The Sometime Liberal

AP Photo/Adam Nadel

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, right, listens during the induction proceedings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor in New York on Friday, Nov. 6, 1998. 

This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan
By Greg Weiner
208 pp. University Press of Kansas $27.95

Twelve years after his death, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is not remembered as an avid liberal. He renounced the prescriptions of the Great Society, scorned the New Left, blamed the condition of African Americans on family disintegration and, at the United Nations, belittled Third World demands for power and pride. He was an intellectual colleague of many of the founding neoconservatives and when he wrote that government cannot “mandate goodness,” or that “liberals must divest themselves of the notion that the nation … can be run from agencies in Washington,” he sounded more like an editorialist in The Wall Street Journal than a champion of the poor.

And yet, Moynihan was one of the last major politicians in American life who was seriously and persistently devoted to eradicating poverty. Even in the Obama years, as the cry of “inequality” has risen to a first-tier issue, anti-poverty has remained, mostly, a horse without a jockey. Moynihan, in his time, proposed what few Democrats today would deign to suggest: transferring government money—lots of money—to people who were poor. He spoke, unblushingly, words that have since been all but banished from the political lexicon—“poverty,” “poor,” and “redistribution.” He insisted that America needed a commitment to guarantee a minimum income for all, especially for its children, and when Bill Clinton eviscerated such commitments in his welfare reform, Moynihan doggedly opposed Clinton.

It is the considerable accomplishment of Greg Weiner, a political scientist at Assumption College, to place these conflicting Moynihans under, if you will, the same hat. American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a sharply etched précis, dedicated both to reminding us of the range of the late senator’s intellectual contributions and to reconciling the seemingly contrary strains in Moynihan’s politics.

American Burke is not a biography—it is an extended essay, eloquent as its subject. This is no mean feat: Moynihan authored or edited 19 books and was a wicked phrasemaker; “defining deviancy down” was his stinging appellation for society’s seeming acceptance of once-intolerable levels of anti-social behavior, including violent crime.

An intellectual in public service, Moynihan wielded more influence than his official resume implied. He was a sometime professor, a prolific contributor to scholarly journals, aide to New York Governor Averell Harriman, assistant secretary of labor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, White House counselor to Nixon, ambassador to India and to the United Nations, card-carrying Democrat, and four-time U.S. senator from New York.

It was 50 years ago that Moynihan asked his staff at the Labor Department to “explore the relationship between unemployment and the state of the African American family.” Moynihan made a shocking discovery. Previously, welfare cases had moved in roughly predictable relationship to the jobless rate. Now, the two had become unhinged. In black homes, the breakdown of nuclear families was adding to the welfare rolls, regardless of the usual economic indicators.

Moynihan’s report—“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”—triggered an upheaval, as Weiner relates, both in the study of black society and in Moynihan’s uneasy relationship with liberals. Mincing no words, his report blamed the divergence between black and white success on a “tangle of [urban] pathology.” However rooted they were in the legacy of slavery and segregation, by the mid-1960s these patterns of family breakdown and welfare dependence had become rooted in the black subculture itself, Moynihan declared. Those who saw lingering racism, tolerated and even enforced by the state, faulted Moynihan for blaming the victim. From the vantage of a half-century later, we can appreciate that Moynihan gave public voice to a syndrome that had been verboten for liberals to acknowledge.


AS FOR THE IMPLICATIONS of his report, Moynihan’s policy recommendations varied. He was admittedly inconsistent and difficult to categorize, but the one label he clung to, Weiner points out, was “liberal.” However, he was a student of government first and a tactician only second. Programs, therefore, had to flow from evidence. He was committed to the proposition that government should ameliorate poverty and distress, but also interested in when, and how, it could best work. His expectations for government were both bold and modest; his instincts ran toward expansive but simple programs less likely to become ensnared in bureaucratic red tape and the complexities of urban society. Government was most competent, he concluded, at spending money (a simple task). Social Security, a vehicle for redistribution, was surely the most successful federal program in history. Conversely, LBJ’s Great Society attempted, in part, to transform the underclass via community action agencies; it utterly failed.

Moynihan’s paradigm, an oversimplification, was New Deal = redistribution (simple and good); Great Society = social engineering (utopian and bad). Even when he shocked his liberal friends at Harvard (surely, this delighted him) by going to work for Nixon, Moynihan remained a New Dealer, proposing, and nearly getting enacted, a guaranteed income plan that was a mechanism for redistribution. His hope, Weiner says, was that “an income strategy would help to stabilize families and mitigate” social pathologies. It was also a sign of Moynihan’s modesty. Eschewing the overreach of the Great Society, he reckoned that “material relief” would, at least in the immediate sense, remedy “material privation.” Shoring up the family remained the goal, but one he never solved.

