In Bill Clinton’s America, liberalism is everywhere dominant and altogether bankrupt.
By “liberalism” I mean post-1960’s liberalism: a movement committed in politics to further expansion of the welfare state, and in social matters to an agenda of individual autonomy and “liberation.” Liberalism in this sense pervades the key institutions of American society.
Thus, liberals have reclaimed control of the executive branch, and will soon once again take over the federal judiciary. Liberals continue to dominate Congress and most state and local governments; they rule virtually unchallenged over our educational institutions and our cultural and philanthropic organizations; they shape most of the products of the mass media, journalism, book publishing, and Hollywood. Liberalism is powerful in our churches and synagogues; and even the world of business is by no means generally hostile or impervious to the enlightened doctrines of the Left. Furthermore, government at all levels grows ever bigger and more intrusive—except with regard to sexual morality, where the ethos of individual liberation proceeds apace.
The election of Bill Clinton is, of course, the capstone in the arch. Until now, even as post-1960’s liberalism was taking control of the institutions of American society, the great limit to its success was its failure to capture the presidency. A national majority, mobilized in good part in reaction to liberalism, repeatedly elected conservative Presidents (including even, it could be argued, Jimmy Carter) who stood as barriers to liberal supremacy. Now the tenuous balance of power is gone. Vice President Al Gore announced on election night that “We are the children of modern America.” It is those children of modern America, having been formed by the late 1960’s and having completed their long march through the institutions, who now govern America.
And yet, with all its apparent success, liberalism still fails to command the loyalty of the vast majority of Americans. Liberal possession of the commanding heights of American society is not matched by occupation of the ground below.
For two decades, more Americans have considered themselves conservative than liberal. From 1980 on, in polls taken by CBS News/New York Times, no more than 23 percent of the American public have identified themselves as liberals, and in January 1993 that figure stood at 18 percent. (The number identifying themselves as conservatives has averaged around 33 percent, with another 40 percent or so calling themselves moderates.) Even in the presidential race of 1992, the two non-liberal candidates received 57 percent of the vote, while Clinton, the one liberal, ran as “a new kind of Democrat”—that is, a not-so-liberal Democrat. In 1992, moreover, over the opposition of the liberal establishment, measures limiting the terms of legislators passed in all fourteen states in which they were on the ballot.
Polls confirm not only that the American people do not consider themselves liberals, but also that they reject most core liberal beliefs. Contemporary liberalism insists upon a latitudinarian view of the family, and it abhors the idea of “family values”; but on election day 1992, as measured in exit polls, the American people, by 70-25 percent, wanted government to encourage “traditional family values” rather than “tolerance of non-traditional families.”
Or again, as the Clinton administration has demonstrated, contemporary liberalism inclines toward higher taxes and bigger government; yet the American people today, by 55-36 percent, would rather pay less in taxes and receive fewer government services than pay more taxes in return for more services.
Finally, contemporary liberalism stands or falls by a faith in the efficacy of big government; but popular distrust of government is at an all-time high. In 1972, 74 percent of Americans had at least a “fair amount” of confidence in the federal government; today, that figure has fallen to 42 percent. And in January of this year, by 69-22 percent, Americans agreed that the federal government creates more problems than it solves.
Contemporary liberalism, then, has not captured the hearts and minds of the American people. Indeed, its resort to the machinery of political correctness—the attempt to impose sanctions on views contrary to liberal dogma—has been driven in part by just this failure to capture those hearts and minds.
Ordinarily, such a failure need not be permanent. A confident and determined liberal elite might well expect to overcome popular hesitations or even resistance; it has done so in the past. But this brings us to the greater vulnerability of contemporary liberalism: beneath its smugness and self-righteousness, liberalism is undergoing a crisis of faith.
The liberal crisis of faith has sources that are profound, and an exploration of them is beyond my purposes here; but the fact of the crisis is, I think, undeniable.
Think back to contemporary liberalism’s older (though quite different) cousin, postwar American liberalism. The liberals of the 1950’s and 1960’s were confident that government could fine-tune the economy. They were confident that enlightened government action could virtually do away with racism and poverty. (After signing one piece of Great Society legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed that “the days of the dole are numbered.”) The more “philosophic” liberals were convinced that a rationalist humanism could supplant religious belief as the source of decency and morality. And liberals then also believed that international cooperation and “alliances for progress” would soon replace antiquated and retrograde forces like nationalism and ethnic tribalism.
Do today’s liberals truly have faith in any of these propositions?
