Torments of Liberalism

If there is a single thread that connects the free market liberalism of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill to the more recent American liberal embrace of activist government, it is the idea of confident, continuous movement forward. Liberals have believed themselves to be pushing aside the cobwebs of history, ending ideology, freeing society from illusions, overturning outdated power structures, and taking society to a morally superior, more prosperous place.

Thus it comes as a final withering insult, compounding all the injuries of the past three decades, to realize just how reactive modern American liberalism has been. Rather than seeing the future clearly, liberals have been twisted and tormented by the events of the moment, by the failure of their own schemes, by a public unimpressed by their knowing assertions and scornful of their manner. With enough distance from these difficulties, a revisionist history begins to emerge that depicts liberalism as an approach reacting to circumstances rather than shaping them.

It may be too early for the history texts to tell it this way, but evidence can be found in stories about political lives. In two recent examples, George Packer's Blood of the Liberals and Godfrey Hodgson's biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one can trace the course of liberal reaction from just about the beginning of the twentieth century to its close. These are very different books--one a family memoir whose protagonists are at best foot-notes to the century, and the other an authorized biography of a political icon. But read together, they show just how difficult it has been to survive in this century while holding the liberal faith--and how tempting it has been to survive by escape.

For Packer, the scion of a family of distinguished and anguished liberals, the torments of liberalism call to mind nothing short of a cerebral hemorrhage. Early on, he depicts a stricken President Woodrow Wilson, suddenly incoherent, unable to articulate his reasoned case for the League of Nations. "Stroke seems to me the fate of a certain kind of liberal," Packer writes of Wilson. The author's father, a law professor with an unshakeable belief in the merits of pure procedural justice, suffered the same fate soon after encountering students' inconceivable denunciation of enlightened liberalism on the Stanford campus in the 1960s.

Packer's narrative begins in Birmingham, Alabama, in the wake of the state's 1901 constitutional changes that disenfranchised blacks. His maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, represented Birmingham in Congress as a populist liberal, speaking for "the plain people," white and black, against economic power. Later, Huddleston is troubled by the growing power of government in the New Deal. Huddleston's daughter meets and marries Herbert Packer, and the author picks up the story as the Stanford campus explodes. The story continues with George's passage through college, through the Peace Corps, and into marginal political work with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in Boston.

As memoir alone, Blood of the Liberals is compelling and beautiful, though somewhat humorless (except in its account of campus politics at Yale in the early 1980s). It must have taken some daring to write and publish such a book; the combination of politics and memoir usually signals the most banal in both genres (think David Gergen). If there is a weakness to the narrative, it is that Packer's populist grandfather and his professorial father aren't really part of the same story. So it is up to the author to connect two aspects of twentieth-century liberalism that have rarely recognized, much less understood, one another: the southern populists' tragically frustrated dream of an alliance of poor whites and blacks against economic power, and the self-assured, end-of-ideology brand of social-science liberalism that flourished on the verdant quadrangles of the post-GI Bill university.

Their cultures are so different that, even if Packer's grandfather had been able to see past his son-in-law's Jewishness, it is hard to imagine that these men would have recognized each other as political allies. At midcentury, when Lionel Trilling could write, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition," the distinctions within liberalism seemed like the only political differences that mattered. Few were prescient enough to foresee the rise of the right, which was at that moment beginning to organize and craft a philosophy of its own that went beyond mere reaction.

The two liberalisms in Packer's heritage didn't fare well: The southern populists tried and failed to keep their vision of "the plain people" in view above the rising tide of the Ku Klux Klan, again and again surrendering deep economic populism to cheap racism. (Grandfather Huddleston's particular nemesis here was Klan member and Senator Hugo Black, an intriguing twist to the story that Packer should have explored since Black's later incarnation as a liberal on the Supreme Court would have made him a hero to Packer's father.) The academic liberals scrambled to adapt their postideological ideal of procedural democracy and scientific social improvement to a wave of passionate cultural politics they could never grasp.

