not a book review: American Burke by Greg Weiner

I have long been confused by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. A formidable intellect who held a Ph.D. in sociology, Moynihan served in the administrations of both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (among others). He  authored The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (the "Moynihan Report"), in response to which the phrase "blaming the victim" was coined (perhaps unfairly), but supported a minimum national income for those in poverty. As a US Senator (D-NY) he opposed Bill Clinton's welfare reform plan and the president's proposal to reform the health care system. A committed Cold Warrior as the US ambassador to India and the United Nations, Moynihan later opposed Ronald Reagan's anti-communist militarism and voted against the 1991 Gulf War. I cannot square all of these positions one with another, and so always had a hard time placing Moynihan on the political spectrum or understanding his overall significance or contribution.

No doubt others share this confusion, because a political scientist has written a book with the express purpose of identifying and explaining Moynihan's political philosophy. Greg Weiner's American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Kansas) is not a biography, but a work of philosophical exegesis. Taking issue with the characterization of the later Moynihan as a neoconservative, Weiner argues that the proper understanding of his subject's thinking must recognize that it is "properly located on the liberal stratum." (4) But it is unlike most strains of modern liberalism; if it were not, then perhaps the confusion as to Moynihan's ultimate commitments would not be as widespread as it is. The particular version of liberalism that Moynihan espoused, according to Weiner, was one that bears a similarity to the ideas of Edmund Burke. The eighteenth century Irish thinker and politician who supported the American Revolution and, quite famously, opposed the French one is today considered the founder of modern conservatism for his emphasis on reforming society slowly rather than upending established practices all at once. Moynihan was liberal because he believed in the power of government to address social ills; he was Burkean because he also believed in limiting that government's reach. Specifically, he believed its power should extend only to the point at which it might impede the ability of smaller, private institutions (the family, ethnic tribe, church, etc.) to perform their social functions. These local groupings, which Tocqueville referred to as "voluntary associations" and Burke called "the little platoons of society," are closer to the individual and therefore better able to address his/her needs.

Perhaps the core tenet of Moynihan's philosophy was his understanding of "limits." Referring to the late 1960s, Moynihan wrote that "American liberalism, in those years, had lost a sense of limits. We would transform the Mekong Delta, resurrect Detroit, enlighten South Asia and defend it too, for that matter." (13) Against conservatives Moynihan argued that government could do certain things, while against liberals he argued that it could not do others. "It cannot provide values to persons who have none, or who have lost those they had. It cannot provide a meaning to life." (16) It was this line of reasoning that led him to support the liberalism of the New Deal but later to oppose the variety associated with the Great Society. The former, in Moynihan's view, sought to get people money or jobs when they needed them. The latter, on the other hand, was an attempt to challenge the "culture of poverty" by inculcating new habits and patterns of life. In taking on such a complex and overwhelming task, Moynihan believed, it was doomed to failure. For similar reasons, he was a strong supporter of Social Security but would have preferred to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children with some version of a guaranteed income like the Family Assistance Plan he had worked on for Nixon. In the absence of such a plan, though, Moynihan did not support simply kicking people off of welfare: he opposed the 1996 Welfare Reform Act in the strongest terms, characterizing it as a "bartering of the lives of babes." (85) Weiner's presentation of Burkean liberalism offers a coherent way to view these seemingly incompatible positions.

In foreign policy, similar considerations led Moynihan to embrace the Wilsonian vision of national self-determination, but only in the context of international law. Without the limits of international law, Wilsonianism would inevitably degenerate into some form of the Athenian position in the Melian dialogue. ("The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.") Thus Moynihan's greatest objection to Reagan's military adventurism was that the president's invasion of Granada and interference in the affairs of Nicaragua forfeited the American ability to rely on international law in confronting the other nations regarding their behavior. 

As a guide to Moynihan's thinking, Weiner's account is clear and convincing. His presentation of Moynihan's philosophy, however, makes it seem a bit less idiosyncratic than it otherwise appear. In particular, it reminds me a great deal of garden-variety Cold War liberalism. In his history of postwar liberal intellectuals, When America Was Great, Kevin Mattson argued that liberalism "has always placed faith in a vibrant civil society of voluntary associations." But the particular strain that was the subject of his study was distinguished by its emphasis on "national humility" as a check against political "hubris." "Absolutism," wrote Mattson, "was an effrontery to the liberal character." Born the same year as John Kennedy, Moynihan was about a decade younger than such figures as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith. Still, it would seem likely that he would have been exposed to these ideas as a young man. While I do not necessarily believe that Moynihan can be neatly folded into a Cold War liberal framework, I would have found it instructive had Weiner contrasted Moynihan's thought with that familiar, and relevant, variety of liberalism.