As Weiner observes, Moynihan entered the Kennedy administration a political idealist; working for Johnson, “something happened.” It was not just that Great Society programs were too intricate; they were more ambitious and more intrusive. The federal presence on the street corner was, he felt, misplaced. Moynihan—here his Catholicism loomed large—was a great proponent of “subsidiarity” of the smaller, private subgroupings—family, church, club, or trade union—that mediate between the individual and government. Subsidiary groups need air to breathe; when LBJ sent cadres of activists to the cities, Moynihan feared that private organizations would be blotted out. What he feared was the whiff of statism. Of course, subsidiary organizations were notably weak in the inner-city neighborhoods in question. Paradoxically, those federal community action dollars underwrote an expansion of local institutions in poor neighborhoods. Some of these became incubators of the first generation of black mayors. (Among the second generation of leaders was a community activist named Barack Obama.) And some of the money was plainly wasted. But the point that Weiner fails to acknowledge is that, often, the Great Society encouraged subsidiarity.

The author employs, as a distant mirror for his subject, the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke (hence the book’s title). Moynihan fondly cited Burke’s admonition “to be attached to the subdivisions, to love the little platoon.” No better pitch for subsidiarity exists. Both men detested absolutists (Burke, the Jacobins; Moynihan, Students for a Democratic Society). Each despised the extremism that arises from conformity. Cognizant of human limitations and mistrustful of certitude, Moynihan insisted that political achievement “can never be more than relatively good”; Burke asserted, as if prefiguring, “nothing universal can be rationally affirmed.”

But does the likeness demonstrate that Moynihan was, as Weiner asserts, a Burkean liberal—or does it prove that the senator, however liberal he may have been at various stages in his career, was a temperamental conservative? The author affirms that Burke believed in gradual evolution that built upon the past. He wanted to reform, Weiner says, but only as he was “preserving.” And this tendency was fully shared by Moynihan; each man, Weiner notes, resisted the “sudden, jolting, dramatic change.” It is well to say that Moynihan loved the New Deal, but to many adults in the 1930s the New Deal also looked both “sudden” and “jolting.” We cannot know if Moynihan, then barely out of diapers, would have supported the New Deal (my guess is he would have), but it feels a bit too easy to say that Moynihan loved the liberal prescriptions only of an era that was past.

In keeping with his Burkean analogy, Weiner offers Moynihan as a seeker of common ground and asks: Could Moynihan make a difference in the fractured politics of today? “We need a Moynihan in reserve, [especially] in the Senate,” he says in robust assertion of his theme. “American politics would be richer were this shared ground seeded and cultivated.”

Weiner does not say whom Moynihan might share this “ground” with. Marco Rubio? Ted Cruz? When he quotes the senator’s comment, from the late 1960s, that “the great strength of political conservatives … is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex,” he seems to be speaking of philosophical conservatives of the sort that have wholly disappeared from the modern Republican Party. It is doubtful that Moynihan would find his cherished appreciation for complexity, or for nuance, in the Tea Party. Nor would he find it in the politically correct rhetoric of the left. Moynihan’s refusal to be pigeonholed, or consistently be on anyone’s side, gave rise to the charge that he was a chameleon. Weiner denies that. Perhaps “contrarian” is closer to the mark.

Weiner also rejects, as did Moynihan himself, the scarlet letter of neoconservative. The record supports them. In his U.N. stint, Moynihan cast off America’s post-Vietnam mood of defeatism, but he was never expansionist. He believed in defending American values, but not in military adventurism. He believed, in fact, in international law, a notion wholly foreign to the neoconservatives who have hijacked the American right. One of his signal brilliancies, the result of his study of ethnic tribalism, was to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade before it occurred. The intelligence services had failed to do so, he later concluded, because they were too secretive, too often merely recycling their own private communications. He thus proposed that the CIA be disbanded and its functions transferred to the State Department, not exactly an idea propounded by Condoleezza Rice.

Moynihan also rejected an iconic claim of neoconservatives on domestic policy. Though he was consumed with the problem of the black family, he did not blame its woes on Great Society liberalism. He could refute this because, unlike most politicians, he had done his own research and knew that indicators such as out-of-wedlock births were rising in advance of the Johnson period. It was typical of Moynihan to defend the Great Society against unwarranted attacks even while he disdained its overall approach. This was pragmatism of a high order.

I wish Weiner had put slightly more distance between himself and his subject. When he says, for example, that Moynihan regretted his vote against the Gulf War, it would be nice to hear whether Weiner also finds it at fault. Also, a little biographical context would have fleshed out the (rich) intellectual portrait. It is tantalizingly too little to be told that Moynihan’s “passion” for fighting poverty was influenced by “his own experience of childhood poverty.” How poor was he, and with what material deprivation?

No matter. Weiner has culled and explicated consistent themes from Moynihan’s long career of cautious reformism, at once unorthodox even as it was—mostly—respectful of liberal traditions. Weiner concludes that we miss him—specifically, his “appeal to both sides … [his] capacity to draw certain strains of the contemporary Right and Left together.” Today, this would be a challenge. Edmund Burke himself, I submit, could not draw the contemporary right and left together. If we miss Pat—and we do—it’s because he courageously and so often justifiably was willing to tell each side when, and how, they were wrong. 

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