IN DEFENSE OF LIBERALISM: American Liberalism in the Twenty-first Century

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Fifty years ago, critic Lionel Trilling declared that "in the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." Today, however, even most Democrats avoid calling themselves liberal. What happened to the liberal tradition in the second half of the twentieth century? What does liberalism stand for at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Can liberals reclaim their once-dominant position in American politics, or is their ideology history?

Recorded on Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the ideology that dare not speak its name, liberalism.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, does liberalism have a future? Liberalism, once the dominant ideology in American politics, it seems to have become a bad word. Consider the title of a recent best-selling book, Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism. Or another best-selling book, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. And what about all the Democratic politicians who are happy to be called centrist or moderate but shrink from the dread label of liberal. Is anybody proud to be a liberal anymore?

Joining us today, one man who is. Former three-term United States Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate, George McGovern. Senator McGovern believes that today liberalism remains entirely relevant. To help us place liberalism in historical context, we're also joined by David Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War.

Title: Six Feet Under?

Peter Robinson: Literary critic Lionel Trilling, writing in the early 1950s: "In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." Contemporary critic, Michael Skube, writing in the Washington Post recently, "The opposite could almost be asserted today. Conservatism is ascendant, liberalism," prepare yourselves for this word, "liberalism moribund." Twenty-three years after Ronald Reagan captured the White House and George McGovern departed from the United States Senate, is liberalism moribund? David?

David Kennedy: Absolutely not.

Peter Robinson: You come out swinging, sir. We shall see. Senator?

George McGovern: I endorse that answer all the way. Liberalism is alive and well, maybe not as well as I would like it but liberalism's been around a long time. It'll be around a lot longer.

Peter Robinson: All right. Let's move on to questions of definition. Let me quote Senator McGovern to you, David. "I am a liberal in the tradition of Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt." You, as a historian, will now tell us what Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt have in common. Sketch out the liberal tradition for us.

David Kennedy: Well, I think that those three individuals had in common the certain core elements of the classical liberal philosophy which is the belief in the goodness of man, a belief in the capacity of society to make progress and a belief in the legitimacy of the instrumentality of government as an agent of social change and conservation.

Peter Robinson: What I'd like to do is chart the twist and turns. Right through the 1960s, the Democratic Party has very substantial liberal and conservative wings. As I read American history, the watershed, the great realignment for the Democratic Party, takes place in 1972 with the candidacy of George McGovern. Would you care to give us a paragraph assessing the place in history of the man seated to your left?

David Kennedy: Well, let me back up because I think...

Peter Robinson: All right.

David Kennedy: ...I think a more critical, pivotal moment frankly is 1964 when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and turned to, I believe it was Bill Moyers, and said, "With this signature enacting this legislation into law, I believe we have just lost the South forever," which turned out to be absolutely accurate as the Republican capture of the South which was an anchor of the Democratic Party for the preceding half century or more. This was the great tidal shift in American electoral politics for the last two generations.

Peter Robinson: There's one datum there that you have to address, which is that as the legislation moved through the Senate, a higher proportion of Republicans than of Democrats voted for it. So as Lyndon Johnson signs that law, it's not at all obvious that it's the Democratic Party that enacted the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

David Kennedy: No, the facts that you just put into evidence are perfectly consistent with what I just said that the South was disaffected by the passage of that legislation and the South then became electorally available to an alternative party.

Peter Robinson: For the GOP. I see.

David Kennedy: And the Republican Party took advantage of that. Seems to me that 1972 was an occasion when candidate George McGovern tried to reestablish much of that formerly impregnable Democratic coalition but it was too late, that the damage had been done. It was already historically a kind of an unholy combination of the conservative South and the ethnic and laboring North and it had come unglued by 1972.

Peter Robinson: Did you understand yourself to be on a kind of crusade parallel to obviously--diametrically opposed to but parallel to that of Barry Goldwater in '64. Goldwater says, I know I'm going to lose the presidency but I'm laying the ideological groundwork for others to come. Did you understand yourself to be running a campaign of that kind?

George McGovern: Not really.

Peter Robinson: No.

