The Demise of Liberalism
Liberalism was once a gentle, fragrant breeze blowing through American political culture. Liberals - often flawed, sometimes pompous, sometimes self-inflated, but more often just decent Americans - cherished the American people and the land on which we live. Liberals imagined a Great Society in which everyone got three good meals every day; everyone lived in a clean, decent house; every child got a good education, every worker had a safe, secure, good-paying job; every sick person received good medical care; the disabled were supported out of compassion for their predicaments, and the disadvantaged were assisted until no more assistance was needed. All the subcultures in American society would be able to keep their traditional beliefs, customs, and languages but would also embrace fundamental American values (this was not too well thought out). Worshipers of all faiths could proceed with safety and dignity to their chosen church, tabernacle, mosque, temple, or cathedral on holy days, but no faith would try to impose its beliefs on others or claim official sanction. Culture would be rich with publicly supported art, music, and drama. Schools would operate on an 18 hour schedule, filled with kids learning their ABC’s during the day and adults learning household accounting, cake decorating, poetry appreciation, country-western dancing, Southern literature, and CPR at night
In a Liberal society, intersections would not be populated by homeless bums, children would not go to bed hungry, and no one would have to choose between paying the electric bill or filling a prescription. Crime would diminish over time because the fundamental decency inherent in every human spirit would emerge and flourish in such a nation.
Liberalism was a secular form of Christianity, ripped from the pages of the New Testament and made real in our laws and customs by the earnest Protestants who invented it. The central concept of Liberalism was that the human spirit - made by God in His image - is innately decent unless crushed by poverty, injustice, oppression, or illness. Remove these deprivations and the human spirit will resume its natural growth like a drought-stunted tree resumes its growth when the rains return. Liberalism was casual and friendly; everyone would be on a first-name basis. Class distinctions were an embarrassing anachronism left over from the brutal and shallow aristocracies of the past. Liberals imagined a middle class world where the distribution of income was pretty flat: nobody was too rich and absolutely no one was poor.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, he referred only to adult white males who owned real estate. When Liberals said that everyone is created equal, they meant every living man, woman, and child on earth: rich and poor, old and young, smart and stupid, sweet and mean, healthy and sickly, President and dog catcher, pale and swarthy, CEO and secretary, male and female, you and me.
- Out of concern for the wilderness and the ecology, Liberalism created our national park system, air pollution standards, and environmental protection laws.
- Out of concern for the welfare of working Americans, Liberalism gave us the eight hour work day; the forty hour work week; occupational safety laws; child labor laws; disability compensation; unemployment compensation; overtime compensation; sick leave; family leave, maternity leave, workman’s compensation; job and skills training for the unemployed; GED classes; and equal pay and treatment for the handicapped, minorities, women, and those over 55.
- Out of concern for the welfare of Americans who were too old to work, Liberalism gave us Social Security and Medicare.
- Out of concern for our mothers, sisters, and daughters, Liberalism gave us laws against spousal abuse, laws providing abortion on demand, laws enabling easy divorces, funding of clinics for pregnant women, funding for rape counselors, laws mandating equal pay for women, and laws encouraging college admission of women to traditionally male fields such as medicine and science.
- Out of concern for our children, Liberalism gave us head start, cheap day care, child welfare clinics, family social workers, after school programs, artists in the schools, medicaid, sex education, a federal Department of Education, funding for educational research, guaranteed student loans, child nutrition programs, free breakfasts in school, federal education grants, prenatal clinics, and school counselors.
- Out of concern for our health and safety, Liberalism gave us water purity laws, food purity laws, slaughter house inspections, restaurant inspections, regulation of the manufacture and use of prescription medicines, air travel safety regulations, automobile safety belts, automobile crash testing, car infant seats, automobile emission standards, warning labels on dangerous products like cigarettes, product safety testing, and regulation of medical and surgical procedures.
- Out of concern for justice, Liberalism gave us laws that prohibit the favoring of one race over another, the maltreatment of women at home or work, and the abuse of children. Liberalism provided a free attorney to any person who could not afford one. Liberalism required the police to advise us of our rights. Liberals defended the right of free speech even when both the speaker and the spoken were offensive to almost everyone.
- Out of concern for our freedom, Liberal presidents and Congresses fought and defeated fascism in World War II. Liberal presidents and Congresses then rebuilt both Europe and Japan. The Marshall plan restored our allies to their former positions as prosperous democracies. Our former enemies learned democracy from Liberal American tutors and market economics from Liberal economists.
