Commentary Magazine


Liberalism at Issue

To the Editor:

. . . Most of what William Pfaff says in “The Decline of Liberal Politics” [October] is self-evidently true. The great gap is not the generation gap or the racial gap but the distance between the intellectual formulation of public policy and the modern condition. Until we bridge this distance there can be no effective “new politics,” for that depends on new issues and new approaches to old issues. Otherwise we simply establish another mechanism for gaining public office on the theory that we are better fellows than the other guys. This is probably true, on balance, but is not sufficient to topple the political structure or sustain a popular movement. . . .

As for the particular reference to me, it would be right if I meant what Pfaff thinks I mean. I don’t, but the misunderstanding may be because I have not elaborated the ideas fully enough. Decentralization is neither a conservative nor a liberal concept. It depends upon how, for what, and to whom. Would it, for example, be conservative to give New York one billion dollars in order to formulate and carry out a five-year plan for rehabilitation and development? Yet that would be assigning to John Lindsay authority now exercised by Congress, HUD, and the State of New York. I do not mean by this to avoid the point that something like decentralization is inconsistent with certain values of modern advanced society. That is just the point. It is, in part, an effort to substitute some values, e.g. community, for others such as wealth-creation—or at least to change the priorities. There can be no serious structural change without changing values. You can’t out-argue the status quo if you accept its terms of reference. This is the heart of the modern political dilemma, which is why the search for a revised structure of values must precede concrete policies—at least intellectually. Philosophy goes before politics. Or, as Pericles said—somewhat differently—it is better to think before you act rather than have your thoughts shaped by action. . . .

Richard N. Goodwin
Boston, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Is the decline of liberal politics in America due to the fact that “in the 20th century . . . politics and government have been dominated by a liberal Left” that has fulfilled “in principle and for all practical purposes . . . what the Left has sought for more than a hundred years”? I don’t think so.

If we define “liberal Left” to include Taft, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Nixon, then the term loses all meaning. If we stick to Pfaff’s definition of the Left as a movement “to expand political power to the masses of the people and to bring about an egalitarian redistribution of wealth,” then we are immediately limited in our considerations to the years of Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. But even with these liberals in the White House, the country moved only very slowly—and sometimes not at all—toward the democratization of power or wealth. When these Presidents submitted progressive legislation to Congress (which they did irregularly), the proposals were regularly blocked by a conservative coalition on the Hill. When liberal legislation was passed in one session of Congress, it was generally starved to death by the Appropriations Committee in the next session. . . .

Yet the myth of liberal rule is—like most myths—not without foundation. We have had residents of the White House who used liberal rhetoric and submitted liberal messages and even wangled Congress into occasional liberal acts. We have had a Supreme Court which in recent years has done the right thing about civil liberties and civil rights but has never touched upon the real bread-and-butter issue: the redistribution of wealth. We have had leftish intellectuals in and around the White House. . . . We have had Democratic party campaigns based on maximizing the minimal “accomplishments” of the “party” in Congress. Nevertheless, the demythified reality is that, since 1933 (and certainly before that), the basic content of our domestic policy has been determined by a conservative Congress, by even more conservative state legislatures, and by emasculated liberal mayors. (The exceptions—four years under FDR and two under LBJ—are few and feeble.)

The proof of this proposition is found in the continuing inequities in the distribution of income, and wealth in the U.S. The illusion of a more equitable distribution arises from the fact that, since our gross product has grown more rapidly than our net population, there is more for everybody. But the bigger pie is still sliced in the same old way. The top fifth gets 40 per cent of the annual income; the bottom fifth gets 5 per cent; the other fifths get their traditional bites. . . .

These official governmental findings (Bureau of the Census) actually understate the take of the top because they do not include income from the sale of stocks, bonds, property, or gifts from inheritance. . . . By itself, the top one gets 15 per cent of the income.

Wealth is even more unevenly distributed than income—and getting more uneven all the time. In 1949, the top one per cent owned 21 per cent of the wealth; in 1956, it held 26 per cent; in 1958, 28 per cent. The power of this one per cent enables it to own 71 per cent of the nation’s corporate stock and 16 per cent of the real estate.