George McGovern: I thought there was a chance of an upset. I knew it was very difficult but I was running to win in 1972. I think what turned that campaign, that election, into a landslide was the shooting of George Wallace. In 1968, as you'll recall, Wallace got about 10 million votes. I've always thought about 90% of those votes were at the expense of Richard Nixon. And if so, it almost elected Humphrey. He came within 500,000 votes of winning. Four years later, Wallace was much stronger. Why? Because he entered most of the Democratic primaries and he won a number of them, including the day he was shot, he carried Michigan and Maryland. So it's always been my view that had he not been shot just 30 days before I won the nomination, he would, of course, then run as an independent as he did four years earlier. I think he'd have gotten 20 million votes, probably roughly what Perot got in 1992. If that had happened...

Peter Robinson: And you think those would have been at the expense of Richard Nixon?

George McGovern: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: He wouldn't be picking up the old conservative wing of the Democratic Party?

George McGovern: He'd have taken the south away from Nixon in my opinion.

Peter Robinson: I see.

George McGovern: And he'd have taken a lot of the blue-collar vote in the north that went to Nixon because of my opposition to the Vietnam War.

Peter Robinson: So as late as 1972, the standard bearers for the liberal tradition still believed they could capture the White House. What went wrong?

Title: A Sharp Right Hook

Peter Robinson: Senator, you attribute the success of conservatives to "huge campaign war chests and clever propagandas." You think then that the conservative ascendancy is primarily, in part--I'm looking for weights here--a result of superior control of the levers of politics. They're just better at the technical aspects of it?

George McGovern: I think they're better at the propaganda aspects of it and less constrained by ethics or by respect for historical tradition. Let me make clear, I don't have any anger towards old-line conservatives. I got along fine with Goldwater and Bob Dole and always admired Eisenhower, people of that kind. I don't like these conservatives who bash every single liberal idea, which has been happening over the last 30 years in American politics. If you were against the Vietnam War, you had to convince about half the electorate you weren't sympathetic to communism. If you were for Civil Rights, you had to campaign in the South where that subject was political suicide. Republican conservatives and some Democratic conservatives orchestrated those fears, fears of communism, fears of the Civil Rights revolution.

Peter Robinson: So what you're saying though is that the liberals lost the country.

George McGovern: I think they lost the propaganda war. My guess is that most Americans favor the liberal agenda. Can I just tick it off very quickly?

Peter Robinson: Yeah.

George McGovern: Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights, minimum wages, rural electrification, guaranteed bank deposits, I think that's the liberal agenda and I think most Americans favor that agenda.

Peter Robinson: David, most of the items that Senator McGovern just ticked off are in your book, A Freedom from Fear: the American People in Depression and War, which ends with the end of the Second World War. That is to say, the Senator just ticked off a liberal agenda, which is enacted and is no longer controversial. The question now is what's next in American politics and doesn't it seem to be the case that the liberal agenda has lost the American people. It's not just a question of propaganda.

David Kennedy: One factual correction, Medicare doesn't date from the 1930s.

Peter Robinson: I'm sorry. That's the Great Society.

David Kennedy: And the Civil Rights agenda is post-war too.

Peter Robinson: I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Okay. All right. I'm sorry.

David Kennedy: It's not exactly like the whole game was over in 1945.

Peter Robinson: All right. Three out of five items were...

David Kennedy: But I would say that another way to describe or put the case that you just made is that those represent the great liberal accomplishments of the last half century or so and that the job of liberalism for a long time since has been to defend those against people who dismantle them. And I agree with George McGovern absolutely that all the polling data supports the fact that a heavy majority of Americans do not want to abandon those core institutions that represent the great legacy of that great liberal moment in American history to all the rest of us. We can't imagine a society today, this society, without Social Security, without Medicare, without Securities and Exchange Commission, so on and so forth.

George McGovern: I think the great majority of the American people want a healthcare system that's comprehensive. I think a great majority want more support for the schools. I think a great majority wants more federal funds to the states and the local communities.

Peter Robinson: You're saying then that Abraham Lincoln was wrong? You can fool all of the people all of the time. What you're saying then is that the American people want one thing and by dint of technical expertise and the arts of propaganda, for 30 years the conservatives have fooled them into voting for something they don't want?

George McGovern: In the long scheme of things, thirty years is not very long. Arthur Schlesinger argues that American politics is an oscillating process--you go through a conservative period for a while and then the problems begin to accumulate, people want something done about safety on the airlines and so on.