Under assault from right and left, liberals face the challenge, as Packer describes it, of surviving without a stroke, real or metaphorical. The easy strategy has been to step away from the tradition altogether. Liberalism slid quickly to a minority position in part because so few of those who were scared away from it--whether New York Jewish intellectuals, Michigan autoworkers, or New Left radicals--ever returned. An exception is Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He is the prodigal neocon, the one who managed to turn against his fellow liberals again and again, even though he returned to the fold, on his own terms, ending his career with a passionate denunciation of what he insisted on calling the "repeal" of welfare.

Someday a vicious biography will be written of Moynihan, undoubtedly by a liberal. It will catalog his opportunism, his flip-flops, and moments when he seemed more interested in being right (or getting the credit for being right) than in getting things done. That biography will be half right, just as Godfrey Hodgson's is. If Hodgson's book were impeccable, and if he had delved more knowledgeably into the most intriguing episode of Moynihan's later career--the Clinton administration's comically inept effort to understand him and win him over--Hodgson might even have obviated the need for another biography. While acknowledging some of his friend's failings, Hodgson writes too plainly from the New York Senator's perspective. Hodgson's errors, such as ascribing Moynihan's memorable epithet "boob bait for the bubbas" to the 1994 health care bill rather than to Clinton's welfare reform bill, are hardly trivial, and for a reader familiar with Moynihan's recent career, they call into doubt Hodgson's account of the earlier years.

There is much more to Moynihan than can fit in 400 pages, but Hodgson would have done well to include a telling illustration of the Moynihan-Clinton relationship, reported by Nicholas Lemann: Early in the new administration, a team of White House policy staffers, fresh from Cambridge by way of Little Rock, visited Moynihan to present their Empowerment Zone proposal, a combination of tax and regulatory incentives to lure investment to urban areas. "That's a Fabian idea," Moynihan responded. The young White House staffers went away gratified--"Fabian" must be a good thing, sort of like "fabulous," right? What Moynihan meant, of course, was the impersonal social engineering of the British Fabians, high on his personal hit list of liberal error. (Clinton aides spent so much time puzzling over the question "What does Moynihan want?" that they often didn't realize they didn't know what he was talking about. But that was a calculated move on Moynihan's part as well.) There's a revealing coda to this story: Despite his intellectual contempt, Moynihan recognized political opportunity, and a few months later, he gladly helped Bill Bradley and Representative Charles Rangel guide Empowerment Zones into law, though in a decidedly non-Fabian form that delivered a billion dollars of pure cash, rather than regulatory incentives, to their poorer constituents.

All too often, though, at least in the Clinton era, Moynihan did let his contemptuous reaction to liberal error blind him to just how much he could accomplish as a U.S. senator with the unprecedented combination of formal power (as chairman of the committee that controlled all taxation and half of all federal spending) and moral suasion among colleagues of both parties and the press. Hodgson devotes four pages to Moynihan's role in welfare reform in the 1990s, from his contempt for the early Clinton administration's "ideological certainty" about how to fix welfare, to his sputtering moral outrage at the legislation the Gingrich Congress finally passed and Clinton signed in 1996. Hodgson notes that Moynihan had been urging for three decades that welfare should be reformed but not destroyed, but there is a question that Hodgson does not pursue: Could Moynihan have changed the outcome? For two years, Moynihan's colleagues waited for him to step in with a bill or rough idea of his own, put his well-earned credibility behind it, and assemble a bipartisan coalition that might have found a way to change the culture of welfare and help welfare recipients make the transition to work, without giving up the entitlement that made welfare a reliable safety net. When Moynihan finally offered a bill, it was too late and he made no effort to gain support.

Moynihan chose, in effect, to narrate the welfare reform drama of 1993-1996 rather than write it. His narrative was full of insight: In brief, he saw that the liberal promise to "end welfare as we know it," through a complex assemblage of time limits, work incentives, and incentives for better behavior, was a political dodge (a "boob bait-and-switch," so to speak) that overlooked the difficulty of actually changing human behavior and that played into the hands of the conservatives who would be perfectly happy to end welfare altogether. Clinton's convenient slogan thus opened the door to Gingrich's nihilism.

