Liberals and Leftists

In "Days of Rage, Years of Lies" (Summer 2011), William Voegeli upbraids liberals of the 1960s for tolerating the New Left's anti-democratic excesses. He is perhaps too young to appreciate the profound challenge the radicals posed. The demands they made were never serious, but the disordered way they made them threw the entire society on the defensive.

The student radicals appeared at the most elite schools—Columbia, Berkeley, Harvard. They were privileged, not disadvantaged, and typically had been brought up indulgently by liberated parents. At the time, I was a graduate student at Harvard. Having come from a traditional family and gone to Amherst College, a severe academic boot camp, I assumed that politics required argument. I supported the Vietnam War and demanded that anti-war students make a case against me. But they talked only about their feelings. Having listened so assiduously to them as children, the liberal establishment could do nothing less in politics. Their stance was therapeutic. They could not demand reasons, nor the respect Voegeli wants for democratic proprieties.

The black radicals came from the other end of society. As with the students, the manner of their demands was far more threatening than the substance. Civil rights had been a classic American reform movement that set a practical agenda and took responsibility for achieving it. Black Power, however, reflected the disorders of the inner city. The urban riots and the welfare explosion—the defining events of the 1960s—were not practical or responsible but self-destructive. Black, not white, neighborhoods were destroyed. All problems, even the most personal—crime, welfare, drugs—were blamed on society. Liberal commentators talked this way because poor blacks acted that way. In ghetto culture, individuals were not responsible for anything. Life simply happened to them. That reflected the powerlessness blacks had known under slavery and Jim Crow—and, before that, in Africa. It meant an abandonment of the individual responsibilities that had always defined America.

Voegeli presumes that the liberals should simply have silenced the radicals as naughty children. But nobody had the authority to do that. Traditional values had been undermined. Social authority had to be rebuilt—a protracted struggle. Since Ronald Reagan, conservatives who do not indulge their children have largely taken over national policymaking. Today's students accept that they must make arguments for their desires. They are no longer radical but conformist, seeking mainly to get their next credential or degree. And in response to ghetto disorders, we now tell poor adults that they will be held responsible at least for working, obeying the law, and learning in school. We now enforce at least pieces of responsibility, if not the whole of it.

Voegeli treats the liberals as moral weaklings. But morals must rest on political consensus. Nobody had the standing to silence the radicals in the 1960s. Today we would have it. But for the same reason, undemocratic demands are unlikely to be made.

Lawrence M. Mead
New York University
New York, NY


William Voegeli replies:

My friend Professor Mead offers a clarifying recollection of the context that gave rise to urban riots by the under-privileged and campus riots by the over-privileged. In doing so, however, he arrives at some questionable conclusions about the causes and lessons of the 1960s.

I reject, in particular, the contention that "nobody had the authority" to silence the radicals or, more to the point, enforce the law when they broke it. In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom argued persuasively that Cornell administrators could have summoned the local and state police at any point during that university's ordeal in 1969. Their pretext for refusing to do so was "respect for the special autonomous status of the university, which was being exploited to protect and encourage violators of academic freedom as well as of the law that governs ordinary mortals."

Mead claims that in criticizing the moral weakness liberals displayed in the 1960s I fail to appreciate how the absence of a political consensus supporting the rule of law and repudiating outrages rendered expressions of moral courage unavailing. In his meteorological analysis, anarchic high-pressure fronts move in and settle over the nation from time to time. When they do, nobody has the standing to demand or uphold law and order. All we can do is ride out the storms and await the arrival of a gentler weather system borne by traditional values and more responsible child-rearing.

I believe it does a better job of explaining the world and improving it to insist that ideas have consequences than to posit that they are consequences. The turmoil of the 1960s was a bad thing caused by liberalism, not a bad thing that happened to it. The liberal project's defining transgression is living off capital—economic, political, and moral—it never replenishes and often disdains.

Thus, the liberals who dominated American politics in the '60s wanted to have everything both ways. They lectured Southern segregationists about the rule of law, and assured war protestors and black nationalists about imperatives of conscience that transcended the law. They invoked the color-blind Constitution to lay the groundwork for a regime of ineradicable affirmative action programs. They championed democracy while advancing a conception of it that let experts and activists disregard mere voters.

