First published in 2008, I’ve tried to trace the genesis of Liberalism from the 1960s til now.
With the new anti-war, what do we make of this latest edition of modern liberalism? With the passing of Fred Rogers a while back I took time to reflect on just what liberalism has become the past 35 years, for Mr Rogers reflected the liberalism we all loved, respected and wished we could emulate.
I remember in one of his last television interviews with William Buckley, the late Malcolm Muggeridge gently scolded WFB, who’d disparaged liberalism, “Oh, but I am liberal.” he said. “I am just not of the Left.”
It does seem an infamy that we should paint the oceans of gentility such as Fred Rogers with the same brush we use to landscape the shallow pools of intellectual warm spit now coming out of Hollywood or the two generations of shrill, witless children running about in the streets, angry that at some day in the not-too-distant future they may have to get a job…way beneath their birthright of managing other men’s affairs.
So, in fairness to Mr Rogers, what do we call them?
I’ve always leaned toward the mathematical and the linear, for the change in liberalism since 1960 is generational, having everything to do with personal economics and just where one’s house is on the hill…going up, at the top, or going down. Understanding the downward trek of modern liberalism is to understand the redemptive nature of capitalism and its natural marriage to American style democracy.
An observer and critic of my own generation (Baby Boomers) I had always had three categories of Liberal to define this decline, but have now added a fourth, since the Gen X’ers and Millennials, too, have seen fit, well, to throw a fit.
First, there is the Classical Liberal, then the Liberal² (i.e, statists), then there’s Liberal³ (i.e, Me-ists pretending to be statists, aka/ wannabe Euros), also known as Cubes. And now, there are the old chips off the Cube, the Liberal°, or Zeroes…for if they ever do get a job, in the public sector no doubt, liberalism as Fred Rogers knew will be at an end.
Of course, Fred Rogers was the portrait of the classical liberal (even though I don’t know his politics), an affluent man, in a cardigan, in his den, just wishing other folks could enjoy the same opportunities and good life he had enjoyed.
Classical liberalism was less a political philosophy than a point of view…and one born to opportunity that had been paved by others in his house. A sense of the Scriptures also helped, for this kind of humanistic liberalism is no small thing. It is almost purely Christian… and English, for the sentiment never existed on the Continent, except in the smallest of circles. It is as alien to the French as good manners, the Germans as deodorant, and to both…gratitude. In fact, heavy on the gratitude (the same operative element in “patriotism”) for classical liberalism was very much about gratitude.
In an age when liberalism was not a dirty word, and represented a kind of growth of the American house that stood in stark contrast from the stagnancy of agrarian life, it was considered the duty of one so born (life’s lottery winner) to pass on not only the gentility and nobility gained from those opportunities, but a gratitude to those who had earlier brought that house up the hill. In the Liberal’s natural scheme of things, “those others” were not government, except to the extent that the Framers of the world’s most prescient and precious secular document were “government”.
If that sounds faintly familiar to the handshake we’ve spoken about between the Man who’s made it up the hill and the man down at the bottom, only beginning his trek, it is. Today, it is classical constitutional conservatism, straight from the Founders’ blueprint.
As it is the natural law of any house to try to stay on top the hill as long as it can, and the countervailing law of capitalism and human nature to insure grandchildren and great grandchildren will squander what their forebears had bequeathed them, thus driving it back down, classical liberalism’s formula for keeping their house atop the crest was education, hard work, gratitude and an uncommon fealty to the Constitution which protected every citizen’s right to better himself in the same way. Classical liberalism’s mantra was “nobility by merit”.
I suppose, as long as economic and educational success was a rarity, comparatively speaking, keeping that house atop the crest was not impossible. But that was before being a lawyer paid so well, or as a profession was so much easier to get into than say, medicine. “Oh, Wayne could have been a doctor, but he chose public service (law) instead” still ranks as one of the most incredibly stupid things a wife has ever said at a dinner party…as my wife knew only too well…after we’d picked her up off the floor from her hysterical laughing fit. You see, my wife’s husband was also a lawyer.