What holds for the U.S. also holds for Western Europe. After a month abroad recently, Marquis Childs “came away with the conviction that continuing crisis in the West—Britain, France, Italy, and the United States—is all but inevitable” because “maldistribution of income, cemented in antiquated tax structures, makes protest, conflict, with some degree of violence or another, certain.”

The loudest testimony on our national failure to solve the “economic question” currently comes from the badly misnamed “middle class” in America: the typical wage and salaried people.

Consider the case of the median family of four, earning $8,000 a year, which falls about $1,000 short of meeting the “modest but adequate” budget of the Bureau of Labor Statistics—and the weekly take-home pay of the average wage earner now buys less than it did in 1965! If the working man complains, he is treated as ignorant: doesn’t he know he lives in an affluent society? If he says he is tired of being taxed to take care of the “poor,” he is scolded for being a bigot. If he shouts about the high cost of living, he is instructed that this is his own fault: his wages are too high. He becomes the forgotten and furious man—with little love for the “liberal,” or for anyone else who tells him that he is selfish, bigoted, affluent, with no feeling for what it is like to live in poverty. He turns Poujadist or worse. Where else do you turn when the tribunes of liberalism proclaim the end of economic problems?

The retreat from economics is, in my opinion, not only a cop-out from confrontation with the economic elite but a provocation for confrontation among the lower classes. Take a current case in point. The Nixon administration has announced its intention to cut back federal construction by 75 per cent—a move that not only denies pressing national needs but also reduces the number of jobs in the building trades. Employment is further curtailed by the fact that housing starts slumped from 1.8 million in January to 1.3 million in July and are expected to fall to 1 million in December—a perilous decline in private construction spurred on by intentionally high interest rates. This deliberate policy of economic slowdown is in line with the administration’s deflationary concept that a little bit of unemployment is not a dangerous thing. At precisely this moment of deliberate deflation (disemployment), the same administration decrees a Philadelphia plan ordering building-trades unions to increase the Negro quota on construction jobs. Whatever the merit of this quota system, the attempt at this time to squeeze more men into fewer jobs must necessarily set up fierce frictions between black and white in what begins to look like a plotted scenario on how to manufacture a riot.

Put broadly, the attempt to reallocate available resources without redistributing total wealth must become a rescrambling of scarcity among the already anguished and angry. It’s a good way for the top to divide and rule—but not the way to unite a nation.

In his piece, Pfaff refers to the “reactionary” reformists of which I am an “imposing” spokesman. If “reactionary” means old-fashioned, I accept the label. Indeed, I would strongly recommend a harkening back to two old slogans: “Black and white, unite and fight”; and also, “Soak the rich.” After listening to, experimenting with, and carefully analyzing much of the new stuff around, I become more and more fond of my old-time religion.

Although Pfaff begins with his focus on the American liberal, he ends with a swinging critique of all the forces born of the Enlightenment—Left or Right. In a sense, his essay might have been entitled “The Decline of Politics.” Personally, I do not favor repeal of the Enlightenment. . . . I know that, in the first instance, it was the ideological weapon of the Third Estate, in its challenge to Church and State. The new class deified Reason to replace the old gods of the upper castes. Despite its “class origin” (there goes another of those reactionary phrases), the Enlightenment had a universally liberating effect. . . . But almost from the beginning, bourgeois liberalism was challenged by a proletarian radicalism. . . . The bourgeois liberal believed in a) extending the franchise—to himself and to those like him but not to the propertyless; b) redistributing wealth from the old rich (church and nobility) to the new rich—but not to either the old or new poor. The radicals (revolutionaries, reformers, working-class organizations) favored an extension of the franchise without property qualifications. . . . They also favored a redistribution of the wealth that would reach below the Third Estate to the people. The most radical believed in a society where distribution would be guided by the principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The bourgeois liberal turned this around to read: to each according to his ability (with “ability” defined as the ability to get rich) and from each according to his need (with “need” defined as the need to work for an employer).