- Out of concern for freedom in other nations, Liberals conceived and implemented the containment of Communism policy which was endorsed by nine consecutive presidents of both parties. Liberal administrations were peerless in their courage, and no group of leaders has ever practiced global brinksmanship like they did, pushing humankind to the edge of nuclear war over and over again - when they were not working on job training for the unemployed, medical care for the elderly, irrigation in Egypt, voting rights in the South, children’s vaccination programs, and low cost day care for underpaid secretaries and waitresses. In their long, Cold War, Liberals of steely nerve initiated the Berlin airlift, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile standoff, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, the war in Viet Nam, and God only knows how many secret missions, raids, and assassinations behind the Iron Curtain, in the Middle East, and in Latin America. This ultimately resulted in the implosion of the Communist world, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the conversion of former Warsaw Pact nations into free democracies, and the opportunity for the slave republics of the former Soviet Union to pursue their separate destinies. The skill of Liberal presidents combined with Luck somehow prevented us all from becoming radioactive dust.
Except in the areas of foreign policy and war, every one of these Liberal initiatives were steadfastly opposed by Conservatives, who tried to protect the right of the rich to exploit the land, pollute the air, poison the water, and work employees long hours for little money under dangerous conditions. If you eat nutritious food, breathe clean air, work in a safe environment for a decent wage, or speak your mind in public, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Liberalism. If you or your children received government loans or grants to go to college, you should thank Liberalism for the handout. If you are a woman who is earning the same pay as the man in the next cubicle, you should appreciate Liberalism a little more every payday. If anyone in your family has ever received a check from Social Security or medical treatments paid for by Medicare, light a candle to the memories of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. If you are happy that Communism and Fascism did not come to rule Europe, Latin America, and Asia, then remember Liberalism in your prayers tonight. If you are a nonwhite Republican voter, remember that it is the ghost of Lyndon Johnson who is parting the curtains to admit you into the voting booth. If you have been divorced or had an abortion (most of us are included in one of these groups), then you should realize that without Liberalism you would still be married to the same jerk or you would have an unplanned, perhaps unwanted, child in your house right now. If you’ve ever received unemployment compensation, disability compensation, or food stamps, then go shake a Liberal’s hand in gratitude. If you have ever lived in subsidized housing, write a thank you note to Liberalism and tack it to your bulletin board. If your children ever eat breakfast at school, give them a book on Liberalism to read while they are eating. If anyone in your family is handicapped, then you should get a stencil and spray-paint “Thank you, Liberalism” on every wheelchair ramp, reserved parking space, and Medicare-paid-for motorized wheelchair that you see.
The list of Liberal leaders is a Who’s Who of Twentieth century politics, including judges, mayors, governors, legislators, city councilmen (and women), civil servants, Senators, Representatives, and seven great presidents: Roosevelt, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. The list of non-Liberal Twentieth century presidents includes McKinley, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton - not so impressive a list. Eisenhower alone comes to mind as both great and yet not especially liberal. (The current President Bush is still working on his legacy, so his historical significance is not yet ready to be commented on.) After Carter’s defeat, Liberalism pretty much fell apart. Soon thereafter, Liberalism died an unnoticed and unmourned death, and its like will never be seen again. Liberalism has now joined the other great philosophies and movements of the Twentieth century - Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and Feminism - in the mausoleum.
To be fair, we must acknowledge that, out of their ineptitude, Liberals also gave us unwieldy and Byzantine government bureaucracies, a habit of fuzzy thinking about ethical and political issues, and political correctness. They also left us in a world that contains thousands and thousands of ready-to-launch nuclear weapons. Remember that Liberals invented nuclear weapons and only a Liberal Democrat - not a Communist, not a terrorist, and not a dictator - has ever ordered atomic weapons to be dropped on cities. Liberals’ anti-Communist fanaticism made them willing to get into bed with any tyrant as long as he was non-Communist. Mopping up the messes left in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia by those Liberal-supported dictators will take generations. In its day, Liberalism was inventing a new world - a Great Society - and there were no rule books to follow. They made it up as they went, and hindsight tells us that they made some mistakes - some big ones.
Now, in the first days of the Twenty-first century, the accomplishments of Liberalism are being systematically undone, one by one. Drilling and logging are returning to the wildernesses from which they were once forbidden. Food inspection laws may still be on the books but there are no food inspectors. American corporations are happy to underpay women, use child labor, and use slave labor in their third world sweatshops, so they obviously did not internalize the Liberal values of equality and compassion. They will be equally happy to treat Americans in the same way, we speculate, after legal constraints are removed. Art, music, and drama are fading away in the public schools. Child nutrition programs are being replaced with pizza and soft-drink vending machines in school cafeterias by school boards who are being bribed by pizza and soda pop vendors. The national infrastructure - roads, power grids, railways, water purification plants, etc. - is degrading, unrepaired and unreplaced. Services to vulnerable women, children, and elderly citizens are being cut back. The National Endowments and PBS are under attack. The patchwork fabric of Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Johnson’s Great Society is being unraveled by a combination of neglect and Conservative revisionism. The very term Liberal is avoided as poison by our current generation of gutless politicians. Liberalism, amazingly, is now defined by many Americans as a perverse preference for high taxes, government waste, and homosexuality.
