The stunning collapse of American liberalism in 22 months since the United States elected its first African-American president is, in part, a replay of the comparable breakdown of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1965 and 1966. Then as now, open discussion of some pressing issues was shut down in deference to racial sensitivities. Then as now, triumph turned to ashes. Buoyed by his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, in August 1965 President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the landmark Voting Rights Act, opening a new era of black participation in American politics. This was a moment of glory that seemed to herald a more glorious future—and it did. But just six days later, on August 11, the Watts race riots broke out in Los Angeles, leaving 34 dead. And six days hence, on the last day of rioting, the Moynihan Report on the breakdown of the black family was issued to a firestorm of verbal violence.
The Moynihan Report was based on statistical and African-American sources. Its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an obscure assistant secretary of labor, eschewed cultural explanations for the collapse of the black family and placed blame on the legacy of slavery and economic discrimination that left black men unable to provide for their own. Moynihan’s solution, which was largely lost in the controversy the report generated, was “to bring the structure of the Negro family in line with the rest of our society” by providing work for black men. To provide that work, Moynihan called for both racial quotas and European-style family allowances.
It was among the more financially radical proposals ever submitted to a president—and it is even more fascinating, in retrospect, to think that its author would, only a few years later, be considered one of the founding members of the group of thinkers known as the neoconservatives. The defining quality of the neoconservatives when it came to domestic policy was a newly rueful skepticism about the efficacy of massive government programs like the one Moynihan had proposed.
Moynihan was a man of many tensions, an urbane and urban political thinker who feared that upper-middle-class liberals (like himself) were driving white ethnics (also like himself) from the Democratic Party. A newly published selection of Moynihan’s letters to a wide range of figures—from Lionel Trilling to John Rawls1—does a good job of capturing Moynihan’s divided sensibility. The letters reveal that the scars of a childhood marked not just by poverty but also by his father’s desertion were transferred into his empathy for the plight of African-American men similarly afflicted. In a letter to President Johnson, Moynihan wrote that “the richest inheritance any child can have is a stable, loving, disciplined family life.” Left without a father, he tried, with some success, to mold himself into “an English novel character—full of stories and odd bits of fascinating info.” Moynihan plunged into public life fearing that if he didn’t, he could end up as a “half-baked academic” trapped in dusty disputes and cut off from the dynamism of the political world.
To judge by these letters, carefully assembled by Steven Weisman, the private Moynihan was little different from the man revealed in his many articles and speeches. Occasionally, though, the intensity of his epistolary comments were even sharper than in his writings. A 1973 journal entry described his strong concurrence with a speech delivered by Norman Podhoretz. Moynihan wrote, “He is right…the main political values of the American intellectual community are anti democratic or non democratic.” In the same vein, Moynihan argued, in words that have a contemporary ring, that “the radicalization of the intellectual community was not a response to a new perception of evils (sic) of bourgeois society, but a response to a new fantasy of power.”
The intellectual and political intensity of the letters tapered off once Moynihan, with the help of Podhoretz, was elected to the Senate in 1976 after a campaign that evoked their joint critique of the radicalization of the intellectuals. He won the general election after only narrowly defeating Bella Abzug, the most left-wing member of the U.S. Congress, in the Democratic Party primary by running explicitly as a kind of cultural conservative seeking to strengthen family and neighborhood.
Moynihan took great pride and pleasure in being a senator. In the letters, he brags of his record-setting margin in retaining his seat in 1988. But his general-election successes notwithstanding, those who knew Moynihan well still remember his recurrent fears that an Abzug-like primary candidate on his left might well be able to take him down. Even a challenge from Al Sharpton in 1994 produced perturbations. Unfortunately, the letters shed no light on these worries and the effect they had on his legislative decisions. But they do shed revealing light on the trauma he experienced at the hands of the left in the wake of the Moynihan Report—and suggest they were the cause of some of his more mystifying decisions during his more than two decades in the Senate.