Viewed in this way, the old bourgeois liberal and the old proletarian Left had nothing in common on the subject of the democratization of power or wealth. They were using the same catchwords (liberté, fraternite, égalité) but applying them to different, generally opposing, classes. . . . The bourgeois liberal believed that once “freedom” had been won—that is, the freedom to compete in the open marketplace without the restraints of a feudal society—then Reason would ipso facto take over. All would then go well because, under laissez faire, the “invisible hand of God” would guide the economy into rational channels. . . . The revolutionaries, on the other hand, believed just the opposite. They wanted to apply collective reason to reorder the “system” as the necessary and sufficient precondition for the remaking of human nature. They had faith in a Reason that was utterly blind to the irrational nature of man. Indeed, the very words “human nature” were to them a stupid, reactionary cliché

Both bourgeois liberalism and proletarian radicalism were utopian. The former saw the perfect society rising from the free and competitive play of individual egos—guided by that “invisible hand.” The latter saw the perfect society arising from the structured cooperative commonwealth—grinding out its perfected beings.

In the two centuries since the Enlightenment and in the one century since the Communist Manifesto, both Utopias have toppled. We have seen laissez faire—in the raw—become a way for a man (or corporation) to impose tyranny on the economically weak, and collectivism—in the ultimate—become a way for a man (or party) to impose tyranny on the politically weak.

Modern Left liberalism (as I choose to see it) arises from a sense of disenchantment with both the corporation and the corporate state. It seeks a redistribution of both power and wealth that preserves the values of the Enlightenment, with its dedication to maintaining a free marketplace for competing ideas and ideals while structuring the society to curb the ugly little instincts of aggression, selfishness and lust for power. . . .

Pfaff is quite right when he says that much of our present politics is focused on the “issues of identity and social community,” the attempt to carve a special niche in mass society. . . . But any close examination of these new movements will reveal two basic facts: 1) that the “privatists” very soon gather in a collective (they were quite happy to find their communality at Bethel); and 2) that, when plain people (as distinguished from the affluent rebel youth) announce their militant presence, they talk economics: jobs, pay, food, homes, schools. And when they do that, they are moving, willy-nilly, toward the ultimate conclusions of a liberal Leftism: a collective push for both freedom and food.

In the present disorder, I believe it especially important to reassert the philosophy of the liberal Left. Without it, there is a real danger that rising conflict between revolution and counterrevolution may drown all of us innocents in a “blood-dimmed tide.” . . . But this does not mean that the Left can smugly survive by repeating outworn clichés. If liberal Leftism is to be vital, it must be relevant to our times by addressing itself to problems of technology, logistics, and ecology as well as to tribal moods, national aspirations, and generational attitudes that were never anticipated by an earlier Left. To mention a few:

Our major cities are increasingly unmanageable—and our metropolitan areas are about to go the way of the cities. It is not possible to squeeze 70 per cent of our population—our metropolitans—into one per cent of the land area and expect comfort—even under socialism. Density is a disease that can only be cured by decongestion, by a planned creation of hundreds of new towns and cities in America’s open spaces.

As our population grows by another 100 million by the year 2000, there will, of course, be new “developments.” But left to private enterprise, they will grow up at the fringes of our cities and add to the present mess. The homes will be erected to yield maximum profit with little regard to public weal: schools, libraries, cultural centers, sewers, parks, or playgrounds. The cost will be high to builder and buyer, and the end result will be a multiplication of our present problems: a split society, a locational mismatch of jobs and employees, air and water pollution, inner city decay, suburban sprawl.

If we are to grow rationally and wholesomely, we must do so by public action with public money. We can develop a national policy on rational land use. We can create communities within cities where citizen participation is something more than a passing political slogan for a power grab. We can bring into being the imaginative new devices of city planners.

We have also been neglectful of rural America: half our counties have lost population in the last few decades. A flood of ten million people from the soil to the city has crowded what was already too crowded and forced a conflict of cultures not unlike the Vandal invasion of Rome. Again—the nation needs a policy that will not be realized through the random workings of private investment.

We have allowed our institutions to grow to an order of magnitude that has brought on a crisis of inoperability and noncommunication. Phone, highway, train, subway, airport systems begin to resemble crazy crumblings in a collapsing Tower of Babel. Like the cities, they have to be cut down to size—first, to work; then, to respond to individual human beings.