In addition to articulating a coherent vision of Moynihan's thought, Weiner also advances another agenda: the advocation of a restoration of Burkean liberalism to a prominent place in American political discourse. A Burkean liberal, suggests Weiner in the book's final section, would "resist the rhetoric of catastrophe" and "Manichean absolutes." He or she would likewise avoid the temptations of ideology and idealism. Thus Burkean liberalism is not much practiced today, when "the proper response to a liberal utopian scheme has become a conservative utopian scheme." (128-29) A restoration of this thinking to a place of prominence in our national discourse, argues Weiner, would be vital to actually solving the country's specific, concrete problems. 

Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan

I admit to not being swayed on this point because of its irredeemably centrist overtones. By this I mean that it shares a sensibility with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Third Way politicians and the hosts of Morning Joe, one that derives its intellectual energy from a diagnosis of the ills of American politics as being rooted in the extremity of the nation's two major political orientations. According to this analysis, progressivism and conservatism are fundamentally alike in two important ways: they are both ideological and they are both wrong. Though Weiner denies in a couple of places that Moynihan should be considered a centrist, the same cannot be said for the revival of Burkean liberalism. The "Burkean disposition...has the capacity to draw certain strains of the contemporary Right and Left together. A Burkean liberal and a Burkean conservative, that is, may have more in common with each other than the former has with Progressives or the latter with, say, Tea Party restorationists." (143)

Yet the priority of pragmatism to ideology can itself become an ideology, blinding one to political facts on the ground. This is most apparent in the caricatures and misrepresentations of other political positions that are required to make the centrist position work. "The radicalism that so repulsed Moynihan in the 1960s, a cousin--distant, but still a genetic relation, to the Jacobinism of the French Revolution--surely arose in part from the fanciful flitting of ideals unmoored from circumstance and consequence." (140) It is difficult to see how any part of the 1960s culture of protest--civil rights activism, Vietnam War demonstrations, campus unrest, and so on--bears even a "genetic relation" to the seizure of dictatorial powers and execution of tens of thousands practiced by the Committee for Public Safety.

This concern over the dangers of ideology often manifests itself as an equivocation between the "extremes" of left and right. Today, for example, all of the ideological commitments are on the conservative side. President George W. Bush, a Republican, believed, against all evidence, that he could make Iraq into a market-oriented democracy. Governor Sam Brownback is currently ruining the state of Kansas out of his commitment to outdated supply-side ideology. The tea party remains the most important movement in American politics today. At its core, this conservative orientation stands for laissez faire, Christian fundamentalism and an absurd appeal to some prelapsarian age. It is hard to imagine any intellectual wellsprings more ideological than these.

Progressives, on the other hand, have championed Obamacare, which was originally based on proposals from conservatives. In maintaining a role for insurance companies it specifically avoids a more aggressive overhaul of the health care system. President Obama himself, despite conservative caricatures, is hardly a model of leftist ideology. He demonstrates some concern for the environment, but believes in the value of free trade. He now supports gay marriage, but certainly did not lead the charge on that issue. Obama attempted to deal with the immigration problem by reshuffling the order in which the Justice Department would prosecute cases: hardly a radical policy initiative. In foreign policy he appears to suffer, if anything, from an abundance of caution borne out of the consequences of his predecessor's ideological commitments. None of these positions strike me as violating the tenets of Burkean liberalism, and Obama is, in fact, a fairly good representative of the Democratic Party in this regard. A progressive equivalent of the tea party would be looking for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion; a massive debt forgiveness regime; a federal minimum wage at least twice what it is now; a comprehensive, meaningful effort to address wage stagnation and the loss of jobs to automation and globalization; and, for good measure, reparations for slavery. As a progressive myself, I would welcome such a caucus. But I don't see anything like it playing any significant role in national politics.

This is why I find centrist calls for moderation and pragmatism to function as stalking horses for more conservative positions. The political center moves around over time, and it would be foolish to think that it has always moved in the best direction. Over the last several decades, the country has shifted decidedly to the right. With regard to the role of government, the rights of corporations, the regulation of business and the role of religion in public life, conservative positions now seem like common sense to many people. Under such conditions, the "middle" is halfway between a right-wing Republican party and a center-left Democratic one. Bringing together elements of left and right, as these terms are understood today, is a recipe for something far more conservative than Moynihan's Burkean liberalism.