They Don’t Make Liberals Like They Used To

In our Picks section yesterday we linked to Fred Siegel’s recent City Journal article, “The House Divided,” which is a 25-year retrospective on Arthur Schlesinger’s 1991 attack on leftist “multiculturalism.” As it happens, I’ve been reading one of Schlesinger’s older books, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (published in 1949), as background for the book project I have under way. And also as it happens, I’ve had dinner with Fred a couple times in recent weeks, where we’ve been swapping ideas for our parallel works-in-progress, and chewing over the serviceable parts of Schlesinger’s many works.

Just as Schlesinger’s Disuniting of America had its merits, The Vital Center is also curious for its excellences. To be sure, Schlesinger is smug and dismissive of Republicans and conservatives; at one point, in his chapter on conservatism, he writes that “[O]ur business community will probably not go fascist in the next few years.” Oooof! He saw conservatism as simply as a matter of business “plutocracy” that was neither “stable” nor “responsible.” No wonder Russell Kirk was spurred to write The Conservative Mind to prove that a robust and useable counter-tradition existed beyond the imagination of Lionel Trilling or Schlesinger.

There were other confusions and superficialities that can be seen now as early warning signs of liberalism’s total surprise and capitulation before the New Left of the 1960s. Schlesinger, for example, includes this sensible caution in The Vital Center:

Yet experience imposes very definite cautions with respect to the expansion of governmental power. The record of democratic socialism, for example, has already caused a retreat from the notion of government as a play-by-play planner—not only because of the temptations this role presents to a bureaucracy, but because total planners do not have the information or the wisdom to plan successfully. . . The danger of the total planner is, first, that his almost inevitable blunders may convulse the entire economy, and, second, that in a panic-stricken effort to cover up his blunders he may multiply his controls until they destroy the initiative and free movement of and and finally the free play of political criticism. (Emphasis added.)

This is the essence of the critique of Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 book The Road To Serfdom, which, despite (or perhaps because of) its best-seller status, was roundly ignored or attacked by liberals. That Schlesinger didn’t really absorb or think deeply about this point is made evident on the very next page of The Vital Center, where he endorses the largest scale intervention of the time, Keynesian macroeconomic “fine tuning,” as well as government direction of resources:

Taxation and subsidies can be potent means of directing private investment to under-developed industries and regions; and a whole range of general incentives can be used to draw labor and capital into socially beneficial undertakings.

Because liberals are so much smarter than business people in the marketplace.

But if Schlesinger was smug and superficial about what might be learned from conservative thought, he was nevertheless quite harsh on the “progressive” left going back to the Progressive Era itself. His critique could easily apply to “progressives” today. (Are you listening, Bernie Sanders and Lizzie Warren?) He borrowed the 19th century antebellum phrase “Doughface” (northern men with southern principles) for 20th century progressives; Schlesinger’s “Doughface progressives” were “democratic men with totalitarian principles.”

His indictment of mid-century progressives was severe. Having “a soft and shallow conception of human nature” made them prone to utopianism and excusing every totalitarian regime that spouted the correct propaganda about “equality” and “workers’ paradise.” Schlesinger didn’t mince words:

It is this final fatuity [about human nature and becoming an emotional creed] of progressivism which has turned it into, if not an accomplice of totalitarianism, at least an accessory before the fact. . . Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where he can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world. Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations.

This last sentence in particular could describe the outlook of every student campus mob today. But Schlesinger was just getting started. This passage reads just as fresh in light of today’s identity politics and complaints about American imperialism and “oppression” as it did when he first wrote it in 1949:

Ask a progressive what he thinks of the Mexican War, or of our national policy toward the Indians, and he will probably say that these outbursts of American imperialism are black marks on our history. Ask him if he regrets that California, Texas, and the West as today part of the United States. And was there perhaps some way of taking lands from the Indians or from Mexico without violating rights in the process? Pushed to it, the progressive probably thinks that there is some solution hidden in the back of his fantasy; but ordinarily he never has to push the question that far back, because he never dreams of facing a question in terms of responsibility for the decision. For him it is sufficient to dissociate himself from the Mexican War so long as he is not required to dissociate himself from the fruits of victory. . . ignorance is never any bar to certitude in the progressive dreamworld.

There is a lot more in The Vital Center worthy of note, and perhaps I’ll do a follow up post with more examples. Fred says this was Schlesinger’s best book, and I agree. (Among other things in The Vital Center that would annoy liberals today are its many favorable references to Churchill.) It is too bad that so much of Schlesinger’s work was devoted to the partisan project of proving that American history was one long brief for the goodness of the Democratic Party (let alone his embarrassing fanboy swooning over the Kennedys), because at his best he represented a realist liberalism that is virtually extinct today. It is too bad they don’t make liberals like him any more. I’m afraid that for most campus liberals today, Schlesinger is just another dead white male.

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