Commentary Magazine


RE: Liberalism’s Auto-da-Fe

I certainly agree with Pete the face of modern-day liberalism is an ugly one indeed, with snarling leaders and snarling followers contemptuous of all opinions but their own. But this is not a new development and antedates Barack Obama’s disastrous presidency.

Remember when the New York Times announced in early 2008 that Bill Kristol would write a weekly column? The liberal blogosphere went
, and the column lasted only a year, when the Times announced his departure from the op-ed page with nothing more than the one-line announcement at the end of his column, “This is William Kristol’s last column.” Harry Stein, the author of the article just referred to, wrote a book more than a decade ago about the fact that expressing any disagreement with liberal orthodoxy, however mild or measured, at New York dinner parties is likely to get you called a fascist.

Indeed, it goes back at least 40 years. It was, I think, in the administration of Lyndon Johnson that liberals ceased to be cheerful and self-confident in the power of their ideas. Recall Senator Hubert Humphrey’s acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination at the
1964 Democratic Convention, in which he endlessly–and joyously–repeated the refrain “but not Senator Goldwater!” That in turn recalled FDR’s famous Martin-Barton-and-Fish speech from the 1940 campaign. Or remember Roosevelt’s good-humored (and devastating) putdown of Republicans who had complained about “my little dog, Fala.” Fala is now immortalized in bronze in Washington, which is a good deal more than can be said for the grumpy Republicans who slandered him.

Both Humphrey and Roosevelt were confident the future was theirs. Conservatism in their day was a dying, backward looking political philosophy, bereft of ideas to meet new conditions and only wishing for a return to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge, glory days Roosevelt and Humphrey knew were gone forever. That makes for cheerfulness.

Today, the situation is reversed. Conservatism has been abubble with new ideas in the last 40 years. It is the liberals who cling to a creed outworn, developed in a world as dead and gone as the roaring 20s. Can you name a single liberal idea that postdates Lyndon Johnson’s administration, which ended 42 years ago, before the microprocessor was developed? The vast majority of the liberal agenda goes back to the late 19th century.

When you’re a merchant in the marketplace of ideas, and all your goods are shopworn ones that have been around for decades and can only be sold with the use of flagrant mendacity, you’re likely to be grumpy. The Federalists were equally grumpy 200 years ago and for the same reason: their day was over, but they couldn’t change.