Getting to the top and staying there more than two generations is a spiritual, not economic task, so the classical liberal had it almost right. But post-war affluence out-paced the demographics in the 1980s and 1990s, and a generation already lost begat another. Industrial Anglo-Saxon liberalism (the French part of the English stayed in England, thus making America a red-headed step child more than a country cousin) hit its apogee in the early 60’s. But while basking in the glow of Camelot, no one noticed that classical liberals and the Greatest Generation had become lousy parents. And worse, with easy divorce and feminism, had bequeathed raising children in large part to Mom.
Both liberal and conservatives define themselves in part as what they are not…only in this particular historical cycle it is liberalism that appears least rational, more hysterical, and worst, most anti-constitutional.
It wasn’t always that way, since around the turn of the 20th Century, “conservatism” stood as the ugly ogre, defender of the political power of a business elite, and the protector of a status quo social order that kept the country more or less under the thumb of an Anglican world view.
Conservatism then was like liberalism now, more a feeling than a thought, and one of appetite more than of compassion, as the Lib° is now proving. Boss-man conservatism did not sit well with millions of Catholics streaming ashore, nor the Orientals who bothered to take time to notice. Nor did it sit well with the Constitution and in those days, Classical Liberalism was the constitutional movement, seeking to loosen the new industrial and social power of a few, as the country moved away from agrarian societies, and toward a more diverse society.
Any student of history would have a hard time not rooting for the Liberals in the first half of the 20th Century.
And the classical liberal didn’t have to march, protest, or even buy a t-shirt. All he had to do was want equal rights for his fellow citizen…and vote. For as I mentioned, liberalism was the natural product of growing wealth and education in America. The economic growth of the US economy alone increased the liberal’s political power with each passing generation.
Classical liberalism, then, was a deep belief that anyone, coming from any circumstance, can rise to any level of personal achievement, and with it, a financial security that can be passed onto future generations through better education and better professional opportunities…if the doors of opportunity the Constitution barred from being closed are opened and kept open. Liberalism, then, was all about self-betterment and open doors.
So, in the context of the 1930s thru 1960s, especially in the Civil Rights days, liberalism was a movement against government’s interference in a person’s ability to enjoy basic civil rights, such as voting, equal educational and job opportunities. And in those days, since bad government in the Liberal’s mind was local and state governments, they naturally saw the federal government as the correct remedy.
They were therefore naturally suspect of the 9th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution, for since the Civil War, states rights had been used to shroud all sorts of government-protected human indignities. Ooops!
No list is necessary, but what passed as the corpus of human liberties Liberals felt were being denied citizens in the 1960’s, has now passed into the account of modern conservatism, a philosophical movement having nothing to do with big trusts and Anglicans. Reminding ourselves of what the Indians meant when they spoke of the “roundness of things”, modern liberals have become the progenitors of privilege and class, while modern conservatism has adopted the classically liberal viewpoint toward social and constitutional justice.
How did this switch occur? In two words, My Generation. In part, the Boomer generation of modern conservatives (from the Vietnam era), like me, is comprised more of ex-liberals than YAF members. We began with strong liberal strains. For instance, we rejected the dry legalistic state rights/9th Amendment (separate but equal) arguments with the reality of the outrages of its abuse in the Jim Crow South.
But what they (we) we found with liberalism as it ascended in popularity and power in the 1970s, is that no philosophy can be re-seeded and passed onto new generations if it is also passed into the care and management of a bureaucracy. Belief in government as a manager of its own remedies was (and still is) one of classical liberalism’s greatest failings. (The other was reading Dr. Spock.)
Were it not for Martin Luther, the bureaucratic power of the medieval Church might have destroyed the structure of the single most transcendent philosophy of the modern times…although truly transcendent philosophies cannot really be destroyed, they just go somewhere else.