It's no wonder that liberalism has spent most of the four decades since George McGovern's presidential campaign playing defense. The student radicals and black nationalists were the first to figure out, in Bloom's words, that the "pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom could, with a little shove, be made into dancing bears." The rest of the country soon followed in discerning what was fraudulent about liberal pieties and contemptible about their purveyors. Liberalism, as an intellectual and political force, has never recovered. Modern liberals' belief, dishonest or deluded, that the liberals of the 1960s stood tall against the SDS and Black Panthers, shows only that liberalism has yet to correct or even acknowledge its central failing.

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Conservative Foreign Policy

In his review of my book, Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II, Joshua Muravchik reiterates his long-standing support for a foreign policy based on an "idealism" of the distinctly interventionist variety ("Grand Old Strategy," Summer 2011). Muravchik's approach has some serious, important problems as a conservative alternative to Barack Obama's flawed approach.

The genuinely conservative alternative I support is based upon core convictions of American exceptionalism, strong U.S. leadership internationally, robust counter-terrorism, firm support for America's allies, disdain for fashionable notions of decline, and a determination to win the wars that the United States is currently fighting. It avoids falling into the classic trap, dating back to Woodrow Wilson, of sweeping and idealistic declarations or commitments not backed up by American power.

In the world of foreign policy as it is actually practiced, decisions are made by presidents, not intellectuals. Presidents do not wake up in the morning and agonize over the question of whether they are either sufficiently or excessively idealistic. Virtually all American political leaders agree that over the long run the world would be a better place through the spread of popular self-government. The important contrast is between presidents who implement traditional American foreign policy principles prudently and successfully, and those who do not. Ronald Reagan is an excellent example of the former.

In truth, Republicans have a variety of foreign policy options moving forward, beyond either the isolationism of a Ron Paul, or endless replication of the Bush doctrine. In his review, Muravchik says "it is possible that George W. Bush erred by taking us to Iraq." So it is possible that even he has since recognized the numerous flawed assumptions behind the initial invasion and occupation of Iraq. He asserts that the invasion was intended to make America more secure. But if we were to judge every major public policy initiative only according to good intentions, we would probably also have to credit Barack Obama with intending to provide low-cost health care for all Americans.

A defining feature of conservatism traditionally is a certain tough-minded skepticism, and it is a feature that should be applied to idealistic foreign policy proposals no less than domestic. The relevance of this debate goes well beyond the academic and the historical. President Obama, for example, conducts U.S. foreign policy on the apparent assumption that major international rivalries can be accommodated through unilateral diplomatic outreach, and through the transformational power of his rhetoric. This is not a realistic assumption, however much he may want to appropriate the term. How will American conservatives and Republicans respond? How should they?

Toward the end of Hard Line, I lay out a set of preferred conservative foreign policy priorities, grounded in the best Republican Party traditions since World War II. These priorities include: preservation of U.S. military superiority and American primacy internationally, preparation for long-term geopolitical competition with China, grinding al-Qaeda and its associates into dust, skepticism toward rote demands for multilateralism, support for missile defense, free trade, and the need to apply force decisively and relentlessly once U.S. military intervention has begun. I also caution that democracy promotion is no panacea, and suggest that the United States needs to pick its fights overseas more carefully in order to avoid later possibilities of embarrassment. A better policy, in the best traditions of conservatism, would be to choose America's military engagements wisely—and then fight to win.

Colin Dueck
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA


Joshua Muravchik replies:

Colin Dueck and I agree more than we disagree, and I repeat my praise for his book.

Still, where we do disagree I find his arguments unpersuasive. Dueck asserts the important truth that presidential actions do not conform neatly to theoretical categories. But in the next sentence he pretends they do, and then he compounds this by arbitrarily classifying past presidents to fit his argument. That is, he claims Ronald Reagan as an exemplar of his own preferred ideology, realism, and consigns George W. Bush to mine, idealism. If Reagan was a realist, then count me one, too. While in office, he was all but universally recognized, and rightly so, as the most ideological foreign policy president in memory, and his ideology was not "realism." Remember his support for the Contras, the Afghan mujahideen, other anti-Communist guerrillas in Angola and Cambodia? He was excoriated for this "reckless" policy. Much the same can be said for "star wars." And for founding the National Endowment for Democracy. And for dumping Ferdinand Marcos (after an initial reluctance). On the other hand, Bush had his realist side, too: among other things he soft-pedaled democracy promotion after 2005 and left the problem of Iran for his successor.

