Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

A Supposedly Dumb Thing They’re Determined to Do Again and Again

The Journals of the late Arthur Schlesinger have received a good deal of attention, but most of it has concerned Schlesinger’s writing style, personality, or the broad topic of keeping and publishing diaries. The strangely neglected question of Schlesinger’s politics is finally addressed by the New Yorker’s George Packer, writing as one liberal assessing another. “In [Schlesinger’s] long record of speeches, conferences, lunches at the Century, and dinners at Mortimer’s,” observes Packer, “there’s an unmistakable sense that liberal politics belonged to a small group of the rich and famous who all knew one another and knew what was best for the rest of the country, while knowing less and less about the rest of the country. . . . It’s possible, even if you agree with almost every position Schlesinger held, to find the smugness and complacency not just annoying but fatal. His crowd made liberalism a fat target for the New Right; Reagan and his heirs seized the language and claims of populism from liberals who believed that they had had permanent possession [of it] ever since Roosevelt.”

One subtext of the 2008 election is liberals’ effort to convey that they now “get it” – they understand the damage this elitism inflicted on their cause in a way Schlesinger never did. Packer’s critique of Schlesinger is one instance. Eric Alterman’s assertion that, “One of the great mistakes liberals made in the 1970s was to try to win in the courts what they could not win at the ballot box – thereby allowing their democratic muscles and instincts [to] atrophy and helping to inspire a right-wing backlash against which they were defenseless,” is another.

These mea culpas, however, always turn out to be sorta culpas. No sooner does Alterman identify judicial activism as one of liberalism’s great mistakes than his litany of the “catastrophes” that have befallen America during the Bush years includes “the attack on . . . choice.” The goal of this insidious attack is to re-democratize abortion policy, 35 years after the Supreme Court reduced the number of Americas who could affect it to nine. Roe v. Wade is the biggest land-grab of all the liberal efforts to secure a political victory in the courts that they couldn’t win anywhere else. Conservatives try to reverse this great mistake, and give liberals a chance to rebuild their democratic muscles, and Alterman sputters with rage.

The problem is that liberalism incorporated the agenda and the up-against-the-wall style of the various radicalisms of the 1960s in ways that now make disentangling the New Deal and New Left genomes impossible. According to James Piereson, the ideology that emerged from the 1960s was “punitive liberalism,” which “parted company from earlier liberal reformers such as FDR, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, who viewed reform as a means of bringing the promise of American life within reach of more of our people.” Punitive liberals wanted America to atone for its sins rather than solve its problems. Their goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” as one of the era’s slogan’s had it. The comfortable, made numerous by the postwar boom, deserved to be afflicted because America needed to be redeemed. Arthur Schlesinger, for example, said that we all killed Robert Kennedy: Americans have become “the most frightening people on this planet . . . because the atrocities we commit trouble so little our official self-righteousness, our invincible conviction of our moral infallibility.” This heat-of-the-moment judgment, made in the hours after RFK was shot, was one Schlesinger repeated in a subsequent magazine article and book.

The current liberal attitude about the sort of bourgeois-baiting rhetoric and policies they favored 35 years ago is: don’t worry, that’s all behind us now . . . although it was completely defensible and really quite noble. Salon’s Joan Walsh writes, “Pushed by the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movement, the Democrats [in the 1960s] became the party of inclusion, of racial equality. The Democrats became the party that questioned unchecked U.S. military adventurism and untrammeled corporate power. In my opinion these were all good ideas, but the anxiety they engendered helped lead to 20 years of Republicans in the White House, interrupted briefly by Jimmy Carter after Nixon went too far. Reagan ousted Carter by continuing to hammer away at Democrats as the party of minorities and the poor. Sure, he talked about ‘Morning in America’ and that ‘shining city on a hill,’ but he mostly played on fears that liberalism had run amok.”

Walsh can’t or won’t ask whether there was something about liberalism that engendered the anxiety that Republicans could exploit. Favoring inclusion and opposing military adventures and corporate power doesn’t sound like a recipe for defeat. Canvassing for votes from people you’ve castigated as the most frightening on the face of the planet does.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Very telling, that Schlesinger quote. He's clearly haunted by the assasination-conspiracy talk of time, unwilling to be cautious about his own psychological motives for entertaining that talk--there's that new book on the unhinging factor the assasinations had on liberalism whose title I can't recall.

The use of the word "atrocities" also shows he's signed onto the New Left version of Vietnam, and really anti-communism. That is, the statement is something of a self-repudiation, at least in its practical effect, of the anti-communist liberalism he championed through the late 40s up through about 1966. Indeed, in Norman Podhoretz' fine Why We Were in Vietnam, we find Schlesinger waxing wise-like, circa 1967, about the need on one hand recognize that "rational policy" will always be anti-communist, but on the other hand that because communism is such a dead-duck ideologically, it is necessary not to take it too far, since the threat has abated. Despite the miscalculations, this sounds wise enough for the times. Patriotic enough. Prudent enough. And then, a year later, in the heat of the moment, he reveals his true spots.

