Reprinted with permission from The Rat.
THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM
*********************************************************************************************************American American Liberal Intellectualism: Who started this whole silly mess, and why on earth did they do it in the first place?
Yeah, I know: “liberal intellectualism” sounds oxymoronic at best. But, have you ever wondered where, when or why “liberal intellectualism” in America began? Who started all of this nonsense in the first place? Did they have any idea what they were unleashing? What would they think if they came back and observed America’s left wing loons today? Perhaps a short review of the history of liberalism in America will help us understand the persistence, air of superiority, and overall irrational mindset of these strange creatures.
It all began in the Puritan commonwealth of 17th century New England in and around Boston. For the Puritans, the construction of a godly society was the first order of business. The state was not intended to be the enemy of liberty – but it most definitely would become society’s moral guard.
New England government therefore was charged with the creation of a “moral society.” Everything was to be its business: how much did a master pay his apprentices? Who celebrated Christmas? Who was cheating on his or her spouse? The duty of government was to make society live right; universities, churches, newspapers -they would all be the allies of government in the struggle for “good.”
Even after the alliance between church and state in New England was broken up for good, righteous New Englanders worked to make the government a moral force for the American people. By today’s standards, their earl causes look noble enough – the abolition of slavery and voting rights for women, for example.
Over the centuries, New England has changed its theology while remaining loyal to its righteous roots. Calvinist orthodoxy gave way to Unitarianism in the 18th century; Harvard officially became Unitarian in 1803, dropping its belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. In the 19th century, intellectual New England hedged its bets, backing a range of “isms” from transcendentalism to a new evangelical form of Calvinism.
During the second half of the 20th century, the intellectual mind of New England became more secular than at any time in its history – but nothing has ever changed its deep belief that however defined, morality exists and it is the job of the state to enforce “true morals” and uphold “right thinking.”
“Political correctness” has been part of the “New England way” from the beginning. Victorian New Englanders pioneered feminist ideas – while enforcing rigid standards of political correctness that stifled American literature, restricted its range of subjects, and drove authors like Mark Twain to fits of rage and frustration. In the 19th century, Bostonian literary puritanism was so focused on sex that “Banned in Boston” was a label that helped sell books around the country. Today’s Puritans? They’re after “hate speech” and conservative talk radio. Not much has changed, has it?
There was never a doubt in the New England mind that the government was the chosen instrument of the “righteous” in its never-ending mission to create a “better world.” 17th century New England intellectuals wanted laws passed to force settlers to live close to the town center to ensure better social control. Allowing people to live their lives as they please when the New England mind knows are best? No way. The “righteous” must keep the general population in line, or social chaos will surely ensue. As is the case with the left today, the liberal mind of Victorian New England didn’t just believe this; it knew it. It’s way was the only way.
New Englanders lived in frustration during much of American history. Before the Civil War, the power of the slave-owning South frustrated Boston’s plan for national consolidation; after the war it was the power of the industrial tycoons and the national rush for growth that kept New England’s intellectuals on the sidelines of politics, whining and bloviating about the “decadence” of America.
Those Darn European Immigrants
In the early part of the 20th century, New England got a boost from an unexpected source. Millions of European immigrants who came to the United States after the Civil War brought with them a less individualistic, more socialistic outlook than that of previous generations of non-Bostonian Americans. They looked to the government to defend them against the greed of the robber barons much as liberals today look to trade unions and the government as well to protect them from employers and corporations.
Many non-New England Americans instinctively saw government, and especially the federal government, as a danger to liberty. This was not the view of Boston’s new allies. The social-justice ideas of the immigrants had much in common with traditional New England ideas about the need for a strong moral state. Out of this meeting of the “moral minds” came the wave of 20th century liberalism that reshaped American institutions and ideas for the next 100 years.
Blacks climbed aboard the liberal express beginning with FDR’s New Deal. Progressives seized the Civil Rights movement and programs like affirmative action to use the growing power of the federal government to put America on a “firmer moral footing” by breaking the power of racism once and for all.
The marriage between Boston and immigrant America was not an easy one. It wasn’t until the election of John F. Kennedy – a son of both Harvard and the old Irish political machine – that the two traditions finally fused. However, the bond between the blue bloods of New England and the blue collar workers of the industrial North and Midwest took longer to forge than it ultimately did to begin to dissolve.
Trouble in Liberal Paradise
As the children and grandchildren of northern immigrants moved to the suburbs and sent their kids to college, many of them began to gravitate away from the communal values their forbears brought from Europe, and embraced the more individualistic attitudes of non-New England America. “Reagan Democrats” began to believe that lower taxes might just be a better idea than bloated government programs after all. The Reagan Revolution had begun.
Today, the liberal alliance is mostly comprised of the elitist New England mindset and its heirs, part of the old ethnic world that remains alienated from Americans who have strong beliefs in individualism, most of the country’s Blacks, and a majority of its Hispanics.
For many Boston blue-bloods, Barack Obama’s 2008 election was such a high because it looked as if the days of Camelot might return. Barack Obama does for Blacks and blues what Kennedy did for the Irish and the Boston Brahmins; like JFK he is an outsider who bought into the New England worldview. The high school he attended in Hawaii was founded by New England missionaries; his Ivy League education at Columbia and Harvard Law further steeped him in the “values” of the New England mind. To have a charismatic Black politician sweep the nation with a campaign evoking the communitarian big state vision New England had long favored was both a vindication of core Boston values and a sign that more victories were sure to come.
The 2010 midterms set that optimism back a bit, but many analysts, especially liberal ones, point out that the big question is whether enough Hispanics will join the blue coalition to replace the continuing drift of exurban whites in the other direction. Another potential problem for liberalism is whether a further deterioration of the Democrats’ nanny state fiscal position will make the whole question moot.
If the liberal model falls apart under its own weight rather than being pulled down by its “enemies,” as Obama calls Republicans, where does American Liberalism then go? Into the dustbin of history along with Communism? We should be so fortunate.
In any case, we can’t expect blue thinking to just go away. Boston and its daughter cities of Greater New England (including Seattle, Portland and San Francisco) will be around for a long time to come. A righteous heritage, deeply woven into American life for more than 300 years, will not simply vanish. The New England way may go into political opposition, as it did during so much of the 19th century, but as an elitist force in American life, its anything but finished. Blue may go down, but unfortunately, don’t count it out.