Compare, too, the inaugural addresses of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton: where the one is assertive, the other is plaintive. In 1961, President Kennedy hailed “a new generation of Americans” who would gladly “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war, and who would support the use of American military power, where necessary, “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” In 1993, President Clinton, by contrast, identified “the urgent question of our time” as “whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy.”
In short, the older liberalism was confident of progress; contemporary liberalism seeks merely to keep up with “change,” and seems rather doubtful as to whether it can handle even that rather uninspiring task.
But this loss of confidence does not need to be inferred; it has been openly proclaimed by none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton, the high priestess of contemporary liberalism. In her now-famous speech at the University of Texas this past April, Mrs. Clinton virtually declared liberalism’s bankruptcy: “We are in a crisis of meaning. . . . We lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively. . . . We need a new politics of meaning. . . . We need a new definition of civil society. . . .”
Who is “we”?, one is tempted to ask. But it is clear enough that in the first instance Mrs. Clinton means “we liberals.” A confident liberalism once knew that the last thing “we” need is the vaguely feel-good, vaguely illiberal mishmash that goes by the name of the “politics of meaning.” Today’s attempt to reach for so sodden a life preserver is testimony to the fact that contemporary liberalism no longer knows what to believe.
Or consider the fate of the work of the Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls. In 1971, Rawls published A Theory of Justice, a book hailed at the time as the definitive theoretical defense of the liberal welfare state, and hence as a book for the ages. Does anyone now read A Theory of Justice?
Rawls has just brought out a new book, Political Liberalism,1 in which he modifies his argument of twenty years ago. In 1971, in constructing his theory of justice, Rawls thought it reasonable to assume a “well-ordered society” in which there would be broad agreement on basic moral beliefs. Today, Rawls has abandoned this assumption as “unrealistic.” Instead, he now tries to construct a political conception of justice that will, as he writes, be able to accommodate incompatible and even irreconcilable moral and religious doctrines.
Yet this bow to philosophical multiculturalism makes an already thin conception of justice thinner still. So meager a gruel cannot provide sustenance for a vigorous political movement. Nor can the job be done by such other stopgaps as deconstruction, critical race theory in law, or any of the increasingly exotic forms of feminism.
Liberalism today derives what energy it has from currents that are so far out of the mainstream (the radical gay-rights movement, the voting-rights arguments of Lani Guinier) that it must seek to keep them in check, while finding itself unable to explain exactly what is wrong with them. And if this is where liberalism gets its energy, its real political strength now rests almost entirely on the self-interest of individuals and groups who are dependent on government, and who have a material stake in liberal policies and doctrines.
Despite the mounds of writing and beehives of activity, then, liberalism is in a deep crisis. All of the churning at the periphery conceals the hollowness at the core. True, liberals can still intimidate those who might launch serious assaults against them; they do not hesitate to enforce compliance with their dogmas, or to root out heresy wherever it rears its politically-incorrect head. Yet even Mrs. Clinton has found it necessary to say, in a recent interview, that she is a “conservative” on values. Today’s liberalism, in other words, hardly dares govern in its own name.
To what can the condition of liberalism in the United States today be compared? Mutatis mutandis, and with all necessary distinctions duly registered: to the condition of Communism in the Soviet Union about fifteen years ago. Needless to say, American liberalism and Soviet Communism are worlds apart, politically and morally; but there is a certain structural similarity in their respective situations.
In the old Soviet Union, Communism was utterly dominant and, it soon turned out, utterly hollow. Marxism lacked the support of the people; and the Communist administrative class, the nomenklatura, had lost faith in the doctrines that justified its rule. But this did not lessen its desire to hang on to power. As Leonid Brezhnev is alleged to have said in 1968, “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”
So it is in America. Our liberal nomenklatura clings to power, even though its god, too, has failed. Liberalism justifies its continuing hold on power by massive psychological denial. Thus, we are constantly reassured that all is well, or that all will be well once the liberal project is completed. As the liberal nomenklatura would have it, the public schools, for example, need only a bit more money, or a bit more multiculturalism. In the meantime, real, deep educational reform continues to be opposed—not because there are convincing intellectual arguments against it, but because too many teachers and administrators have a huge material interest in the status quo.
So, too, with race. Liberal policies like affirmative action have made race relations in this country worse, not better. Yet the liberal nomenklatura tells us that the solution is more and more of the same.
And so, again, with crime. Like the rest of us, liberals profess to be appalled by the crime rate, but they act as if police brutality were a more serious problem than the epidemic of lawlessness and violence, and they disparage the notion of building more prisons, the one certain way to cut the crime rate by keeping repeat offenders off the streets.
