Not Much Left

by Martin Peretz
The New Republic
February 18, 2005

think it was John Kenneth Galbraith, speaking in the early 1960s, the high point of post-New Deal liberalism, who pronounced conservatism dead. Conservatism, he said, was “bookless,” a characteristic Galbraithian, which is to say Olympian, verdict. Without books, there are no ideas. And it is true: American conservatism was, at the time, a congeries of cranky prejudices, a closed church with an archaic doctrine proclaimed by spoiled swells. William F. Buckley Jr. comes to mind, and a few others whose names will now resonate with almost nobody. Take as just one instance Russell Kirk, an especially prominent conservative intellectual who, as Clinton Rossiter (himself a moderate conservative) wrote, has “begun to sound like a man born one hundred and fifty years too late and in the wrong country.”

At this point in history, it is liberalism upon which such judgments are rendered. And understandably so. It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. The most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened, perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature. However gripping his illuminations, however much they may have been validated by history, liberals have no patience for such pessimism. So who has replaced Niebuhr, the once-commanding tribune to both town and gown? It’s as if no one even tries to fill the vacuum. Here and there, of course, a university personage appears to assert a small didactic point and proves it with a vast and intricate academic apparatus. In any case, it is the apparatus that is designed to persuade, not the idea.

Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind in our culture? Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire? Whose books and articles are read and passed around? There’s no one, really. What’s left is the laundry list: the catalogue of programs (some dubious, some not) that Republicans aren’t funding, and the blogs, with their daily panic dose about how the Bush administration is ruining the country.

Europe is also making the disenchanting journey from social democracy, but via a different route. Its elites had not foreseen that a virtually unchecked Muslim immigration might hijack the welfare state and poison the postwar culture of relative tolerance that supported its politics. To the contrary, Europe’s leftist elites lulled the electorates into a false feeling of security that the new arrivals were simply doing the work that unprecedented low European birth rates were leaving undone. No social or cultural costs were to be incurred. Transaction closed. Well, it was not quite so simple. And, while the workforce still needs more workers, the economies of Europe have been dragged down by social guarantees to large families who do not always have a wage-earner in the house. So, even in the morally self-satisfied Scandinavian and Low Countries, the assuring left-wing bromides are no longer believed..


The conflict between right and left in the United States is different. What animates American conservatism is the future of the regulatory state and the trajectory of federalism. The conservatives have not themselves agreed on how far they want to retract either regulation or the authority of the national government. These are not axiomatic questions for them, as can be seen by their determined and contravening success last week in empowering not the states against Washington but Washington against the states in the area of tort law. As Jeffrey Rosen has pointed out in these pages, many of these issues will be fought out in the courts. But not all. So a great national debate will not be avoided.

Liberals have reflexes on these matters, and these reflexes put them in a defensive posture. But they have not yet conducted an honest internal conversation that assumes from the start that the very nature of the country has changed since the great New Deal reckoning. Surely there are some matters on which the regulatory state can relax. Doubtless also there are others that can revert to the states. Still, liberals know that the right’s ideologically framed–but class-motivated–retreat of the government from the economy must be resisted. There will simply be too many victims left on the side of the road.

At the same time, U.S. politics has not yet confronted a phenomenon that has been on the front page of the international financial press for years. This is the dizzying specter of economic competition from China, whose hold on U.S. Treasury bonds leaves the dollar vulnerable to a tremendous decline should China decide to sell them. (There is a new model of society emerging before our eyes: a most rapacious capitalist economy under a most pitiless communist political tyranny.) The industrialized states of Europe and, predictably, Japan are battening down their hatches rather than admitting to the challenge from China. But China will not go away.

There is also a rapacious capitalism in our own country. Of course, it is not as brutalizing as it is in China. But it is demoralizing and punishing. Moreover, it threatens its own ethical foundations. The great achievement of U.S. capitalism was that it became democratic, and the demos could place reasonable trust in its institutions. The very extent of stockholding through mutual funds, pension funds, and individual holdings is a tribute to the reliability of the market makers, the corporations themselves, and their guarantors. We now know that much of this confidence was misplaced and that some of the most estimable companies and financial institutions were cooking the books and fixing the odds for the favored. Eliot Spitzer has taught us a great lesson in our vulnerability. Many individual corporations, investment banks, stock brokerages, insurance companies, auditors, and, surely, lawyers who vetted their contracts and other arrangements were complicit in violating the public trust. What does a certification of a financial report by an accounting firm actually prove when each of the Big Four (formerly the Big Five) has been culpable of unethical behavior on several counts? What has happened on Wall Street in the last few years would be tantamount to the doctors of the great teaching hospitals in the United States deciding in secret to abjure the Hippocratic Oath. For some reason, even liberals have been loath to confront this reality of the country’s corporate and financial life. Yes, it is true that greed plays a role, even a creative role, in economic progress. Still, greed need not go unbridled. What is a responsible liberal for if he doesn’t take on this task?


Liberals like to blame their political consultants. But then, if you depend on consultants for your motivating ideas, you are nowhere. So let’s admit it: The liberals are themselves uninspired by a vision of the good society–a problem we didn’t have 30 years ago. For several years, the liberal agenda has looked and sounded like little more than a bookkeeping exercise. We want to spend more, they less. In the end, the numbers do not clarify; they confuse. Almost no one can explain any principle behind the cost differences. But there are grand matters that need to be addressed, and the grandest one is what we owe each other as Americans. People who are voluntarily obliged to each other across classes and races, professions and ethnicities, tend to trust each other, like a patient his doctor and a student her teacher. It is not easy to limn out such a vision practically. But we have it in our bones.

