The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, circa 1967.
Writing earlier this week on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I stated, "The Vietnam War killed liberalism. Bobby (Kennedy) might have avoided that fate."
The comments on the column are superb, so go back and read them if you can. But Emil rightly called me out for such doing an intellectual Jackson Pollock with such a broad brush.
So let me clarify.
Today, most Americans don't even know what "liberalism" means in this context. For examples, right-wingers are all for "neo-liberalism" in the economy, but rush to the barricades at the whiff of liberalism in politics. Liberals themselves have moved to the century-old term "progressive."
JFK identified my liberalism well:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal."
But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."
This liberalism was the political consensus in America from the New Deal well into the 1970s. Yes, the John Birch Society and "the paranoid style in American politics," but these were the reactionary fringe, and in most, but not all, cases not driving policy.
At the same time, liberalism suffered setbacks as early as the Second New Deal. FDR's Four Freedoms were never fulfilled. Harry Truman failed to achieve universal health care.
It is true that the Democratic Party, the most stalwart champion of liberalism, broke apart over America's deepening involvement in a Vietnam War that many saw, rightly, as unwinnable.
A rare photo of Robert Kennedy visiting Phoenix. Here, he is at Chris-Town Mall in March 1968.
Robert Kennedy, shattered by his brother's death, rebuilt himself into a very different man from the former Bob (he preferred that first name from most people) Kennedy. The viciousness was gone (He "hates like I do," patriarch Joe Kennedy once said approvingly), replaced by a deep awareness of poverty, racism, injustice and the costs of empire.
He was walking the same path as Martin Luther King Jr., who had grown increasingly vocal in his opposition to Vietnam, the Military-Industrial Complex, inequality and lack of economic opportunity for poor people and people of color. (This is, alas, not the MLK most Americans celebrate).
Had RFK survived and won the presidency in 1968, there might not have been a liberal crackup, we might have pulled out of Vietnam and built a better America. A counterfactual is impossible to prove. But 1968 was the last year when a real liberal could have won the White House — and with unassailable majorities in Congress.
Did this get him (and King) assassinated? That's a column for another day and more complete historiography.
In any event, liberalism soldiered on for awhile. Richard Nixon funded LBJ's Great Society, created the Environmental Protection Act, wanted far-reaching health care reform, among other liberal goods. But liberalism was a spent force.
What else caused this?
1. Civil rights. The leaps forward in the 1960s unsettled much of white America, even the "moderates" King thought were as bad as the outright white supremacists.
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he predicted that Democrats "have lost the South for a generation." This proved much too optimistic. And the loss wasn't merely the South, but most of non-urban America.
Republicans followed the lead of Barry Goldwater to relentlessly play on racial fear and resentment, including Ronald Reagan's fictional welfare queen driving a Cadillac.
As the reaction to President Obama has shown, America is far from a post-racial society. And for much of old, white, voting America, liberalism means taxing them to give free things to "the ni**ers." There's no polite way to describe this thinking.
2. Busing for racial integration in the schools. Although the motives behind forced busing for desegregation were noble, this proved a disaster for liberalism. It was seen as a tremendous overreach by government, and not only by whites.
Six decades after Brown, our public schools are as segregated, if not more so, than ever. Worse, they have been abandoned by the white (and non-white) middle class in many places.
Busing contributed to destructive sprawl thanks to white flight. In undermining public faith (and financing), it gave a foothold for the charter school racket and, in a larger sense, turned many against government.
A better solution might have been to provide good and equal funding for majority black schools, focus on keeping jobs in black neighborhoods, and continue to integrate public higher education. I don't have the answers.
Other overreaching, such as in the courts, also hurt. For example, a seven-time felon carrying a gun just won a $15,000 settlement from the city of Seattle because the police officer who arrested him went on an obscenity laced tirade during the incident. Even I see this and think something is very wrong.
3. Liberalism succeeded so well. Thanks to the New Deal and all the programs that followed, including the G.I. Bill authored by Arizona's Sen. Ernest McFarland, America created the greatest middle class in history.
As time went on, many newly affluent Americans identified more with Republicans — and eventually with What's The Matter With Kansas grievance-libertarianism — than with the party and movement that raised them up.
Today, few Americans realize all the ways government improved the lives of their forebears and continues to improve our lives. How it should be a force for much more good. They just remember, "Gub'ment is the problem."
4. Liberalism fractured politically. This could be a column in itself. But consider that "conservatives" have tremendous focus (the Aflak duck "Tax Cuts") and discipline, while "progressives" want to solve every problem in existence.
GMO labeling, immigration reform, homelessness, living wage, fracking, women in combat, gay marriage in every state, coal trains, nuclear disarmament, globalized capitalism, police tactics, Palestinian rights, etc. etc. — and these are just the protests I see in downtown Seattle. All worthy, but come on.
With the lack of a coherent, limited, appealing agenda, liberals were supplanted by the Clinton/Bob Rubin "new Democrats." Also, America could not clearly show citizens the good they received for their taxes, as happens in Scandinavia.
Many other reasons can be listed (e.g. the decline of unions, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, stolen elections). I'll stop here and you can take it.
Two more riffs off comments: