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american burke uncommon liberalism of daniel patrick moynihanThat contemporary politics leaves little room for so broad and imaginative an account of politics as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s is evidence of what he, following his friend the sociologist Daniel Bell, called the “exhaustion of political ideas.”[1] It also explains why he defies labels, which is to say why our contemporary labels—as narrow as our imagination—defy him. But there was one he welcomed consistently: liberal. By this, he referred to the conviction that government had the responsibility to ameliorate economic distress and the capacity to enhance civic life. Moynihan once said of Michael Oakeshott—whose lectures he attended as a student at the London School of Economics and whom he admired—that he “was not so much a conservative in his desires for society as in his expectations of it.”[2] One may say of Moynihan that he was a liberal not so much in his expectations for government as in his hopes for it. But limits circumscribed politics, and inherently so. Thus, Moynihan observed,

the matter comes to this. The stability of a democracy depends very much on the people making a careful distinction between what government can do and what it cannot do. To demand what can be done is altogether in order: some may wish such things accomplished, some may not, and the majority may decide. But to seek that which cannot be provided, especially to do so with the passionate but misinformed conviction that it can be, is to create the conditions of frustration and ruin.[3]

Still, limitation was no excuse for stasis. He could reflect (and not approvingly) that Oakeshott “was conservative almost to the point of passivity.”[4] Knowledge of one’s limits was useful as a principle of action, not indifference. Knowing what one could not do illuminated what one could, and politics could accomplish plenty. The New Deal had. Moynihan’s objection lay with the shift that occurred in liberal thinking somewhere between the New Deal and the Great Society.[5] The New Deal offered amelioration, at which government was good because government was good at raising revenue and cutting checks. The Great Society offered programs around which constituencies—often professional, middle-class groups with interests distinct from those of the people the programs were intended to help—accreted. They micro-managed; they agitated; they were envious of non-state actors.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Moynihan flatly rejected what he regarded to be the demonstrably false thesis that the Great Society in any sense “caused” the social dysfunction in poor communities—pathologies he had diagnosed before the Great Society was ever conceived. But he nonetheless came to see its piecemeal, programmatic approach as fatally flawed. Among those flaws was the Great Society’s rejection of the politics of limitation. Moynihan himself emerged chastened from the experience of Johnson’s War on Poverty; even, to some extent, from the boundless hopefulness of Kennedy’s New Frontier. This sense of limitation was nowhere more evident than in his appreciation for the boundaries of empirical circumstance. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” he famously and frequently said, “but not his own facts.” Echoing Burke’s skepticism of abstraction, he once complained that the testimony of a witness before a Senate committee had “all the clarity of logic but none of the fuzziness and grit and dirt and detail of reality.”[6] An accomplished social scientist, Moynihan bore high hopes for the capacity of social science to inform social policy. But crucially for understanding his appreciation of the limitations of circumstance, this role was to be retrospective and evaluative—that is, grounded in specific circumstance—not prospective and abstract. Grandiose vision was less important in governing than a little bit of foresight; the art of politics “is not that of prophesying, but of coping.” But again, he added the crucial caveat: “This is no timorous exercise, much less a surrender to expediency,” a reminder that recalls Burke’s dictum that prudence requires its own courage.[7] For Moynihan, this knowledge of limits was, or ought to have been, the basis of constructive activity grounded in the knowledge that “social change, as seen from the perspective of history, comes slowly, one step at a time, from the point of view of the individual demanding it.”[8]

Understanding limitation, he rejected radical moralization and total politicization, especially the variant that infected left-wing politics in the 1960s. This sanctimonious politics “rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good.”[9] In speaking of this strain on the American left and its intolerance of dissent, he referred often to Hannah Arendt’s insight that totalitarian propagandists succeeded in turning every question of fact into one of motive. The author of the much and often unfairly maligned “Moynihan Report” on the plight of the African-American family knew of what he spoke.

But his disgust with the radicals of the 1960s has been misconstrued as alienation from the New Deal liberalism from which they in fact were alienated and from which he himself never varied. Moynihan’s thought, to be sure, is tinged throughout with references to conservative thinkers—more often, perhaps, than liberal ones. Oakeshott’s appearances are frequent. Robert A. Nisbet, too, comes on stage; Burke is an occasional character as well. John Rawls, to my knowledge, is not to be found. The temptation is to assume a strain of conservatism in Moynihan’s thinking, but this can be misleading for several reasons. One is that Moynihan’s intellectual curiosity was such that he gravitated toward thinkers with whom he disagreed precisely because he disagreed with them and could consequently learn from them.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The second is that Moynihan identified many of the relevant ideas as liberal, not conservative, as in “the liberal tradition of respect for facts,” the liberal belief in “restraint” and the “persistence of sin,” or the claim that “the doctrines of liberalism are derived from experience, rather than right reason.”[10] Third, Moynihan explicitly rejected the conservative label most often applied to him—“neoconservative”—as having been “coined in epithet.” It applies defensibly to thinkers such as Irving Kristol who turned from their liberal commitments. Moynihan never did. He joined the Nixon White House not out of frustration with liberals but rather out of an intuition—correct, as it turned out—that it provided a forward-moving vehicle for his liberal ambitions.[11] Finally, a thinker of Moynihan’s self-awareness is entitled to self-description, and his was, repeatedly and without any exception of which I am aware, liberal.[12]

Still, he has had his critics, especially from the left—in 1979, an entire issue of The Nation intended to scuttle a falsely rumored Moynihan presidential bid called him everything from a conservative to a “clown”—but also from the right. They have called him a chameleon whose political ideals morphed in appearance to suit either side. Neoconservatives from Norman Podhoretz to Elliot Abrams have said his liberal rhetoric was borne of political expediency.[13]

There are limits to the extent to which these tensions can be resolved—and, for that matter, limits to which they should even be understood as critiques. Moynihan was less a chameleon than a man who occupied different roles at different times. The natural caution of a scholar can be lethal to the policy ambitions of a statesman. Political actors pushing policy programs must back them boldly; scholars evaluating policy programs must trim to the constant awareness of alternative explanations. As Senator, Moynihan once wrote he was, on a given topic, “enter[ing] the realm of speculation, from which, perhaps, no scholarly reputation ever returns. But that is not a choice available in politics. Speculate or perish.”[14] Statesmen who seek to act must experiment. For a scholar, Rossi’s Law is a penetrating insight; for a politician, it can be, as Moynihan said, “useful knowledge”; but rigidly followed, it would also be a formula for quietism.

Coping: On the Practice of GovernmentSenator Moynihan was given to generalizations to which Professor Moynihan, especially were he seeking tenure in a modern department of political science, might have been averse. Some of Moynihan’s most interesting insights arose from his years out of government and in the academy—the time of his book Coping: On the Practice of Government. This was a period of skepticism and probing, qualities less available (though hardly inaccessible) to the politician undertaking forward-leaning action. Moynihan’s shifting roles even within his space as a statesman must also be understood. He was a frequent policymaker but a sometime gadfly; in the latter role, he likely often stated his criticisms provocatively precisely in order to provoke. In no case do I suggest that Moynihan did not mean what he said, only that the context of what he said matters.

Still, this study will suggest that these left-right critiques of Moynihan—liberals he thought he was a conservative and conservatives who saw matters the other way around—might be more deeply resolved by understanding him on his own terms. I will also assert that there is a lens through which his particular strain of liberalism can be consistently understood. I shall call it “Burkean liberalism”—not, again, to claim any particular influence of Burke on Moynihan but rather to accentuate both its uniqueness and, since Moynihan’s death, its absence. The idea of Burkean liberalism as Moynihan embodied it is this: Government should do forthrightly that which government is capable of doing. He construed this expansively, and this is what made him a liberal. Government was capable of redistributing wealth, of shaping conditions that would encourage family cohesion, of conquering poverty understood as material privation, of waging ideological battle against totalitarianism, of more. Similarly, government should do thoughtfully what it could not avoid doing, which included erecting public architecture, enacting policies that affected families, and interacting with other world powers in ideological forums.

But politics ought to be aware of its own limitations. Moynihan was, and this is what marks his affinity with Burke. He believed that politics should be grounded in the concrete, not the abstract, and that it should not promise what it could not deliver. It ought to hold sacrosanct the meaning of words, the currency of political exchange. It should be grounded in the traditional structures of society—Burke’s “little platoons,” a phrase that Moynihan particularly favored—that serve as the foundation of political society. Politics ought to respect social complexity.

This appreciation of complexity led Moynihan, like Burke, to reject ideology. In 1994, a New York Times reporter asked him to describe his “credo.” His reply: “Nothing I want to give a name to. I’m not a Socialist and I’m not a Libertarian. I was never a Stalinist and I was never a Trotskyite. I guess if I had to say—and I don’t have to say, but you asked—it’s an avoidance of ideology.”[15] For him, ideology was a corrupting force, one that excessively simplified complex situations and subjugated the constraints of circumstance to sweeping political goals. “Ideological certainty,” he once wrote in scolding the Clinton Administration, “easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance.”[16] Virtue—a device on which he recognized the American constitutional regime did not readily rely—could be necessary to restrain it.[17]