He is more afraid of his fellow Americans than of anything else under the sun, and it is their sins, known and dimly suspected, that truly motivate his passions. He really is the punitive liberal that Pierson's article describes, searching for a cause to become indignant about, and really hating the idea that America As Is, and not in its Imagined Progressive Frontier, is basically good, that it is on balance and given what is possible in this world, commendable. And as such, yes, a temptation to complacency. Oh no, Arthur will not have this. In the spirit of Rousseau, Marcuse, and yours truly when I was 18 years old, there must be Deep Sickness in America. Complacency is not simply one failing among many, but it is Original Sin, and Metaphysically Complicit. Behind the suburban serenity there are Demons, Dragons, of the sort that only the audacious Liberal Knight can exorcise and slay.

And thus, he sells the possibility of a prudent liberalism down the New Left river, leaving high and dry the thoughtful old lefties like N. Podhoretz and C. Lasch and Carey Wilson McWilliams, the ones who saw that Vietnam was a strategic mistake more than a moral one, and who saw that anti-anti-communism led straight to a Chomskyite gulag of the mind, and certain defeat for a democratic left at the polls.

1.) It has become common for conservatives to say "the Constitution is silent on abortion so the issue should be left up to the states". A few states liberalized there laws in the late 60's and a few years later, the SCOTUS imposed their unwanted law on the vast majority. Had a conservative Court been in place, it could have just as easily gone the other way.

Even leaving aside the Equal Protection clauses, the Preamble is a mission statement, and it says the Constitution exists "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves AND OUR POSTERITY".

Question: Would such a ruling also have been illegitimate activism? To my mind, there was certainly a greater "penumbra" available for banning abortion than embracing it.

Regardless, 'Roe' certainly was illegitimate activism. And the problem isn't just that it makes Liberals too lazy to make their case. It is a form of tyranny. It steals consent. If I have given my allegiance to a Constitution, I can reasonably be said to know what it means. But if you can come along later and say that, lo and behold, all your favorite liberal policies were aiready in there and I just didn't know it, then I must withdraw my allegiance.

How could such a thing not tear at the fabric of our society? You have manufactured my consent.

2.) "we all killed Robert Kennedy"--I had no idea old Arthur S. even played with the Rolling Stones. Ed Driscoll, Jr.:

"Piereson believes that Oswald's attempt to kill Walker sheds light on why he killed Kennedy: his policies towards Cuba and his leading the nation's other Cold War actions of the time.

"However, that is not how the Kennedy assassination was interpreted," Piereson says, with enormous understatement. Instead, a sense of collective guilt is imposed on the nation through its liberal elites and media. "And this is really the first time that you get on the liberal-left this idea that America is guilty. But this however now becomes a metaphor for the left for everything that happens moving on in the 1960s."...

"In 1963, you have a fairly conservative country, culturally," Piereson notes. "You have a communist assassinate the president, a popular president. In 1968, the country has kind of gone off the rails, especially liberal-left culture as you find in the universities, and places like that. The students are taking drugs, and they're demonstrating, and they're rioting against the war in Vietnam.

"Their hero is Castro, and people like Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung," Pierson says, noting the surfeit of Castro and Ché-style army fatigues being worn on campuses. "So how do you get, really, from this place in 1963, where Kennedy is shot by a communist, to '68 where communists like Castro are heroes to the left?"

In other words, RFK was killed because he stood up for Israel. He was killed by an Arafatist at Arafat's direct or indirect command just as JFK was killed by a Castroite at Castro's direct or indirect command.

Democrats went limp on Communism after JFK and then limp on terrorism after RFK.

I agree with everything in Mr. Voegeli's thoughtful post. However, the post does not address whether the alienation between the left-liberal elite and the majority of "middle America" continues to exist today.

Although the electorate has offered significant (but not unrelenting) resisitance to the left-liberals since the late 60s, this has not affected the left's dominance of K-12 education, the universities, journalism, publishing, the professions, and entertainment, a dominance that has only grown and spread to every part of the nation over the last 40 years. (Yeah, I know, the right has talk radio, Fox News, and the WSJ editorial page. Great.) It seems to me that the left has contolled the production and dissemination of ideas, and most institutions that directly affect people's lives, for so long that the majority of the public -- even entrepreneurs, corporate types, and people who think of themselves as conservative or libertarian -- have absorbed many attitudes that would have been considered leftwing in, say, 1970. As a result, I suspect that most Americans (and even many Republicans) perceive many principled conservatives as alien ideologues; the left has ably exploited this in its attacks on "neocons", originalist jurists and the Christian right.

As leftist ideas and attitudes have gradually become mainstream (a process aided by the demographic attrition of older voters), the GOP's attempts to exploit the public's lingering resentment of the adversarial left find less and less traction. For example, it now seems impossible for any sort of conservative (even a McCain-like figure) to win a statewide election in Reagan's home state of California (RINOs like Schwarzenegger don't count), while an unabashed leftist like Sen. Boxer wins easily time after time. Although the shift is less dramatic, the same can be said of almost all states in the country's northeastern quadrant, from NY to PA to Illinois (again, I don't count RINOs like Pataki and Spector). Another manifestation of the normalization of the left is that McGovern got 40% of the popular vote in 1972; in 2004, Kerry, representing the McGovern agenda 32 years later (don't tell me he wasn't a McGovernite), got just under 50% of the vote. In 2008, either Hillary or Obama is almost certain to do as well as Kerry, and, of course, is likely to do considerably better than that.

