March 6, 2017

The death of liberalism

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2011 - As I was listening recently to a Bob Edwards interview with Kirsten Downey, biographer of the New Deal labor secretary, Frances Perkins, it struck me that the first woman ever to hold cabinet office in American history had played a key role in getting more accomplished than the last three decades of American liberalism combined - things like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Social Security, federal insurance for bank accounts, welfare, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, bargaining rights for labor, restrictions on overtime, a 40 hour work week and a minimum wage.

Perkins’ colleagues in the New Deal also brought us legal alcohol, regulation of the stock exchanges, the Soil Conservation Service, national parks and monuments, the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, the FHA, a big increase in hospital beds, and the Small Business Administration.

Add to that the numerous achievements of the Great Society including bilingual education, civil rights legislation, community action agencies, Head Start, job Corps, the national endowments for arts and humanities, Teacher Corps, anti-poverty programs, nutrition assistance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Next to this, post-1980 liberalism seems at best pathetic and at worst a major betrayal of its own past. Even the otherwise crummy Nixon administration did better – bringing us EPA, affirmative action, the Clean Air Act, the first Earth Day, indexing Social Security for inflation, Supplemental Security income, OSHA, and healthcare reform.

Future historians seeking to learn why America so easily surrendered its democratic traditions and constitutional government to a rabid right will find plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly disinterested in its own historic values. Like all aristocracies, it came to exist primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue, and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.

For many years, 20th century liberalism was saved from becoming an aristocracy because of the dominance of constituencies such as labor, European socialists and ethnic minorities. By the 1980s, however, these constituencies - thanks in no small part to successful liberal policies - had advanced socially and economically to the point that they no longer functioned as a massive reminder of what liberalism was meant to be about.

With the end of the Great Society, Democrats began a steady retreat from liberalism climaxing in Clinton and Obama with their systematic dismantling of liberal programs and paradigms. As Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda Report, put it recently, “President Obama seems positively eager to dismantle the safety nets put in place in the thirties and strengthened by a black-led movement in the sixties.”

Among the greatest victims of this retreat have been economic decency, social democracy and civil liberties. It was not that the new liberal aristocrats actually opposed them; it just didn't matter much to them. Liberalism was no longer a matter of masses yearning to breathe free, but of boomers yearning for an SUV and millennials for a new I-Something.

While there were still repeated expressions of faith in a declining number of icons such as diversity, abortion, and the environment, the fact was that the liberal elite had become far more characterized by its capacity for self-defense than by its concern or action for others.

Most striking was the disappearing interest in those at the bottom. Liberal city councils went after the homeless, pandered to developers, and engaged in other forms of socio-economic cleansing. The Clinton administration attacked welfare in a manner once limited to the Republican right; prison populations soared without a murmur from the liberals; Democrats supported without question a cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs; they joined the war on two centuries of public education; and liberal media aristocrats prided themselves in faux realpolitik and patronizing prescriptions for the masses. Obama gave freely to the banks but hardly noticed the foreclosed.

The trend produced remarkable twists of liberal values. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the war on drugs; the leaders of NOW repeatedly defended a sexually predatory male in the White House. And liberal academia provided all purpose justification through the magic rationalization of postmodernism.

Through it all, the liberal aristocracy was the dog that didn't bark. Just as Sherlock Holmes' creature failed to warn of an intruder, so America's liberal leadership failed repeatedly to warn of infringements of civil liberties, of unconstitutional acts and legislation, or to rise to the defense of people beyond its own class.

When the liberal aristocracy backed the war on drugs, happily sacrificed national and local sovereignty to multinational corporations, yawned as the Clintons disassembled their own former cause, and looked the other way as Obama expanded the police state, it was clear that this atrophied elite would not handle a real crisis.

Thought without action is the coitus interruptus of the mind, which may be why liberals produced so few progeny. A politics so heavily grounded in intellectual considerations as opposed to human experience, runs the constant risk of losing its bearings. A wiser approach was espoused by Julius Nyerere who argued that the true revolutionary acted as one of thought and thought as one of action. Another great African activist, Nelson Mandela, credited cattle farming rather than universities as his inspiration. Moving herds around, he explained, had taught him how to lead from behind.

Politics involves real people and it helps to speak real people talk. Many liberals have a tin ear for their presumed constituency. This involves more than a choice of words; the over-refined language is clouded with abstractions while disdaining the anecdotes and metaphors that every good preacher knows is the easiest way to propel a message.

I sometimes think that liberalism died when, in the last few decades, its advocates started talking about “infrastructure” instead of public works. The language of obfuscation added to the divide between liberals and others.

Thomas Jefferson said that people "by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:

“1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.

“2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests."

There is little doubt as to which of these parties many liberals belong. Rhetoric notwithstanding, too often those leading liberal America believe they were born to rule. In fact, their profound self-assurance on this score helps to explain another anomaly of liberals and leftists: the frequency with which you will find them -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are names that spring to mind -- cavorting with those whose politics should be an anathema. The reason is simply that the blood of their entitlement is thicker than that of their ideology. What really ties Washington together and unites it against the rest of the country is not policy but a common understanding of the sort of person who should be in charge.

Now the economy has fallen, our world status collapsed, our Constitution tattered, and our civil liberties deteriorating by the day. And in the place of a quietly incompetent alliance between conservative and liberal elites, we now find a rabid Republicanism rising unlike anything seen before – the most extremist mainstream party in our history.

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