In our bones or not, it is an exacting and long-time task. It’s much easier, more comfortable, to do the old refrains. You can easily rouse a crowd when you get it to sing, “We Shall Overcome.” One of the tropes that trips off the tongues of American liberals is the civil rights theme of the ’60s. Another is that U.S. power is dangerous to others and dangerous to us. This is also a reprise from the ’60s, the late ’60s. Virtue returns, it seems, merely by mouthing the words.

One of the legacies of the ’60s is liberal idealism about race. But that discussion has grown particularly outmoded in the Democratic Party. African Americans and Caribbean Americans (the differences between them another largely unspoken reality) have made tremendous strides in their education, in social mobility, in employment, in housing, and in politics as images and realities in the media. Even the gap in wealth accumulation between whites and blacks has begun to narrow, and, on this, even tremendous individual achievement over one generation cannot compensate for the accumulated advantages of inherited money over two or three generations. Still, the last 30 years separate two worlds. The statistics prove it. And this, too, we know in our bones.

But, in the Democratic Party, among liberals, the usual hustlers are still cheered. Jesse Jackson is still paid off, mostly not to make trouble. The biggest insult to our black fellow citizens was the deference paid to Al Sharpton during the campaign. Early in the race, it was clear that he–like Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich–was not a serious candidate. Yet he was treated as if he just might take the oath of office at the Capitol on January 20. In the end, he won only a handful of delegates. But he was there, speaking in near-prime time to the Democratic convention. Sharpton is an inciter of racial conflict. To him can be debited the fraudulent and dehumanizing scandal around Tawana Brawley (conflating scatology and sex), the Crown Heights violence between Jews and blacks, a fire in Harlem, the protests around a Korean grocery store in Brooklyn, and on and on. Yet the liberal press treats Sharpton as a genuine leader, even a moral one, the trickster as party statesman.

This patronizing attitude is proof positive that, as deep as the social and economic gains have been among African Americans, many liberals prefer to maintain their own time-honored patronizing position vis-à-vis “the other,” the needy. This is, frankly, in sharp contrast to President Bush, who seems not to be impeded by race difference (and gender difference) in his appointments and among his friends. Maybe it is just a generational thing, and, if it is that, it is also a good thing. But he may be the first president who apparently does not see individual people in racial categories or sex categories. White or black, woman or man, just as long as you’re a conservative. That is also an expression of liberation from bias.


It is more than interesting that liberals have so much trouble recontextualizing race in the United States. It is, to move to the point, pathetic. And it leaves work undone. In Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (the Michigan affirmative action case), she wrote that the Court assumed that, in 25 years, there will no longer be a need for affirmative action. Unless things change quickly, she will be completely off the mark. Nearly two years have passed since that ruling and virtually nothing has been done to make sure that children of color–and other children, too, since the crisis in our educational system cuts across race and class–are receiving a different and better type of schooling, in science and in literacy, than those now coming into our colleges. This is not about Head Start. This is about a wholesale revamping of teaching and learning. The conservatives have their ideas, and many of them are good, such as charter schools and even vouchers. But give me a single liberal idea with some currency, even a structural notion, for transforming the elucidation of knowledge and thinking to the young. You can’t.

This leaves us with the issue of U.S. power, the other leftover from the ’60s. It is true: American liberals no longer believe in the axiomatic virtue of revolutions and revolutionaries. But let’s face it: It’s hard to get a candid conversation going about Cuba with one. The heavily documented evidence of Fidel Castro’s tyranny notwithstanding, he still has a vestigial cachet among us. After all, he has survived Uncle Sam’s hostility for more than 45 years. And, no, the Viet Cong didn’t really exist. It was at once Ho Chi Minh’s pickax and bludgeon in the south. Pose this question at an Upper West Side dinner party: What was worse, Nazism or Communism? Surely, the answer will be Nazism … because Communism had an ideal of the good. This, despite the fact that communist revolutions and communist regimes murdered ever so many more millions of innocents and transformed the yearning of many idealists for equality into the brutal assertion of evil, a boot stamping on the human face forever.

Peter Beinart has argued, also in these pages (“A Fighting Faith,” December 13, 2004), the case for a vast national and international mobilization against Islamic fanaticism and Arab terrorism. It is typologically the same people who wanted the United States to let communism triumph–in postwar Italy and Greece, in mid-cold war France and late-cold war Portugal–who object to U.S. efforts right now in the Middle East. You hear the schadenfreude in their voices–you read it in their words–at our troubles in Iraq. For months, liberals have been peddling one disaster scenario after another, one contradictory fact somehow reinforcing another, hoping now against hope that their gloomy visions will come true.

I happen to believe that they won’t. This will not curb the liberal complaint. That complaint is not a matter of circumstance. It is a permanent affliction of the liberal mind. It is not a symptom; it is a condition. And it is a condition related to the desperate hopes liberals have vested in the United Nations. That is their lodestone. But the lodestone does not perform. It is not a magnet for the good. It performs the magic of the wicked. It is corrupt, it is pompous, it is shackled to tyrants and cynics. It does not recognize a genocide when the genocide is seen and understood by all. Liberalism now needs to be liberated from many of its own illusions and delusions. Let’s hope we still have the strength.


Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief of The New Republic, America’s leading liberal opinion magazine.