The Death of Liberalismby R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.
In this provocative postmortem, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. traces the dubious rise and inevitable fall of the deeply flawed Liberal-Progressive movement, which has culminated in the nation's first stealth socialist, President Barack Obama?the unwitting pallbearer for American Liberalism.See more details below
In this provocative postmortem, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. traces the dubious rise and inevitable fall of the deeply flawed Liberal-Progressive movement, which has culminated in the nation's first stealth socialist, President Barack Obama?the unwitting pallbearer for American Liberalism.
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THE DEATH OF LIBERALISM
By R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLIBERALISM IS DEAD: AN 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 required admirable discipline, for the evidence was all around them. Yet Liberals, who began as the rightful heirs to the New Deal, have carried on as a kind of landed 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. So dominant were they that they could totally pollute the culture with their prejudices and their views. In its place they created Kultursmog, a Kultur whose contaminants were everywhere: in the media, among the literate classes, even among illiterates—everywhere. Kultursmog is the only form of pollution to which the Liberals never object. In fact, they deem it healthy.
With the general populace, however, they have increasingly faltered, and now even in the Kultur they are making heavy weather of it. They are down to around 20 percent of the electorate. They have the nation's librarians, most of the professoriate—at least in the humanities—students (so long as they remain relatively untaxed), labor union leaders, and career Democrats. After that it gets tricky. Conservatives accounted for 42 percent of the vote in the recent election, maintaining a roughly two-to-one margin over Liberals, a superiority that has been growing for decades. In the last election the moderates—the second most popular affiliation—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 or the Know-Nothing Party. It is time for someone to tell them: "Rigor mortis has set in, comrades." They could be oblivious during the Nixon Crisis in 1973 and 1974 or while Ronald Reagan, as many Liberals still say, sleepwalked through history; but today their obliviousness amounts to a kind of madness. Their mansion is afire, but there is a whole string ensemble whose members are madly playing their instruments. As if all were well.
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 achieve too much, leaving many Americans fearing for their liberties and the contents of their wallets. As a consequence, larger numbers of the electorate have been voting for conservatism, a movement that began in the 1950s when anticommunists combined with proponents of limited government and with advocates of traditional American values. For years it was a small, struggling movement, challenging Liberalism intellectually, but then Richard Nixon availed himself of parts of it. Nixon was too much the pol to be a movement conservative, but he saw the conservative movement's value. Then in the 1970s the movement 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 defender of 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 address, "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 Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space. A week later Kennedy betrayed ambivalence at the Bay of Pigs and immaturity at his June summit with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who told his aides that by comparison Ike "was a man of intelligence and vision." So he was.
Kennedy was inert as the East Germans walled off Berlin in August, and only reacted vigorously when he had the Cuban Missile Crisis on his hands in the autumn of 1962. Then the Great Blah began, with Richard Rovere writing 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." Oh, come on! Now the Soviets were roused, and America was on a path much more perilous than that which Ike had envisioned. It led to some of the tensest moments of the Cold War and on to war in 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 more practical and tough-minded Liberals of whom Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. sang in his 1949 book, The Vital Center. They were leaders like Hubert Humphrey in politics, the civil rights lawyer Joseph L. Rauh, and the labor leader Walter Reuther. They were hardheaded and patriotic, and the desiderata for their constituents were reasonable by comparison with the radicals' wild ideas.
Yet, even here in the late 1940s, 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 race relations is a racist. Or that anyone questioning their latest scheme of alleviating poverty hates the poor. Or—more recently—that Bill Clinton was a martyr of nigh unto virginal purity. When, as president of the United States, he lied under oath about his relations with Monica Lewinsky, the Liberals insisted that it was a minor infraction of the law, like double-parking one's tractor in downtown Little Rock.
The first Big Lie was that Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and other security risks were not Communists. We now know with the opening of the Venona files that they were. Intelligence officers conducting the Venona project surely conveyed their knowledge to political leaders. Yet Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and fellow Democrats, like Dean Acheson, for various reasons, did not think the truth mattered. Hiss and his kind were eccentrics or idealists. By 1948 what mattered was keeping the dreaded 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 brought discredit to Liberalism and has envenomed our politics right up to the present.