All this is due not so much to cynicism on the part of the liberal nomenklatura as to something more powerful, something closer to self-deception. But how long can such a situation persist? Liberals are now beginning to acknowledge, for example, that Dan Quayle was right about family break-up, but most liberals adamantly refuse to draw the implications—that is, to rethink the meaning and consequences of sexual “liberation” and of the tendency to devalue the traditional family. Yet ideas have consequences. Once a real rethinking begins, in this and countless other areas, the whole structure of liberal doctrine could crumble with great speed. Indeed, the unarticulated sense that “it” could happen here—that glasnost, as it were, could open the floodgates to real change—may well account for the remarkable intransigence in the face of new ideas manifested by the ideologists of contemporary liberalism.
This intransigence cannot be sustained forever. The liberal nomenklatura may hang on for a longer rather than a shorter time; the “prerevolutionary” situation can persist for a while. But an elite that has lost confidence in itself cannot long govern a society that has lost confidence in that elite.
One could object that the crisis of liberalism is nothing new; it became particularly evident in the late 1960’s, when the liberalism of that period, incapable of standing up to assaults upon it from the radical Left, instead succumbed to them, thereby embarking on the long slide which has brought things to their present pass. Nor is liberalism’s inner loss of confidence new, either. As Harvey Mansfield of Harvard presciently noted fifteen years ago: “From having been the aggressive doctrine of vigorous, spirited men, liberalism has become hardly more than a trembling. . . . Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?” Finally, predictions of the demise of liberalism have also been around for a long time. So what is different now?
One difference stems from the very fact that post-1960’s liberalism is now in total command. For twenty of the last twenty-four years, Republicans held the White House. Republican control of the presidency served to mask the dominance of liberalism over the society and even over major sectors of the polity. With Clinton in power, liberalism now has no excuse, and also no exit. In this sense, the election of Bill Clinton may yet prove to be, for liberals, a deeply Pyrrhic victory.
Another difference stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union and more broadly of Marxism. As long as it existed, Soviet Communism forced some sort of reality check on liberalism, reminding it that there were enemies to the Left. But now liberalism truly has no enemies to the Left. Is there any aspect of feminism, environmentalism, or multiculturalism that is clearly beyond the pale of contemporary liberalism? The collapse of Marxism has removed the last barrier to the tendency within liberalism to push liberal doctrines to destructive extremes.
Conservative thought, for its part, may be revived and even radicalized by the dominance of contemporary liberalism. Where once some conservatives were content to call attention to the limits of modern social policy, or to worry that, in practice, liberal policies weakened the social institutions upon which their success depended, now conservatives increasingly have the opportunity to call into question the very purposes and premises of liberal policy, and to debate how best to reconstruct the institutions of a free society.
Similarly, where once conservatives saw themselves as trying to slow down the progress of history in order to husband the moral capital of an earlier time, of a world that had been lost, now conservatives might see themselves as creating moral capital for a world that needs to be remade.
Indeed, most conservatives once secretly feared that history was “progressing” in a liberal direction, and that this progress could not be fundamentally reversed. Liberalism’s loss of confidence could release conservatism from that debilitating fear. With secular humanism now exposed as the opiate of the elite, conservatives might now even dare to see in the modern “quest for meaning” the seeds of an authentic revival of religious belief.
This bold new conservatism has not yet come into being, let alone arrived at the point of taking control of the Republican party as liberalism has done with the Democrats. But if, once upon a time, conservatives felt a Burkean responsibility to uphold sound social habits and traditional customs against liberal debunking, now it is liberalism that constitutes the old order, dictating “correct” habits and permissible customs, while conservatives can become the exponents of light and air, of free and open debate, of demystification and even of political and intellectual liberation. The bankruptcy of liberalism invites the possibility of a new, governing conservatism.
Such a conservatism is needed, but that does not mean it will come forth. It is not inevitable that the liberal crack-up will be followed by some sort of conservative renewal or reconstruction. After all, to return to our earlier analogy, the jury is still very much out on what will succeed Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—chaos, varieties of neofascism, or decent civil societies. Comparable alternatives obtain here. And it is also possible that the liberal American nomenklatura will be able to hang on longer than one might expect, successfully beating back popular insurgencies from below and the loss of confidence from within. No outcome is preordained.
For conservatives, the immediate task is to contain liberalism and its depredations. But containment is not enough. In the end, the conservative task is not to contain contemporary liberalism but to transcend it.
1 Columbia University Press, 401 pp., $29.95.