Friday, April 4, 2008

Liberal mythology

E.J. Dionne says that the assassination of MLK marked the death of liberalism. Ed Morrisey argues that it was the Iran hostage crisis that did the trick.

Dionne's column is nothing but a rehash of a well-worn liberal myth: "Oh, those eeeevilll conservatives only succeed by appealing to the innate bigotry of the American people." The possibility that Dionne actually believes this is even more disturbing than the possibility that he's just another cynical and dishonest Democratic Party hack. After 10 years in Washington, I've become accustomed to cynicism and dishonesty; gross naivete is frightening. (He went to Harvard. You figure it out.)

The myth that Dionne is propagating (whether cynically or naively) is based on moral narcissism: The desire of liberals to believe that they are morally superior to ordinary people. Support for the liberal agenda -- from welfare to gay rights to "peace" -- is conflated with moral virtue, so that merely voting in favor of various programs and policies is to "do good."

Programmatic virtue, as we might call it, relieves the liberal of the burden of actually doing anything to help people. They don't have to give food to the poor or take care of their aging grandparents; they merely need to vote for politicians who promise to do such things. Whether or not the politicians accomplish these goals -- whether grandma gets the help she needs or not -- is irrelevant to the feeling of superiority experienced by the liberal voter. It's the (political) thought that counts, you see.

Helping people understand this psychological aspect of liberalism is why I so enthusiastically recommend Thomas Sowell's book, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. Once you figure out that liberal policies don't work, the next logical question is why liberals support such policies. That's what Sowell explains.

Now, as to when liberalism reached its sell-by date, I would call attention to another book, Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism, by Alfred S. Regnery. Regnery notes a key turning point in liberalism, namely the appointment of Earl Warren to the Supreme Court in 1953. This marked the beginning of the era of liberal judicial activism.

Under Wilson, FDR and Truman, liberalism had advanced via the political process. People voted to elect politicians who promised to enact liberal policies. The politicians debated and compromised and the policies were enacted. Even if the policies didn't work as planned (and they usually didn't), the process was still consistent with the American political tradition.

Beginning with the Warren Court, however, the federal judiciary began to make law outside the democratic process. It was this hijacking of the legislative function by the federal courts that was gave the vital spark to the grassroots resentment that fueled the conservative ascendancy.

Yes, as Ed Morrisey points out, liberal foreign policy (exemplified by the Iran hostage crisis) was utterly inept. But there is no reason why a rejection of the Carter administration should have necessarily led to a more thoroughgoing rejection of liberalism. What provided the broader base for the conservative movement -- and what fatally weakened liberalism -- was the anti-democratic nature of judicial activism that the Warren Court inaugurated.

Ordinary Americans began to feel as if policies were being "shoved down their throats" by imperious judges with lifetime sinecures. Liberals grew intellectually lazy, being accustomed to having the federal courts impose liberal policies without regard for public opinion. Conservatives, meanwhile, honed their arguments, organized opposition groups, and solicited support among those who resented the elitist oligarchy of the "nine old men" on the Supreme Court.

Liberalism's decline began many years before Dionne's 1968 myth would have you believe. Dionne doesn't want to acknowledge how Miranda v. Arizona or Murray v. Curlett -- the first empowering criminals, the second banning prayer in public schools -- enraged ordinary Americans and turned them against liberalism. It's easier (and much more flattering) for liberals like Dionne to look at the tens of millions who voted for Reagan and shout: "Bigots!"

UPDATE: Readers are invited to enjoy the eloquent logic offered by the first anonymous commenter on this post.


  1. I don't appreciate the coarseness of the first comment, but you are truly a Grade-A simpleton.

    Miranda required police to obey the Constitution.

    Murray required school districts to obey the Constitution.

    Those are simple concepts, but you seem not to understand them.

    Or perhaps you are being dishonest.

    The "liberal policies" you denounce are some of the most successful in the history of civilization.

    Food stamps, welfare, and social security have slashed malnutrition and poverty in elders and children.

    Public schools emptied the workhouses and mines of children and moved America forward.

    The FDA kept our food and drugs relatively safe, at least until they were co-opted by industry flacks in Republican administrations.

    Do you really oppose rural electrification, the Clean Water Act, and the SEC? If so, why?

    Are you a millionaire, or just another sucker?

  2. Anonymous #2, you are incorrect that, for example, Mirana merely "required police to obey the Constitution." Think about what is now famous as "the Miranda warning," which cops are required to give to anyone under arrest, "You have the right to remain silent ...."

    The suspect always possessed the rights guaranteed to him under the Fourth Amendment. But it was not until Miranda that police were REQUIRED BY FEDERAL COURT ORDER to lecture suspects about those rights, or else risk having a conviction thrown out on appeal.

    The net result of Miranda -- combined other related court decisions governing criminal justice during the 1960s and '70s -- was to empower the lawbreakers at the expense of the law-abiding.

    As to the rest of your litany of claims on the "success" of liberal policies, I touch on but one: Public schools were established in New England in the 17th century, long before the rise of modern liberalism, and those schools were decidedly un-liberal. For instance, they inculcated Christian faith, and practiced corporal punishment.

    You see that what you believe to be the history of public education is actually another typical liberal myth -- claiming credit for things that liberals had nothing to do with.

  3. Anony wrote...
    Food stamps, welfare, and social security have slashed malnutrition and poverty in elders and children.

    Social security is a perfect example of the Liberal mythology this post speaks of. SS is a system which helps today's senior citizens. It does so at the expense of hurting younger workers, and will devestate the future generation that's left holding the bill.

    When a worker has a chunk of his paycheck taken for the SS system, he must work longer hours to make up the difference. He has less time to devote to his family, or less money to support friends, family, and religious or charitable groups. This is easy for Liberals to ignore, because you can't take a photo or make a video of what masses of workers are unable to accomplish in their lives because of the shrunken paychecks.

    The younger the citizen, the more they will get screwed by the unsustainable SS system. But this too is easy to ignore, since the devestation will come in the future; we may easily pretend it doesn't exist.

    The system steals from future generations to give to current senior citizens. The help to senior citizens today is visible to the most simplistic mind, whereas the present and future harm takes some intelligent analysis to understand. This makes it easy for Liberals to ignore the harm that the SS system does, pretending it doesn't exist. This in turn feeds their narcissism; by ignoring those who are screwed by the system, they can pretend that their support of SS is pure goodness.

    I have a friend who's a rich doctor, but his uncle is a poor senior citizen. This friend is passionately against tax cuts, which he says make no sense, since he doesn't need any more money. He has never even considered the possibility of taking the additional money he can keep because of tax cuts, and using it to help his uncle. The idea that he could actually make a personal sacrifice, and give his own money to a relative to help him... somehow that's completely off his radar.