Politics & Policy

Liberalism: The Brain-Dead Ideology


Harry Anderson (the judge from Night Court and the con man from Cheers) used to have a stand-up routine about George Washington’s ax. He used to say, “I have here George Washington’s original ax — the one he used to chop down the cherry tree.” Pause. “Of course, a few years ago the blade broke and had to be replaced. And about a decade before that it got a new handle. But in spirit this is George’s ax.”

Intellectually, Sean Wilentz is trying the same thing on today’s New York Times op-ed page. Only he’s not joking. He begins his absurd essay, entitled, “For Voters, the 60s Never Died,” by saying “Liberalism is back — maybe not in name, but in spirit and substance.” Now this might have sounded much better to the cadence of him knocking his magic slippers together three times, but that doesn’t make it so.

He cites some NewYork Times and Pew Polls saying that “voters have rejected the anti-government politicking of years gone by.” But the only numbers he provides do not speak to this point at all. A whopping 13% of Americans rate health care as their number one concern. And an almost-as-stunning 8% of Americans rate the protection of Social Security issue numero uno. Meanwhile, only 2% cited defense as their primary concern. Well, Wilentz sounds like he need go no further, the case has been made. “The polls’ findings underscore the numerous recent signs that our politics have shifted.” (More about these numbers in a moment.)

Wilentz then breaks into a long and somewhat turgid bit of historical analysis. He explains that the liberalism of the early 1960s was also spurred by a boom economy, and that it also established a lasting federal role in our national politics. Despite the various conservative assaults on big government, existing big government programs became, in Wilentz’s words, “sacrosanct.”

All of this is fair, to an extent. But then Wilentz gets loopy. He says that Reaganism was not the repudiation of liberalism that some suspected because Reagan was best liked for his anti-Communism. And, by golly, liberalism and anti-Communism used to go hand in hand, says Wilentz.

Yeah, and then they didn’t. As the recently departed Herb Stein used to say, all trends that aren’t permanent must eventually end, and the trend of liberal anti-Communism ended. Liberalism and the Democratic party became synonymous with defeatism and blame-America-firstism. As Charles Krauthammer pointed out masterfully last week, the Cold War increasingly became a partisan affair in the United States. With only a handful of exceptions, Democrats grew ever more reconciled to Soviet tyranny. Senator Christopher Dodd called Reagan’s anti-Communism “folly, pure and simple” because it proposed “to wage a conflict that cannot be won.” When Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire the establishment Left got its collective panties in a bunch. Tom Wicker called such a statement “smug.” Anthony Lewis called it “primitive.” Flag burning, “Amerika,” nuclear freeze, “come home America,” were all motifs of liberalism and the Democratic party.

It seems like Wilentz thinks this is a trivial point. In fact, this is just the beginning of Wilentz’s selective revisionism. Back on the domestic front, Wilentz says that liberalism’s “comeback” was achieved by Clinton’s “updating of its themes.” This is like saying George Washington’s ax was preserved simply by replacing a few parts. He says that welfare reform undercut Republican claims that government can do nothing right. Hmm, intriguing. This is like calling someone a healer if they are finally persuaded to stop sitting on an old man’s chest. Republicans said that welfare was screwing things up. They said if the government stopped screwing things up, things would get better. The government stopped screwing things up by getting out of the welfare business. Wilentz calls this screwing-up stoppage an example of government expertise.

Indeed, welfare reform represented the total abandonment of the liberal approach to social welfare. Some day historians may recognize the fact that welfare probably ruined far, far more lives than it helped. Because of the arrogance and condescension of the Left and the opportunism of racial hucksters and poverty pimps, an entire generation was very nearly enslaved to poverty, hopelessness, and crime. As FDR noted in his 1935 State of the Union Address, “continued dependence upon relief [welfare] induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

During the 1960s and 1970s the Democrats, with the aid of various liberal groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization and the ACLU, actively attempted to recruit more people onto the welfare rolls. The slogan of the NWRO was “Welfare is a right, not a privilege.” Caught up in that mantra were suggestions that welfare was a form of reparation for black people. Conservatives had been fighting this worldview for two decades, in the pages of The Public Interest, Commentary, National Review, and most notably, with books like Charles Murray’s Losing Ground.

As the underclass’s dependency on the dole became worse, and as Democrats became more and more intransigent on the issue, Republicans gained at the polls. Welfare reform became almost exclusively a Republican issue. Republican governors began experimenting and a Republican Congress argued that states could handle things better than the federal government. The Left whined and called conservatives names. This was when Al Franken wrote his Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, which was hailed by serious liberals as a serious book, because they had become so intellectually bankrupt themselves. Newt Gingrich became the “Gingrich Who Stole Christmas.”

In fairness, in 1992 Bill Clinton did run on the issue of welfare reform, and he was universally praised and criticized for so brilliantly stealing a Republican issue. But upon his first day in office, he veered left, advocating gays in the military, a huge stimulus package, and socialized medicine. He grew steadily unpopular — a fact Wilentz contorts. He also became increasingly aware that if voters saw him as a Trojan liberal (it wasn’t until much later that he became a de facto spokesman for Trojans, if you know what I mean), he would lose his reelection campaign. Dick Morris educated him on this point. So Bill Clinton rediscovered welfare reform, which he had forgotten until Morris reminded him about it with a sheaf of polls.

Now Wilentz can call this “updating the themes” of liberalism. It is not updating, it is replacing the blade and handle of the liberal ax and calling it liberalism. He concludes “if…the era of big government is over, a new era of liberal government activism, tempered by adversity, may be beginning.”

Leaving aside that this “tempered by adversity” comment seems to refer to absolutely nothing at all, if Wilentz believes a new age of government activism is coming down the pike, it would have been nice to know what sort of government program he thinks Americans would approve. After all, if 13% percent of people think health care is their chief concern (a more meaningless number I cannot imagine, except perhaps if it were, say, 12%), that means 87% place their chief concerns elsewhere. More importantly, there’s no reason to think that the voters’ concern with health care means that they want the government to fix it. That Wilentz thinks otherwise is a demonstration of his own bias toward throwing government at everything.

Liberalism today is reinventing itself on every front because the word has no meaning beyond a certain vestigial loyalty to certain interest groups and pet causes. Indeed, liberalism has precisely the opposite problem of conservatism. The Right is too fat with too many competing ideas — libertarian, neocon, paleocon, statist, free-market — all of which fall under the rubric “conservative.” The fact that liberals have adopted a few programs with a conservative base and draped them in liberal skin doesn’t make liberalism resurgent. It makes it desperate.


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