Peter Robinson: Clever propaganda or Arthur Schlesinger's political cycles? Isn't there more to the conservative ascendancy than that?

Title: Left Behind

Peter Robinson: Robert Borosage, writing in The Nation, "Liberalism failed to meet the challenges facing the country in the 1970s." We grant you the liberal agenda of Franklin Roosevelt is enacted. The Great Society does more but then the country moves on and by the 1970s, we have, I'm returning to the quotation, "stagflation, growing pressures on families, America held hostage. The successes of the triumphant movement of the 1960s--"liberal pressures did succeed after all in causing the country to withdraw from Vietnam where upon Vietnam promptly fell--"generated a furious reaction that fueled new right organizing." It isn't therefore conservative operatives like Karl Rove who have defeated liberals. The American people just looked at the liberal agenda about thirty some years ago and said no, no more.

David Kennedy: It's quite a stretch to attribute the woes and travails of the 1970s as something that was deficient in the core philosophy of liberalism or the liberal agenda. The oil shocks of the '70s are exogenous shocks to the system. Surely the Iranian hostage crisis does not flow from any liberal policy.

Peter Robinson: Under Jimmy Carter the federal take of the GDP and taxation goes up and up and up. Taxes are increasing. Federal regulations are multiplying.

David Kennedy: Pardon me, who initiated deregulation of the airlines?

Peter Robinson: Jimmy Carter did change his mind in about the last 18 months of his administration.

George McGovern: You know, I think you're...

Peter Robinson: But, by the way, I'm making a point that isn't entirely partisan either. I place Richard Nixon with regard to domestic policy, very squarely in the great liberal tradition. He establishes OSHA and EPA and goes after...

David Kennedy: ...Social Security...

Peter Robinson: ...affirmative action. There's just no doubt you have a vastly growing government sector from the Great Society onward.

George McGovern: You know, I think there's something else here that we haven't really...

Peter Robinson: Right.

George McGovern: ...touched on. In addition to the shattering impact of the Civil Rights movement on the liberal cause, there's no question...

Peter Robinson: Shattering impact, what do you mean Senator?

George McGovern: ...impacts on the liberal cause because we lost the whole Southern half of the country...

Peter Robinson: Oh I see, right.

George McGovern: ...and alienated a good many people in the North. I'm glad that we took the course that we did but we paid a price for it politically. The second issue that split the Democratic Party right down the middle was the Vietnam War. The debate on Vietnam was never fought between Republicans and Democrats. It was fought within the Democratic Party. The hawks and doves were all Democrats. That's a slight exaggeration but you know the point I'm making. It literally split the Democratic Party and we haven't fully recovered from it yet. Now those are two shattering blows. In addition to that, John Kennedy was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated. All of those peerless liberals, that was an enormous blow to the liberal cause.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, a few questions of practical politics.

Title: To Boldly Go (Where No Liberal Has Gone Before)

Peter Robinson: Let's just limit the question not to how you would recapture the country for the liberal cause but just how would you recapture the Democratic Party?

George McGovern: Well, that's tough because we have suffered these fractures but I don't think the answer is to become more timid, more reluctant to put forward progressive programs. I honestly believe that a candidate, maybe one that was more effective than I was in '72, can carry the day in the United States. And I...

Peter Robinson: Senator, can I just...

George McGovern: ...I wanted to finish the point I started on here a while ago...

Peter Robinson: Sure.

George McGovern: If Dr. Schlesinger is right, Professor Schlesinger is right, we go through these periods maybe for 20 or 30 years that are quite conservative. And then for some reason or other, the pendulum seems to swing towards the more liberal position. After a while, people get tired of the regulations, the taxes, the monitors, the bureaucracy and they go back...

Peter Robinson: Did you hear him say that, by the way?

George McGovern: Yeah, they...

Peter Robinson: He was just writing a Reagan speech at the moment. Go ahead.

George McGovern: they swing back to the more conservative position. And I think you can...

Peter Robinson: But that argues just waiting. That argues that the thing liberals ought to do is just wait for the pendulum to swing back. Surely you can't be content with that?

George McGovern: I'm not content with that because I think you have to fight even when you're on the losing end.