The mainstreaming of leftism can also be seen in the success of Mike Huckabee, who, in the main, appeals to supposedly politically conservative evangelicals by combining politically correct, center-left bromides with a largely rhetorical conservatism on social issues. I would also note that Huckabee's social conservativism seems to be unconnected to any realistic strategy for putting the values in question into effect. (Anyone care to bet on the prospects of Huckabee's proposed right-to-life and gay-marriage constitutional amendments?.)

The Huckabee phenomenon (may it pass soon) illustrates how the mainstreaming of leftist ideas makes it increasingly difficult to hold together the conservative coalition, as different parts of the coalition adopt certain left-liberal ideas as their own. To wit, small government conservatives and social conservatives are increasingly at odds with each other, and many in each camp have become hostile to foreign policy hawks and "neocons". Meanwhile, entrepreneurial and corporate Republicans support open borders, contrary to the views of the party's middle class base.

The point is, granting the truth of everything said so well in Mr. Voegeli's post, the post portrays a political situation that existed a generation and more ago. The electorate (sadly, in my view) has moved on, and the GOP is unlikely to retake the White House or Congress by yet again rolling out the strategy Nixon used to defeat McGovern and Reagan used to defeat Carter. The inherited pre-1960s patriotism and social conservatism on which that strategy was based turns out to have been a wasting asset, which was not replenished by electoral victories. While conservatives have focussed on trying to win elections over the last 40 years (not always successfully), the left has succeeded in turning the country in its direction through attrition and behind-the-scenes capture of key instititions. True, enough Americans have distrusted or disagreed with the left on some combination of issues to keep the GOP in control of either the presidency or Congress (or both) for most of the last 40 years. Still, the GOP's national viability has become so precarious that the Bush administration's incompetence (real and perceived, on substance, rhetoric and political tactics) may well have destroyed the ability of the GOP to recapture a national majority.

It's always possible, of course, that the Democrats will overreach and move so far to the left that the GOP will squeeze out one more narrow victory. Maybe Reid and Pelosi are doing that now. It would be nice to think so.

D.J., there is much in what you say. A great deal, seems to me.


Yes, some good comments.

California has been lost for now due to a flood of immigrants who are voting 60/40. It takes time to make conservatives and Republicans can simply never (I hope) out-pander Democrats. The government there has dissolved the people and elected a new one.

There is also a death spiral to liberalism, a 'Broken Windows' social effect. For example, when you tell a young father that criminality is no big deal and that "If it feels good, do it!", when he inevitably goes off to jail, the mother(s) of his children then vote for whoever will give them the biggest welfare check.

"Anyone care to bet on the prospects of Huckabee's proposed right-to-life and gay-marriage constitutional amendments?"--It will take 70 Republican senators to pass a Marriage amendment. It will take 80 to pass a Life amendment, to say nothing of state legislatures. But it will take 90 to repeal the Income tax to make way for Huck's Fair Tax. You know how gun-owners say "when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers"? Well, that's how politicians feel about the Income Tax. No more redistribution of wealth, rich-bashing, selling tax policy and burying it in a million-page code? No more social engineering or punishing enemies and rewarding friends? Sorry, but Huck's signature issue is DOA.

Still, all politics is a never-ending struggle and no battle is ever truly won forever. In my own case, I outgrew a liberal youth. So sharpen your arguments and make your best case, and don't be afraid to go over basics--young people and others may be listening. Principle is on our side.

David Frisk and Noel - Thanks for your kind words in reply to my comment. I appreciate your having taken the time to read it, as it is rather long and downbeat, and, unfortunately, I did not know how to execute paragraph breaks when I typed it.

Noel, re your insight that "the government there [in California] has dissolved the people and elected a new one": I think that statement applies to the entire country. After all, it is the federal government, not the states, that has the responsibility to control immigration.

With regard to the boost the left gets from widespread single motherhood, I think the greatest effect comes from middle class and upper middle class women remaining single or getting divorced. The effect of single motherhood among the underclass is probably slight, since the poor have supported the left since the 1930s and are largely apolitical in any event. A political analyst I read recently (I don't remember where) pointed out that the Democrats have a vast advantage among single women, much greater than among married women, even when you control for factors like race and income. It seems that the sexual revolution and the liberalization of divorce laws have ultimately been great boons to the left, here as in Europe.

In my previous comment, I said that "the poor have supported the left since the 1930s." What was in my mind, I think, was that African Americans have supported the Democrats since the 1930s (prior to that, most blacks voted for Republicans). What I should have said that the poor and working class, in general, supported the Democrats long before the changes of the 1960s.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL:

Warning: include(/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2007/12/a-supposedly-dumb-thing-theyre-determined-to-do-again-and-again.php on line 593

Warning: include(): Failed opening '/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/opt/sp/php7.2/lib/php') in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2007/12/a-supposedly-dumb-thing-theyre-determined-to-do-again-and-again.php on line 593