The ability of a bureaucracy to destroy a philosophy is definitive in saying that this ‘ism or that ‘ism is a genuine ‘ism. The Soviet Union proved this, when, in the space of 75 years, its leadership went from a fervent political elite, selfless men and women dedicated to saving, then protecting the down-trodden working classes to a me-ist society, (as they saw it) but then enslaving those same proletariat for the protection and perpetuation of their own ruling positions.
That their transformation was as inevitable and natural as Martin Luther’s Theses on a church door, proved that bureaucratism, i.e., big government, as a fundamental law of nature, could never achieve social justice, or for that matter, any other social good with any long standing effect.
This explains why the Constitution was written in the curious way it was, limiting in every sentence, every section and sub-section, the power of this new government the people were handing up to be created.
It is from trying to plumb the depths of reasoning in this really radical point of view about Man’s ability to govern himself that classical conservatism as a doctrine began in the late 40s-early 50s. Conservatism has everything to do with protecting the Constitution, which is eternal, and nothing to do with protecting the status of rich robber barons, who are transient.
Modern conservatism began to take on members from the armies of 60s liberals when it became abundantly clear about liberalism’s failure as a philosophy of governance, and the ease with which liberalism could be confused with authoritarian statism (socialism). Conservatism was fundamentally patriotic (grateful) and statism was fundamental elitist (ungrateful). Besides, from the Vietnam days there also arose those armies of “maggot-infested, dope smoking” liberal types we really didn’t care to be seen with, or down wind from. Seeing our train about to be hi-jacked, many of us jumped at the first convenient steep grade.
In the late ‘60s classifying liberals was already a hard thing, for they always seemed to find themselves allied with out-and-out socialists, fellow travelers, Marxists…not to mention that infestation of pirates and mountebanks in the United Nations.
Riddled throughout FDR’s administration, I’ve always referred to these statists as Liberals squared (Lib²’s), for only if you can know their heart can you tell them from the true liberal. All they have done is juxtapose the priorities of their intentions…from empowering the state to do good, to doing good to empower the state…which as Mark Twain pointed out, is a secret supplication of the heart only God can know.
So, then came my generation, and our children, who simply were not satisfied to move our fathers’ house up to the crest of the hill, and try to stay there, which was always classical liberalism’s ideal about the growth of the American house…make you money in retail, send your kids to law school or med school, who in turn will send theirs to Julliard, or to public service.
There were toys, and malls in between, so we (and our fruit) crested that hill at 70 mph, with the petal to the metal, thus ensuring that most of our houses were already on a steepening down-slope by the time we were 40-ish. Divorce helped.
The secret to defining the behavior of the chattering asses that go-about spewing political psycho-babble against everything most Americans are for arose from this hellishly drive up and back down the hill. When you stop to do the math about Millennials and consider that the Constitution’s survival depends on at least 65%-75% of the Houses built in America to survive three generations, and that nearly half of the millennials will crash and burn in less than two, you can see why all this is scary.
It is not mere coincidence that these children are the results of affluent backgrounds. Recalling the first generation of this type, my generation, excepting those who decided to go out to Arizona and become hippies instead of political activists, it does seem that the shrill anti-Vietnam War alienists hi-jacked liberalism, throwing civil rights, along with me, right off the Peace Train.
So, when the best and the brightest of my generation came to that crossroads about American involvement in Southeast Asia, it seems the best went one way, and a way-too-large percentage of the brightness turned another.
There you have it. Today, the “brightest” still rail against the best because they (we) won’t follow their lead. For thirty years I have pondered just what it is inside these elitist contrarians to make them so sure about the provable unrealities in our public lives.
