound liberals and conservatives as Americans even in their rhetoric.They are unbounded by a traditional decency that used to inform American political discourse. They have no sense of a unified American project informed by American tradition. Theirs is the moral sense of the original Soviet project. Nothing is beneath them.
Which brings us to the incident of monumental insignificance that occurred during the remembrance of a liberal hero but which illustrated, as little else could, the difference between liberals and their bastard progeny, the new American progressive that is now the mainstream of the modern Democratic Party. I refer, of course, to intellectual pygmy Martin Bashir, a man of such limited moral gifts that he descended to revolting scatological references in an attack on Sarah Palin. Can one imagine John Kennedy or Walter Lippman or James Reston ever reduced to such vile babble? Never.
It was not so much that Bashir said it. Little is beneath him so little is expected. But that no one on the left could be roused to condemnation illustrates the impact of a corrosive leftism that has left its adherents desensitized to notions of common decency.
The incident will, of course, be shortly forgotten, and that is as it should be. But it is far past time to acknowledge that the proud liberalism of the past is no longer a vibrant force in American politics and that the progressivism that replaced it is truly anathema to the American project.
John W. Howard is a litigator based in San Diego.