When former aides to Bob Kerrey write op-eds about how the Democrats are going down the wrong path, you know it’s going to be grim. Such it is with Greg Weiner, whose hero is Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
On the night of his election to the Senate in 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, declared: “I ran as a liberal. I was elected as a liberal.” This month, discussing her campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York, Cynthia Nixon called for “progressive change.” The distinction matters.
In recent decades, the label “progressive” has been resurrected to replace “liberal,” a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use. Both etymologically and ideologically, the switch to “progressive” carries historical freight that augurs poorly for Democrats and for the nation’s polarized politics.
Historical progressivism is an ideology whose American avatars, like Woodrow Wilson, saw progress as the inevitable outcome of human affairs. Of course, liberals and conservatives believe that their policies will result in positive outcomes, too. But it is another thing to say, as American Progressives did, that the contemporary political task was to identify a destination, grip the wheel and depress the accelerator.
The basic premise of liberal politics, by contrast, is the capacity of government to do good, especially in ameliorating economic ills. Nothing structurally impedes compromise between conservatives, who hold that the accumulated wisdom of tradition is a better guide than the hypercharged rationality of the present, and liberals, because both philosophies exist on a spectrum.
So this is a lot of bullshit to tell us that the problem with Democrats today is that they won’t compromise enough with Republicans. Talk about Murc’s Law in action! Only Democrats have agency. The fact that Republicans have become a party of actual kleptocracy and fascism–irrelevant! Why is Cynthia Nixon so mean to that nice Andrew Cuomo anyway?
And then what’s the problem with progressives again?
Where liberalism seeks to ameliorate economic ills, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate them. Moynihan recognized this difference between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he always supported — as exemplified by his opposition to Clinton-era welfare reform — and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which he sympathetically criticized. The New Deal alleviated poverty by cutting checks, something government does competently even if liberals and conservatives argued over the size of the checks. The Great Society partook more of a progressive effort to remake society by eradicating poverty’s causes. The result, Moynihan wrote, was the diversion of resources from welfare and jobs to “community action” programs that financed political activism.
The problem is that progressives want to eradicate inequality? And we need to follow Daniel Patrick Moynihan, noted opponent of Clinton’s move toward universal health care and author of a famed racist tract blaming black poverty on the pathology of black families, out of this hell of equality in policy? Uh….
But hey, surely there’s room for liberals to win back the left on the solid policy of bombing brown people!
But neither liberalism nor conservatism opposes rationality. Conservatism holds that accumulated tradition is a likelier source of wisdom than the cleverest individual at any one moment. It fears the tyranny of theory that cannot tolerate dissent. Liberalism defends constitutionalism. One of the finest traditions of 20th-century liberalism was the Cold War liberal who stood for social amelioration and against Soviet Communism. This genus — including Moynihan, Senator Henry Jackson and the longtime labor leader Lane Kirkland — was often maligned by progressives.
Sounds like Donald Trump finally became president for someone last night!