I have concluded that it is abject Me-ism, but on a grand-enough scale that society and cultures, indeed American civilization, can fall. The national anti-war movement today is just one long, foot-stomping Scarlett O’Hara teat fit. Worse, it has carried even the craven behavior of my generation to new heights. At least draft avoiders like Clinton, especially after 1968, did so, in part because their college deferments had run out. There at least was an issue of personal safety (inconvenience) to consider.
Today, for the modern educated “maroon” (Bugs Bunny’s name, not mine) it’s all about class. There are no longer hard choices about war, for there is no draft. The average 21-year old senior, just after Tet in 1968, had real choices as he came up to that crossroads…run to Canada, join the Peace Movement at the barricades, get married and get a girl pregnant, in that order, go to OCS as an officer (3 year commitment) or take your chances with the draft (only 2 years).
For the brighter (but not brightest, who could still go to med school) there was also law school, which some senator sneaked in as “deferrable” post-graduate school, just as necessary to national security as medicine, physics and chemistry. What a heinous, inglorious act! equating lawyers with doctors.
If the truth were known, the hardest choices were the two in uniform…3 and 2 years respectively of uniformed inconvenience (trust me, the male side of the anti-war movement was all about sweat and inconvenience, not issues.) Of those two choices, the two year draft was the worst, not because of the likelihood of being shot at…Clinton would have been a company clerk, tops… but in the idea, or having to get at 5 AM in the morning, to make his own bed, and to have some poorly educated black drill sergeant yell in his face. Humbling oneself was not part of his manifest destiny as described by Mom.
While one of them, I only found this mildly curious behavior at the time, this disdain the college life had bred had for the townies and other uncouth underbred citizens….but as my own children grew and matriculated I became alarmed at how much the system itself, encouraged this notion
What drives modern liberalism today, Cubes (Lib³) is a bottomless self-love and utter disdain for anything that the word “common” can be attached to.
Cubes did not (do not) want to be lumped in with all the high school rubes from Nebraska. Among women, the anti-war was a major expression of political activism, and by definition contrarian to anything ordinary or common, for ordinary and common expressed the old status quo for women. To them, a married stay-at-home mom was no different than a mindless oaf draftee.
In my own opinion, the country is lost unless there is a re-coalescing of the best and the brightest among newer generations, which the public school system, for one, seems intent on keeping cleaved. Unless there are genuinely shared national experiences, little foot stomping Scarlett O’Hara’s in private schools in New England will go one defining themselves as what they are not. This is one reason I am for a form of “national service” for all citizens of certain age, around 18-19.
Throw the word “common” (including common sense) into the conversation and this class becomes utterly French…elitist in its worst form, filled with snobbery and disdain…for working people, working class ethics, and for retail. (As Emerson said, America is a nation of shop keepers, so indirectly or directly, all wealth in America came from retail. Still does. Yet we hate it. We love being served, but hate serving.)
Cubes are statists because they saw (see) the public sector as an easy, indeed, sometimes effortless, path of affluence and managerial power. No factory floors, dirt under the fingernails, rolled up sleeves. In the same way a smart kid today chooses law school over medical school…you can’t b-s your way thru med school, you actually have to know stuff there…lib³’s aren’t statists per se for they only see the state as a means to a selfish, personal end. An aberration, Clinton viewed the state as an oriental satrapy, with belly dancers, pomegranates and turbaned black eunuchs with feather fans, but most see the state, as do the European managerial elite, as their own personal apple orchard, planted by others long ago for their picking now. Like Arab princes, the like the power to sit around conference tables without really having to do much work in knowing what to do once there. So they sort of like the idea of turning this into a hereditary thing, a la the French. Those little snot-nosed kids throwing rocks, or turning their backs on the National Anthems, are merely auditioning for entry-level positions in public service.
Jump forward to this war and this day, modern conservative movement does seem to be gaining ground among common sense folks (i.e. the best), thus threatening their position vis a vis the apple orchard they always thought was theirs. To their well-educated minds, the foot-stomping teat fit seems to be the appropriate response.
At least you know why the heathen doth rage.