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."
At the same time, 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 grew up to become Infantile Leftists. The second either were or became socialists, though they dared not use the word—even Social Democrat was out. Only a crisis in the leadership of President Nixon allowed the general 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 an informal politics. In the formal politics we play by the rules. In the informal politics 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 Parmalee, 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 surpassing moralism of modern Liberalism that would not allow the dispensation to hold in Nixon's case.
At any rate, the latest Washington truism became, "Worse than the lie is the cover-up." 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. To the Liberal, conservatives became truly evil, while each Liberal became a moral colossus, a truth seeker, a poet. Possibly the first attempts at windsurfing were then undertaken and jogging around the Lincoln Memorial in one's underpants—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. David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, admits in his tale of conversion to conservatism, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, that not until the age of sixty did he ever talk politics or anything else with a conservative. Quite possibly he never knowingly met one. When the Liberals were trounced by conservatives in 2010, they really never knew what hit them. They continued to practice denial.
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 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 ancestors 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 his dithyrambs and the second probably stole hubcaps or maybe whole cars.
Actually, around the 1970s, one could hear scattered clarions of the moribund 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 Infantile Leftist and a smaller camp, the stealth socialists. The Infantile Leftist 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 stealth socialists laid low until very recently, and even now they are not very candid, adopting a pose of "Read my deeds" rather than "Read my lips." In the glorious, if delusional, aftermath of the 2008 election, when revolution was in the air—at least for some—Newsweek jumped the gun with an idiotic piece by editor Jon Meacham, titled "We Are All Socialists Now: In many ways our economy already resembles a European one As boomers age and spending grows, we will become even more French" (italics in the original). But since then, even the stealth socialists have subsided. The looming costs of our socialist monstrosity have become a grim monument to fiscal extravagance.
The Infantile Left has provided me with a lot of laughs—for example, Al Gore's historic kiss at the 2000 Democratic Convention and Jean-François Kerry, the Vietnam war protester claiming to be the war hero. By contrast President Barack Obama, a stealth socialist if ever there was one, is not so funny, though occasionally he comes up with such derisible lines as "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." There has been controversy over his authorship of various works, but I think he probably wrote that line himself.
From the Nixon administration on, the numbers have not been good for Liberals. In 1972 only 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 the Kultursmog. The belief that youth is always with the Liberal candidate is one of Liberalism's marmoreal myths. 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 Neoconservatives, the evangelicals (aka the Christian Right), and the Reagan Democrats. The Liberals could only claim blacks, feminists, some gays, and some Latinos. In other words, nothing new—just perpetrators of what we call "masked politics." When the masks slipped, one could see that they all had been Liberals all along, Liberals for whom Liberalism had become, in the words of the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer, "a racket." During the eight years of the Reagan administration, Reagan changed the political center for years to come. His conservative 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.
In 1992, after twelve years of conservatives in the White House, Bill Clinton beat a peculiarly weak George H. W. Bush. Bush had an 89 percent approval rating (8 percent disapproval rating) the year before his defeat, according to the Gallup poll. Surely the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot and general conservative dissatisfaction with Bush took a toll. At any rate, Clinton, like Carter, ran as a moderate. Once in office, he initially tried to push a Liberal Big Government agenda with an infrastructure buildup and health care reform. He was thrashed in the midterm election, losing both chambers, and the House of Representatives by the biggest shift since 1948. The rest of Clinton's presidency followed the conversion that he himself proclaimed, "The era of Big Government is over." The Reagan Revolution was secured. In 2000 Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, lost to the governor of Texas (and George H. W. Bush's son, George W. Bush), despite widespread prosperity and peace. President Bush won the midterms in 2002, increasing his margins in both houses, and in 2004 he won a second term.
Excerpted from THE DEATH OF LIBERALISM by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. Copyright © 2011 by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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