The Strange Death of Liberal America

A few excerpts from the preface to the 1967 edition of The Decline of American Liberalism by Arthur Ekirch, a classic of American political intellectual history. Ekirch was not a conservative, not a liberal of his own time, and perhaps not quite a libertarian or classical liberal. He was a man of almost 18th-century political sensibilities, which gave him special insight into American liberalism's 200-year trajectory. Just a bit of that comes through in these passages, which how far he was from the Cold War liberals of his time.

The modern or new liberal in the United States accepts with very little question the political philosophy of big government. Political action is regarded almost automatically as a positive good to be exercised for the general welfare against what are assumed to be selfish private or individual interets. At the same time, the persuasive idea of a competition of countervailing powers in society advanced by John Kenneth Galbraith has lost much of its validity — as all interests, private as well as public, are enlisted to meet the needs of today's garrison state and its permanent war economy. America's largest corporations, kept busy with defense weaponry, are in no position to criticize big government. High government officials, in turn, recognize a war economy as a politically convenient support for the idea of the welfare state. …

…Meanwhile official propaganda, government secrecy, wiretapping, improper intelligence activities, and restrictions on travel abroad have all become so commonplace that the average citizen scarcely regards them as serious invasions of his privacy. Indeed, it seems that in the American zeal to combat Communism the democratic end justifies all kinds of totalitarian means. Reason and historical perspective, two important liberal attributes, have thus frequently been lost to view in the miasma of the Cold War.

Plus ca change… But one thing that did change between Ekirch's first edition, in 1955, and the 1967 one was the civil-rights movement. Surely that, if anything, was a triumph of liberalism? Yet Ekirch sees something more than just liberalism at work there:

I think it is true that the widespread ramifications of the Supreme Court's historic decision in 1954 owe much to other than liberal pressures or beliefs. Modern total democracy, after all, cannot make invidious distinctions among its citizens while it seeks their unswerving and unquestioning support. At the same time, the Negro civil rights movement has become a popular crusade for those American progressives who are the strongest advocates of a welfare state. But, as the Negro takes his equal place in American society, he becomes prey to other illiberalisms. For example, when a few Negro leaders recently dared to venture beyond the confines of their own cause to exercise their right as Americans to criticize government policy in Vietnam, they were widely denounced in the press. Fellow Americans were willing to accept the Negroes' insistence on democratic equality; they were less willing to accede to their liberal protests against a controversial war policy.

Note that the bellicose ex-progressives of today's conservative movement are always eager to appropriate the civil-rights struggle and Martin Luther King — they like to argue that they're King'sthe real heirs, not latter-day liberals. Yet all the while they studiously downplay King's opposition to the Vietnam War.

Ekirch also points to another irony of the civil-rights movement:

It seems altogether possible that the government in helping to free Negroes of certain private discriminations may have exempted them merely from all coercions except that of the state. To be more specific, conscription was no problem for Negroes when they were not welcome in the armed forces. But what was formerly sought as a right or privilege has now become part of the same burden borne by other young men. The Negro, having achieved equality, has also discovered that the fact that all men are called upon to make sacrifices equally does not really diminish the burden of their sacrifice or make government policies, however popular, truly liberal or just. From a liberal point of view, the Negro is significant as a private individual rather than as a member of a politically potent pressure group.

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4 thoughts on “The Strange Death of Liberal America

  1. R J Stove June 7, 2006 / 10:38 am

    Daniel McCarthy writes: “Yet all the while they [progressive pseudo-conservatives] studiously downplay King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.”

    That’s not all they downplay. When was the last time they honestly admitted MLK’s assurance in Ebony magazine (August 1965) that “Southerners are making the Marxist analysis of history more accurate than the Christian hope that men can be persuaded through teaching and preaching”? That remark smacks less of mere leftism than of downright atheism. It’s quoted in all the mainstream books on MLK from David Garrow’s onwards; but, like the irrefutable proof of Saint Martin’s plagiarism and sex-mania, it isn’t so much denied by progressive pseudocons as merely ignored.

  2. Jim Bovard June 11, 2006 / 2:01 am

    It is great to see you give Ekirch some good ink.

    His masterpiece is so insightful – and yet almost totally forgotten.

    Is the 1967 preface online anywhere?

  3. Daniel McCarthy June 12, 2006 / 5:09 am

    Hi Jim,

    The ’67 preface isn’t online anywhere; the little excerpt above is just something I transcribed to pique readers’ interest in the book. At some point when I have a bit of time on my hands I ought to write something longer about it because, as you say, it’s a masterpiece.

  4. Kenneth R. Gregg June 20, 2006 / 5:30 am

    Arthur Ekirch was most certainly a classical liberal and was quite proud of this fact! I met him at the first CATO conference many years ago (way back when Murray was involved) and I was a great fan of all of his books (still am). He was a thrill to talk to and a joy to listen to.
    Best to you,
    Kenneth R. Gregg
    kgregglv@cox.net
    http://classicalliberalism.blogspot.com/

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