Peter Robinson: I would quibble with your own self-assessment, by the way when you said perhaps a candidate more effective than I was. I don't believe anybody could have been more effective than you were. You said what you wanted to say; your candidacy was moving and powerful. Your own personal record was tremendously impressive, thirty-five missions as a bomber pilot during the Second World War. I just think you were a very impressive candidate, Senator, but the country didn't want you. They didn't want your views.

George McGovern: Can I hire you as a speechwriter if I go again...

Peter Robinson: Yeah, well I'd have to write with a crooked pen because I'd be writing stuff I myself cannot entirely endorse. David? Okay, so we've heard two prescriptions if I may rudely characterize Senator McGovern's comments. Prescription number 1, read Arthur Schlesinger and wait 10 or 15 more years until the pendulum swings back. Prescription number 2, don't try to move to the center. None of this Democratic Leadership Council nonsense of attempting to make the party moderate or centrist or the third way, be a liberal and be unavowed and you will carry the country with you. Wait or be unavowed? Give us your prescription as a practical political matter for how the liberals can recapture the Democratic Party?

David Kennedy: Well, first of all, I think it is historically not in the liberal temperament to count on simply the...

Peter Robinson: To wait?

David Kennedy: ...mechanism of time.

George McGovern: And Arthur doesn't recommend that.

David Kennedy: It is part of the psychology of liberalism, I think, to be impatient with the unmodulated pace of social change.

Peter Robinson: But as a historical point, is Schlesinger onto something if you look at a couple centuries of American history, there's a regularity about it?

David Kennedy: There's an uncanny, descriptive accuracy to this scheme of his that there seem to be these three and half decade long cycles of liberal and conservative dominance to the political system.

Peter Robinson: All right.

David Kennedy: There's actually quite an elaborate body of scholarly literature about that but nobody's quite explained what is the underlying mechanism that drives this cycle.

Peter Robinson: Now let me ask David Kennedy the same question I asked George McGovern, how can liberals take back the Democratic Party?

Title: Party Like It's 1939

Peter Robinson: You wrote the book on FDR so to speak--literally wrote the book on FDR. So there you have the great liberal within living memory. How should liberals today recapture the Democratic Party? As your book explains, FDR is spending almost as much time and energy building his liberal coalition in Congress and in the country as he is giving speeches--

David Kennedy: Yeah, and he built a coalition that lasted three plus decades.

Peter Robinson: Right on Schlesinger's schedule. Okay. So go ahead. How should they do it?

David Kennedy: Well number 1, I think it's not quite accurate to characterize Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council as moving toward some static center, you know, on the political spectrum. I think the goals of liberalism change as indeed the goals of conservatism change over historical time. There's not a fixed point that defines the center of the spectrum. And I think the agenda of the Democratic Party, of liberals generally, is to identify what are the items that need accomplishing in this society in the 21st century, not simply revisiting the accomplishments of 60 or 70 years ago...

Peter Robinson: George Will makes the argument that the welfare state has consumed the federal budget, that in a certain sense, liberalism, these agenda items that the Senator ticked off and you corrected my timing--the entitlements now represent such a large proportion of the federal budget that just as you say, liberals today find themselves trying to defend Social Security which was enacted in 1935 for goodness sake. They are on the defensive because there's no more money to spend.

David Kennedy: Senator McGovern has something to say about that.

George McGovern: The biggest part of the federal government, which is the military part...

Peter Robinson: Now.

George McGovern: And I think it's important for the American people to know that it's not the food stamp program. It's not school lunches. Some of these politicians that attack liberalism leave the impression that these comparatively small, modest programs are bankrupting the country. It's actually the military has always taken the biggest single slice...

Peter Robinson: Biggest single but it's well under half the federal budget.

George McGovern: But not much under half of the controllable items.

Peter Robinson: You're setting the entitlements aside?

George McGovern: Well, Social Security pays for itself. It's a self-financing system.

Peter Robinson: If it works right.

George McGovern: Well, that's the way it's worked for 50 years.

Peter Robinson: So during the Cold War, Republican Presidents, Democratic Presidents alike, so I'm including Lyndon Johnson in this and Jimmy Carter too, the defense budget consumes about 6%-8% of GDP. Now even after Bush's recent, quite dramatic increase in the budget, it's still under four percent. Do you mean to propose as a serious, practical politician that liberals can recapture the Democratic Party and indeed the country in a time of war and quite understandable national jitters about terrorism by running against what is by recent historical standards, already a modest defense budget?