The style and content of liberalism must be adjusted to the deep tribal (community or national or cultural) needs of human beings and to the outcry of the young for personal and societal purpose.

For me, all this means that liberal Leftism has a triple challenge ahead: 1) to update its specific programs; 2) to find out what the Old Left, New Left, and New Politics people have in common (we know the differences); 3) to do the above while holding fast to the liberal credo for a redistribution of both power and wealth—without which even our best laid plans will surely gang agley.

Gus Tyler
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
New York City

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Mr. Pfaff writes:

I don’t think that Richard Goodwin and I have any very important argument. We agree that to hand over to Mayor Lindsay a billion dollars would mean a fundamental change in the value priorities of this society, and that it would be a big thing to do, with big consequences for the political and economic structure which exists. To do this, and to think through and accept what it implies in the way of local autonomy and the distribution of tax monies throughout the country, would be hard for liberals, not easy; but Goodwin doesn’t think that it would be easy.

With Gus Tyler I do have an argument. There is nothing wrong in his observations on the inadequacies of past liberal administrations or with his practical program. But the program seems to me one for putting some life back into the moribund union movement in this country rather than for reincorporating into our politics the alienated—whether they are “plain people” or complicated—the black and poor, to bring the country together rather than further divide it, to restore popular confidence in the ability of democratic government to do justice.

The argument is whether there really are new issues critical to our present politics. Tyler concedes my case that people today are deeply moved by issues of identity and social community but then quickly takes it back. Affluent youth are troubled by these matters, he admits, and slaying their fathers they improvise communes at Bethel. But when the “plain people” experience these anxieties they really want only what the unions and the old liberalism have always tried to give them: jobs, pay, housing, etc. So there really are no new issues after all, except among the kids, and thus there’s no fundamental reason to worry about the old liberalism. This is what the old liberals would like very much to believe, and I wish that it were so but very much doubt it.

Of course the economic issues remain important, and they will grow more important in the future as Mr. Nixon balks at the tough and costly decisions essential to negotiating an end to the war. As the war goes on the economic situation will get worse, and more than the economic situation. The other and non-economic anxieties I described will deepen, and they have already had a critical impact not only on how people think and feel but on how they vote. Tyler seems to say that if we redistribute total wealth (the war issue aside), the other conflicts among the public will in time sort themselves out. I am not in the least confident that the old slogan, “black and white, unite and fight,” even if it is alternated with “soak the rich,” will set the blood pounding among New wark blacks and in the Chevrolet UAW locals and among Pittsburgh building tradesmen—will send them marching together to vote the liberal Democratic ticket. My impression is that white unionists in 1968 liked the law-and-order slogans, liked to be identified as the “forgotten men,” and found a good deal of pleasure in voting against the pointy-headed professors who called for soaking the rich but were giving it away to shiftless blacks. The union man was drifting toward a vote against the party and the liberal movement which were his traditional allies. Why? Surely out of very real anxieties of social isolation and dislocation, a sense of social and political victimization, which pay increases are unlikely to fix. And the blacks, even the unionized blacks, seemed able to contain their enthusiasm for Hubert Humphrey and George Meany, even for a Humphrey running on a liberal program and against a Presidential candidate with a “Southern strategy.” Their real sympathy seemed to lie with Robert Kennedy, candidate of the professors and “limousine liberals.” I do not see that this choice was because the Kennedy campaign made superior economic appeal to the poor; rather, it was due to the fact that it seemed to offer recognition, a human dialogue and response.

As for my assault on “all the forces born of the Enlightenment,” I wasn’t conscious of it and would be distressed to find the Enlightenment repealed on my account. I really do not understand the charge unless Tyler is referring to the fairly pessimistic tone of my concluding comments on politics. Surely a bright optimism about the political rationality of human society and confidence in the beneficence of history do not sum up all the forces born of the Enlightenment? I should think that our experience of history in this century counsels a certain pessimism about human behavior in politics, and that it lends urgency to the appeal I was making: that we think about where we are today and why, and about how power and wealth can be newly disciplined to human needs, in a time when the existing forms and structures of liberal politics seem strained and inflexible, with too many of its leaders defensively justifying the things long since done.

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