Ideology led, moreover, to the false seduction of grandiose promises, such as the Reagan Administration’s belief that lower taxes would lead to higher revenues or the Gingrich Republicans’ view that the experience of poverty could be transformed through severe treatment of welfare recipients. Moynihan had seen such promises made and go unmet in the 1960s: the result was not merely disillusionment but charges of ill intent, the disease of distrust thereby infecting the body politic. He observed, “The polity must take care what it undertakes to provide, for failure to do so is likely to be attributed to malevolent purpose. This is not to say expectations should not be raised, but only that they should not be raised indiscriminately.”[18]

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Thus his fondness for William Butler Yeats’s “Parnell,” a poetic plea for limits which he described as the only twentieth-century political verse worth remembering: “Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man: / ‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.’”[19] There were no utopian solutions in politics; there was no single stroke of state that would transform every life. This is the essence of the politics of limits, the basis of a Burkean liberalism. But there is one more thing to say about breaking stone: it is not a futile endeavor. Neither, for Moynihan, was politics. Undertaken over a lifetime, with a steadiness and relentlessness of purpose appropriate to a thinker whose adventures ranged from the Kennedy Administration to the United Nations to the U.S. Senate—on topics as various as poverty, nuclear arms control, the law of nations, ethnicity, governmental secrecy, and beyond—its achievement can be immense. Moynihan’s was.

Editor’s Note: This is part II of the Introduction to American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Part I can be found here. Republished with gracious permission of the author and University Press of Kansas. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[1] See Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas,” Address to the New York Academy of Sciences, December 8, 1977, Moynihan Papers.

[2] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: The Free Press, 1969), 8.

[3] Moynihan, Coping, 255-256.

[4] Commencement Address, University of Arkansas, May 11, 1991, Moynihan Papers.

[5] Generally speaking, my references to the Great Society refer to its iteration in the War on Poverty, which is to say Moynihan was not a critic of the Great Society generally. He vigorously approved of Medicare and Medicaid, for example. It was the micromanagerial approach to poverty to which he objected.

[6] Quoted in Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, “The Welfare Vaudevillian,” The Nation, September 22, 1979, 236-239. As the headline indicates, the authors cite the quotation disapprovingly.

[7] Burke: “Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors.” Selected Works of Edmund Burke: Volume II, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 362.

[8] Coping, 4 (limits as the basis of constructive activity) and 263 (“social change … comes slowly”).

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid., 259 (“the liberal tradition”), 131-132 (“restraint”), and 117 (“the doctrines of liberalism”).

[11] For a contrary understanding of Moynihan’s motives for joining the Nixon White House, see Gil Troy, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 49.

[12] As will be seen, Moynihan on at least one occasion cast himself in the “center,” but crucially, as a center “liberal.” That is, he saw the center-left dispute operating inside the parameters of liberal thought. See remarks to New York AFL-CIO, August 3, 1978 (Moynihan Papers): “I won [the 1976 Democratic Senate primary] because I was able to persuade the voters that there was still sound and responsible tradition of liberalism in the center of Democratic politics worthy of their support.” He went on to refer to “[w]e, the forces of the liberal center.”

[13] For the “clown” remark, see The Nation, September 22, 1979. For Podhoretz, see Thomas L. Jeffers, Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 192-194. For Abrams, see James Traub, “Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Liberal? Conservative? Or Just Pat?” New York Times, September 16, 1990, retrieved January 29, 2014.

[14] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Address at United States Naval Academy, March 22, 1979, Moynihan Papers.

[15] Todd S. Purdum, “The Newest Moynihan,” New York Times Magazine, August 7, 1994.

[16] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 49.

[17] Referring to the corrupting influence of supply-side ideology on the Reagan Administration, which Moynihan criticized for continuing to pursue a policy of steep tax cuts and defense increases even after it was clear it was producing massive structural deficits, he wrote: “The ‘science of politics’ can make the demands of virtue bearable but can never substitute for them. The 1980s produced not a political crisis but an ethical one.” See Moynihan, Came the Revolution, 321.

[18] Moynihan, Coping, 27-28.

[19] Ibid., 31. He recommended it first in print in 1973’s Coping, and again in 1992: “[W]e live with more troubles than we can readily endure and more demands than we can probably meet. I have long held, and say again, that there is only one political poem of the twentieth century worth remembering, Yeats’ ‘Parnell’ in 1937”; see Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Grey Truth: Blashfield Address,” American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, May 20, 1992, Moynihan Papers.

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2 replies to this post
  1. This assessment of Moynihan’s political thought seems much parallel to George F. Will’s; which certainly accounts for Will’s admiration for Moynihan’s legacy. Both seem to embody I would contend more accurately a type of “paternalistic Toryism”: that is both essentially believe that “government” ultimately should be the arbitrator of the civil society’s or communities’ “moral values” or tend to view “statecraft” as “soulcraft.”

  2. The New Deal and the whole mentality behind it is what led to today’s corrupt system of politics. It encouraged poeple to vote for, not the politician who was the most honest, but rather the one who would give them the biggest benefits.

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