In early June, George Will devoted one of his syndicated columns to a favorable discussion of my book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. Three weeks later, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation devoted his weekly column in Salon to attacking Will for endorsing Never Enough and thereby supporting “the Orwellian project of rewriting American history in order to demonize liberalism.” Two months earlier, Lind had laid the foundation for his attack in a column on “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians.” It criticized “serious scholars on the American right” — including Harry Jaffa, Ronald Pestritto, Thomas West, and Charles Kesler — for lending “their scholarly credentials to the oldest trick of right-wing populist demagogues: denouncing liberals as amoral, state-worshiping libertines.” The “demagogues” Lind named were Jonah Goldberg for writing Liberal Fascism and Glenn Beck for . . . well, everything.
Messrs. Jaffa, Pestritto, West, Kesler, Will, Goldberg, and Beck do not need my help against Michael Lind. In speaking for myself, I acknowledge having a bit part in this movie: Lind’s acquaintance with Never Enough seems to encompass only what George Will had to say about it. My point here is not that a careful reading of Never Enough would disabuse Lind of his mistaken and melodramatic ideas about its critique of modern American liberalism. It is, instead, to ask that readers consider for themselves Never Enough’s critique — which is informed by the scholars Lind mentions, as well as by co-conspirators he leaves unindicted — rather than relying on Lind’s overwrought assessments.
Lind makes four arguments to show that people who find liberals’ words and deeds less glorious than he does must be wicked, stupid, or both.
First, conservative critics of liberalism “are correct when they point out that many progressive intellectuals like [Woodrow] Wilson rejected the 18th century ideas of natural rights and checks and balances as outmoded.” The mistake those critics make is to treat the history of liberalism since 1932 as an elaboration rather than a repudiation of progressivism. By ignoring “the profound differences between the Progressive movement and subsequent movements on the American center-left,” these critics can’t or won’t see that “New Deal liberalism broke with progressivism in many if not most respects.”
Second, Franklin Roosevelt and the liberals who followed him did not reject Madison and Jefferson’s idea that government exists to secure the inalienable rights that humans possess by nature but cannot safely exercise in the pre-political state of nature. To the contrary, the New Deal adapted the 18th-century understanding of natural rights to the 20th century’s vastly more complex economic circumstances. Lind takes FDR at his word when quoting his 1936 promise to “reaffirm the faith of our fathers” and “restore to the people a wider freedom” by preserving “the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.” How, Lind asks rhetorically, can George Will and I misunderstand or misrepresent such straightforward terms as “reaffirm,” “restore,” and “preserve”?
Third, despite all this, it turns out that the whole debate over whether FDR adapted the principles of the American Founding to the economics of his day, or whether he adapted progressivism’s rejection of the Founding to the politics of his day, is beside the point. To think otherwise is to commit conservatives’ gravest intellectual error: “They ignore any material factors — industrial revolutions, population growth, urbanization, geopolitics — and treat American and world history as a Manichaean struggle of abstract philosophies.” Lind instructs us to the contrary: “First principles” are politically insignificant. What matter are “practical subjects: how to provide healthcare, what kind of infrastructure we need. The Democratic healthcare plan can be criticized, but not because it is Hegelian state-worship that betrays the principles of the Declaration of Independence. There is nothing relativist or historicist about the hydropower dams of the New Dealers like Roosevelt and [Lyndon] Johnson.”