If the divergent ideological orientations of idealism and realism are to be compared by assessing presidents who embodied them, then the true foil for George W. Bush is his father, an undeniable realist. To appropriate Reagan as Dueck does means only that he prefers success to failure. In that case, I'm in his camp.

Finally, Dueck notes that I developed retrospective doubts about the Iraq war after having strongly supported it. True enough. I was and am an ardent supporter of the war against terror, but I am not sure now that Iraq was the right front to open when we did. The strategies in America's past wars, including the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, both world wars, and the Civil War, were hotly debated and many decisions were made that were seen later as errors, none of which proved it wrong to have fought those wars. Dueck may have a strong case to make against the Iraq war, but he fails to support the claim that this proves the superiority of one foreign policy school of thought over another. Bush was the (idealist) president who led us into Iraq, but his key staff—Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice—were realists. This is a good reminder of the point Dueck makes but then ignores about the difference between abstract schools of thought and concrete executive branch decisions.

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Federalism Lost

I enjoyed James L. Buckley's essay "Restoring Federalism" (Summer 2011), but was surprised by his apparent retreat near the end: "It is neither possible nor even desirable to replicate the division between state and federal authority that once obtained in this country, and that until relatively recently was thought to be constitutionally mandated." I would be interested to know where and how, exactly, if not in accordance with the constitutionally mandated division, Mr. Buckley would make the division between state and federal authority.

Paul E. O'Reilly
Red Rock, TX


James L. Buckley replies:

I believe the Constitution's division of governmental labors, as originally understood, is not feasible in one area and probably no longer desirable in a handful of others. Because the authority to protect the environment is not among the federal government's enumerated powers, that responsibility lies with the states. Yet the states are unable to do that job. Air, water, and wildlife move across geographical boundaries. Acid emissions generated by industrial plants in the Midwest will kill fish in New England lakes; the conversion of Carolina wetlands into trailer parks can affect fisheries up and down the Atlantic coast. Only the federal government can provide the necessary protection.

With respect to desirable deviations from the original plan as I understand it (I am among those who question the expansive construction of the Constitution's General Welfare Clause that has given us the Social Security system and a host of other federal programs), Social Security is now a fixture in American life. It needs revision, but it will not be abolished. Given the mobility of our population, it makes total sense for the federal government rather than the states to ensure a minimum income for the retired. Another area where a federal role is desirable is in providing relief for victims of natural catastrophes. This requires an ability to mobilize supplies and manpower that is beyond the capability of most states.

There are, no doubt, a handful of other needs not anticipated by the Constitution's framers that only a central government can meet. But the vast majority of the tasks that Congress has assumed since the 1920s should be returned to the exclusive care of the states. This would restore the conditions for a vibrant federalism and so reduce its workload that Congress could once again address its essential responsibilities with a degree of thought we haven't seen in a long, long time. And who knows? In the fullness of time, the Senate might once again earn the title of the world's greatest deliberative body.

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The Moynihan Report

Peter Myers's review of my book Freedom Is Not Enough misleadingly describes Pat Moynihan's views about the effectiveness of public policies to improve black family life ("After Racism," Summer 2011). It is true, as Myers notes, that early in his public life Moynihan favored creation of a European-style system of family allowances, and that as Richard Nixon's adviser in 1969 he pressed for a Family Assistance Plan to establish a floor under family incomes. As rates of out-of-wedlock black pregnancy escalated, however, he grew despairing, and he scaled down his hopes that energetic liberal policies would manage to cope with the situation.

This did not mean, of course, that he joined conservatives who stressed the moral dimensions of black family problems. He continued to favor federal programs, notably the 1988 Family Support Act. And he bitterly opposed welfare reform in 1996. But as his admiration for the findings of social scientist James Coleman indicated, he recognized that the sources of black family instability were both manifold and powerful and that "answers" had to come from within the black community as well as from governmental action.

James T. Patterson
Brown University
Providence, RI