The Liberal dream - a stable culture characterized by rich civic dialog, civility, mutual caring, prosperity, and protection for the weak - never really came fully into existence. Our society aspired for three-quarters of a century to the Liberal vision of greatness, but we failed to achieve it and have now abandoned it. Why? First, the generation of Liberal leadership that followed the Johnson administration had no fire in the belly and they caved in to their critics. Second, those who passionately hated Liberalism were relentless, brilliant, and merciless in their opposition. Third, Liberalism failed because the Liberal vision of human nature turned out to be false. As Machiavellians knew all along, human beings are primates - not angels. Those who benefited most from the policies of Liberalism abandoned it later, as is typical of human nature. Give a poor student a government grant so he can go to college, Liberals learned, and when he becomes successful and prosperous he will vote against similar grants for others.
The Great Society is no longer politically achievable, not because it is impossible but because we, as a nation, don’t have the desire. Liberalism has been blown away by the wind of change. It was a moment in history, never to be repeated. Liberalism, I predict, will be little discussed and not long remembered. It’s heroes, except for the presidents mentioned above, are not symbolized in statuary or murals. And, even those great presidents are remembered more for their successes or failures in war than for the existence of dams, roads, day care centers, schools, hospitals, universities, highways, pollution control devices, national parks, scholarship programs, the Peace Corps, vaccines, space ships, irrigation systems, continuing education programs, child vaccination programs, abortion clinics, and water purification plants.
If you have listened to Conservative rhetoric, you might have thought that Liberalism was alive and on the verge of bankrupting the country and legalizing polygamy. However, modern Democrats in Congress are to Liberalism what grape juice is to good port. It looks like the real thing, but it is a very different substance. Liberalism was a serious effort to rid the world of sickness, poverty, war, ignorance, and exploitation. In their place Liberals would substitute health, security, peace, education, and cooperation. Every human being would have not just an opportunity for happiness, but encouragement, support, and protection in its pursuit. Liberalism took on this enormous challenge with the energy of Teddy Roosevelt, the compassion of Franklin Roosevelt, the middle-class goodness of Harry Truman, the intensity of the Kennedy’s, the determination of LBJ, and the spirituality of Jimmy Carter. The motto of Liberalism was articulated best by Robert Kennedy when he asked, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
The current Democratic agenda is a feeble effort to slow the Conservative destruction of the remnants of the Great Society. Democrats wear the tattered uniforms of a once-great army, but they have long ago surrendered their guns to the enemy. Unlike real Liberals, they have no notion of remaking the world into what it could be instead of what it is. They would give a wounded man an aspirin to reduce his pain but have no plans to remove the bullet. They would distribute diet soda and nutrition pamphlets to the starving. As Theodore Roosevelt said in reference to a Supreme Court Justice for whom he had little respect, “I could carve more backbone out of a banana.” Those who mistake 21st century Democrats for Liberals might also mistake a house cat for a bear.
Perhaps an alternative vision will be hatched by a future generation that will once again try to create a nation of gentleness, caring, compassion, equality, and civility. Perhaps they will look back on American Liberalism with understanding and respect. Perhaps a better world and a better America will be the result of their efforts. But, don’t count on it in your lifetime.
What does the demise of Liberalism mean to the Machiavellian? It means that you are on your own. Do not count on your government - federal, state, or local - for squat. The people who run our institutions are not interested in you or your welfare. They are interested in their own power, income, and status. If you plan to retire, you had better make the money to retire on - or change your plans to include being a greeter at Walmart until the day you die. If you want your kids to go to good schools, you had better make the money for private school tuition. If you think you might get sick, make sure you have the cash in the bank to pay for doctors, hospitals, and medicine. If your teenager has asthma, don’t expect the government to clean up your air. Instead, make the money to buy a nice home in the country many miles from any city. Think carefully before you speak your mind in public; unpopular opinions are becoming very unpopular. Think carefully before you speak your mind in private; recording devices are everywhere.
The most powerful people in this global economy - those who govern us and those who control them - are looking out for number one. They are not concerned with the welfare of the weak, the poor, the humble, the homeless, the sick, the young, the female, the elderly, or the unlucky. They are certainly not concerned with you. Like I said before, you are on your own. Good Luck.
After reading this, you may want to read my essay on Conservatism: “The Conservative Ocean”