George McGovern: That's one of the things I tried to do in '72 is to develop a case that we could cut probably 10% or more from the Pentagon budget without jeopardizing this country in any way. As a matter of fact, I think the military under the current President is taking such a big percentage of the federal budget that it's weakening the country by depriving us of funds we need for education, for healthcare, for the environment. You know the defense of a great country doesn't depend on the military arsenals alone. Those may be important but they're not the only thing and as President Eisenhower said if the military takes too much, it weakens the country.

Peter Robinson: David, you're advising--choose him. Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, any one of the aspirants to the Democratic Presidential nomination for 2004. What do you tell them?

David Kennedy: Well, as a practical matter...

Peter Robinson: Yes, please, as a practical matter.

David Kennedy: I think taking on the defense budget at this particular moment probably isn't electorally very wise because the country is in too high a state of anxiety about its security and so on, though I do agree with what George McGovern said, that the tendency of this administration particularly to define military intervention as its principal foreign policy instrument, I think is probably somewhat overdone. But I don't think that's a winning electoral policy right now.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, the future of American liberalism.

Title: It's Money That Matters

Peter Robinson: In the year 2000, according to a poll done by national election studies, 20% of Americans identified themselves as at least slightly liberal, rather brave twenty percent I think, while thirty percent of Americans said they were at least slightly conservative. Three to two, conservative over liberal. Ten years from now, what do you think those figures will be?

George McGovern: You have to be a prophet but I think they'll look more favorably on the liberals ten years from now.

Peter Robinson: You don't see a dramatic resurgence. We're not on the cusp of something big.

George McGovern: I don't think there's going to be a revolutionary change but I think within ten years, the liberals will be back in power.

Peter Robinson: David, you may quote Schlesinger or give us your own prophecy.

David Kennedy: Look, I'll answer it in this context, the historic mission of liberalism in the American political tradition in the last century or so has been to sand off the sharp edges of all the social and economic damage that's caused by the advancing industrial revolution. In times of confidence in the ability of the economic system to run on its own basis, liberalism tends to wane. So the answer to your question really rests in the performance of the economy in the next decade. And if we think that it's gone off the rails, then I think that will create opportunity for...

Peter Robinson: Very quick follow-up question.

David Kennedy: ...resurgence in liberals.

Peter Robinson: The field of economics has actually advanced. So I can't remember the statistics exactly here but 19th century through about 1945, you've got, as I recall, six major contractions, two of which are roughly 10%, two others of which are roughly 15%. And from 1945 to the present, you've got as I recall, only three contractions, the biggest of which was 3%. If we have actually made progress through the discipline of economics, I'm even willing to grant you that a little bit of understanding of fiscal stimulus here and there, that means you liberals are doomed.

David Kennedy: The record you've just recited--all the credit for that can be laid at the house of liberalism. It was the liberal achievements of the 1930s that stabilized the economy in countless ways, reduced risk in investment and Securities Exchange transactions and home mortgage financing, so on, so forth. That's what created the framework of stability in which this economy grew for half a century.

Peter Robinson: And the work of Milton Friedman and understanding monetary policy. But anyway, now that we've got it, I'm going to take a little credit for Milton Friedman, you take credit for your side, but now that we understand all that, aren't you guys doomed?

David Kennedy: No, because nobody perfectly understands the future. It's full of uncertainty and volatility and the more volatility, the more the case presents itself for the kinds of interventions that liberals favor.

Peter Robinson: Last comment, Senator.

George McGovern: Since we've all agreed that it's risky politically to take on the Pentagon any time because of the power they have and the anxiety about the world in which we live, I just want to underscore that I was a bomber pilot in the Second World War. I went through 35 combat missions; half of the bomber crews I flew with didn't come back. That's one of the reasons I'm cautious about military ventures that are not absolutely necessary for this country. The second thing I want to say, I believe with all my heart that America would be a secure, better defended, more successful society and country if we could divert some of the excess that's now going into the weapons of war, for building up our society and our people here at home. I really believe that.

Peter Robinson: And on that eloquent statement of the liberal faith, we close the show. David Kennedy, Senator George McGovern, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.