Moynihan was right, of course, as he was often: about the importance of family structure, about Ronald Reagan's deliberate strategy to drive up the deficit to paralyze activist government, about the impotence of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, about the irrelevance of the Central Intelligence Agency. While there will be great buildings and important legislation with Moynihan's name on them, it is for insights above all that he will be remembered. By keeping the distance of an observer, by maintaining a posture of uncertainty, he was able to protect himself from the sort of torment that consumed Packer's father. His heaviest insights were about the nature of liberalism and conservatism themselves: "The central conservative truth," he wrote, "is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." Moynihan never knew quite which side of this insight he wanted to be on, and when he might have had some power to cut through the paradox, he appeared paralyzed by it.

For Moynihan, neoconservatism was a short-term survival strategy, a way to get away from the errors of liberalism--crazy students, first-wave political correctness, social-science arrogance--without losing his identity or convictions as a liberal. It's interesting that Moynihan did not choose the strategy that most people expected from him when he first entered the Senate surrounded by allies of the late Senator Henry M. Jackson--the conservative-Democrat tactic that would evolve into the kind of party centrism defined in the Clinton era by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

The roots of today's Democratic Party centrism are in the same rich southern ground that produced George Packer's grandfather. DLC founder Al From and other key figures in his circle, for example, first met as aides to Louisiana Representative Gillis Long, a cousin of the legendary populist Huey Long. Their vision idealizes the unitary liberalism of the 1950s, before it fragmented along social, cultural, and economic lines. The morphing of liberalism into centrism began with the premise that cultural liberalism (in 1960s argot, "acid, amnesty, and abortion") had to be purged, partly to regain the faith of white males, especially in the South. More recently, economic populism itself has become the threat--at least in the eyes of those who see the Democratic Party's future constituency in the new economy and the well-off, vaguely libertarian class it has created.

Looming over the battle for what is left of liberalism has been the long shadow of Bill Clinton. Clinton and the DLC together emptied out much of the baggage burdening liberal Democrats--welfare, the deficit, the stigma of insensitivity to the victims of crime--and opened up opportunities for creative government that we have not had for decades. Clinton did all this without entirely losing the Democratic Party's base. For instance, he was able to make a more centrist message palatable to African Americans, a feat that the DLC could not pull off and that northern liberals like Moynihan never imagined possible. With his roots in Little Rock and New Haven, Clinton crafted his own survival strategy out of southern populism and academic liberalism.

But what exactly is it? Is it a new kind of liberalism, or something else? With Clinton left to contemplate his legacy, with Moynihan retiring, with the Democratic Party mostly in the hands of DLC-style centrists, what comes next? For his part, Packer ends his book on an enigmatic, not entirely hopeful note. He returns to Birmingham, where he finds some of the crossracial social improvement of his grandfather's aspirations not in politics, but in churches and self-help groups. Surely he isn't taking the path of some ex-leftists, such as Marvin Olasky, a professional ex-communist who now advocates "compassionate conservatism" through evangelical Christianity. But is Packer declaring the liberal ideal of politics dead, embracing culture as the only salvation? Is this the ultimate liberal reaction, the evasion of politics altogether?

I hope not, because he could have walked down the street to the offices of Greater Birmingham Ministries or Alabama Arise! and found a passionate group of whites and blacks fighting to change the state's archaic transportation policies, tracking campaign contributions to leading legislators, or helping design the state's new Democratic governor's plans to increase education funding. The same is true in other states--a vibrant, real, progressive politics is emerging, grounded not in the certainties of social science or in the reaction to it, but in communities shaping responses to their own problems. The torments chronicled by Packer and Hodgson are now in the past. Liberalism has shed much of its burden. It will never stand as arrogantly. It will never again be the "sole intellectual tradition," and never should be. But with these lessons learned, liberals can stand in the game, neither as confident nor as agonized in the current century as they were in the last. ¤

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