A man wore a jacket that he once had loved but now feared might seem dated. It was perfectly serviceable, and there had been a time when its cut was the height of fashion, but more recently his new set of friends had scorned it. “How can you go on wearing that thing?,” they asked him. And so he cast it off.
Another man found it lying by the side of the road, picked it up and tried it on. It was wonderfully tailored, and if the fit was not quite perfect, yet it suited him well enough, and he walked off with it.
The old coat, yesterday’s liberalism, was a not unlovely garment, and in many ways preferable to yesterday’s conservatism. This coat was the party of Americans for Democratic Action, of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Lionel Trilling. They were strongly anti-Communist and fought hard to expel the Marxists from their party. On racial matters, they were right and the conservatives of the day were wrong. Republicans point out that it was their party’s votes in Congress (more than 80 percent of Republicans in each house) that ensured the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against a Senate filibuster led by Democrats such as William Fulbright (Ark.) and Sam Ervin (N.C.). All true, but let’s not forget that it was the middle-of-the-road Republicans, people like Everett McKinley Dirksen (Ill.) and Hugh Scott (Pa.), who made it happen, and not the conservatives of the day.
And today’s Democrats? With their race and gender triumphalism, with their allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement, the progressives who dominate the party have entirely abandoned Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of racially neutral laws and his idea that people should be judged according to the content of their character. That’s an old coat they’ve left by the side of the road for Republicans to pick up.
But that didn’t bring the Republicans of the day on board. They worried more about budget deficits than economic growth, and therefore opposed tax cuts. When the legislation came up for a final vote in the House of Representatives, only 48 Republicans supported it and 126 voted against it, and it passed only because 223 liberal Democrats voted for it. Remember, we’re talking about a top marginal rate of 91 percent, which the bill reduced to a still very high 65 percent. Today it’s the progressives on the Left, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who want to raise marginal tax rates. They are the old conservatives, and it’s the Republicans who are the old Democrats, the old liberals.
There is a hole in American politics, a hole formerly filled by the honest liberals of the past, whose party has abandoned them, and many of whose policies can more readily be seen in the Republican party and its candidate for the presidency in 2016. And there are other ways that Donald Trump more clearly has adopted the honorable liberalism of the past and departed from some of today’s Republican policies.
Yesterday’s Democrats were strong nationalists, and would have had little use for open-borders conservatives who are indifferent to the costs imposed by our idiotic immigration policies. They were also religious, and would have been horrified to learn that today’s Democratic party makes faithful Catholics feel unwanted. That’s what they thought Republicans did! They wouldn’t have compromised with Randism or a heartless libertarianism, which would have seemed like nasty and alien religions to them. They knew, as Trump does, that the welfare state is here to stay and that we don’t want to see sick people die on the streets.They believed in the American Dream, the idea that whoever you were, wherever you came from, this was the country where you could get ahead. They would be shocked to learn how we’ve become economically immobile, how today most parents feel, with reason, that their children will not have it as good as they did. And if we told them that some conservative thinkers don’t much care about economic mobility and mock the 47 percent of takers as oxy-sniffing invertebrates, they’d have said, “What do you expect from conservatives?”
Yesterday’s liberals were people who stood up for what was right, who did great things, whose errors (e.g. the Great Society) were mistakes of the mind and not the heart. Mostly, I miss their faith in the future, their exhilarating belief in the country’s greatness, so often absent in the Republican party of today — with the singular exception of its candidate for the presidency.
“Their arms were outstretched in love for the farther shore.”
— Aeneid vi.314
— F. H. Buckley is a law professor at George Mason University and the author of The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America (Encounter, 2016).