In 1965, writing to Gunnar Myrdal, the pioneering student of American race relations, a staggered Moynihan told the Swede that he had been violently “anathematized as a racist, a fascist, an authoritarian, a bourgeois and so across the spectrum of epithets.” “Everybody,” recounts a black feminist, “wanted to cut Daniel Moynihan’s heart out and feed it to the dogs.” The new “liberalism,” noted an agonized Moynihan, “couldn’t cope with the truth.” The truth was just as he had diagnosed it: for the next quarter century, the ongoing agonies of the black family were accompanied by the decomposition of the liberalism that had once been so triumphant.
This was, for Moynihan, “the moment lost” (the phrase was the subtitle of a February 1967 article in this magazine). The refusal to face the facts about the parlous condition of the black family would lead to a generation or more damaged beyond repair. As for Moynihan himself, despite his subsequent fame and the securing of his own status as a beloved elder statesman before his death in 2003, he was damaged as well. Shaken by the pummeling he received from liberals, leftists, and black nationalists for bringing the issue of the black family to the fore—an issue long discussed by highly regarded black scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark upon whom he had drawn heavily—Moynihan (according to his biographer Godfrey Hodgson) teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He was saved, he explained in a letter to Hodgson, by “a telephone call from Reinhold Niebuhr and short story by Sean O’Faoláin.”
The great irony is that, while the analysis offered by the Moynihan Report was dismissed, Moynihan laid the policy groundwork in it for the race-preference policy called “affirmative action.” Racial quotas and affirmative action would become the sine qua non of liberal racial politics despite how divisive a policy it was and how ineffective it would prove to be in achieving racial equality.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a genuinely original and visionary thinker. His astonishing foresight extended from the breakup of the black family to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the Democratic Party. Yet he was dramatically mistaken when it came to the political consequences of domestic policy proposals—as he demonstrated in his fearsome warnings of the damage that would be wrought by the 1996 legislation that, in the words of President Clinton, “ended welfare as we know it.”
His ability to perceive the flaws in activist policy seemed to stem from a series of endlessly fascinating intellectual and personal contradictions. Conservative in his scholarship and analysis but liberal in his proposals for solutions, Moynihan was a fervent New Dealer—but one who denounced the New Deal’s effect on late-20th-century New York. Devoted to John F. Kennedy, who Moynihan wrote “had been ‘my president’ in a way that happens only once,” he nonetheless insisted that the Kennedy brain trust had engaged in “a serious misreading of the Eisenhower years….It had seemed that men of vigor and purpose could not but do infinitely better than such a crowd of Rotarians and press agents.”
He was a deeply American critic of centralization who tried, as an adviser to President Nixon, to nationalize welfare policy along European lines. A liberal who pierced the pretensions of his fellow liberals, he was a proponent of international law who mocked the United Nations, a strong anti-Communist who decried the excesses of American government secrecy. Irish, and deeply Catholic, he was able to identify deeply with the problems of black Protestants. The great critic of creating unrealistic expectations, he would be pilloried in the Nixon years for his phrase about the need to adopt a policy of “benign neglect” when it came to race, yet it was Moynihan who was the primary author of President Johnson’s paradigm-shattering 1965 Howard University speech, “To Fulfill These Rights.” In that speech, Johnson may have set the standard for presidential overreach in promising “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Moynihan held his competing inclinations in a creative tension that allowed him to view problems from rival angles and thus often see more and further than others. He was among the very first to recognize the shifting class basis of liberalism—a problem for Democrats that played a signal role in the results of the most recent election just as they did in the elections of 1968 and 1972.
In the afterglow of Jack Kennedy’s historic victory, he recognized that “the present Catholic leadership of the [New York Democratic] party is doomed.” With a Catholic in the White House, “what after all,” he asked in these pages in 1961, “is achieved by becoming the 116th Irishman to get on the Court of General Sessions”? At the same time, he “was startled by the contempt with which the liberals, almost exclusively a middle- and upper-class group, many new to Democratic politics,” regarded their erstwhile allies. The college-educated elites, wrote the young Moynihan, “cannot help but be suspicious of the liberalism of Irish Catholic County leaders who are at ease on city councils and who get along with police chiefs.” Anticipating the conflicts to come, he wrote that “liberals accustomed as they are to success in every other sphere of life, simply do not understand how and why people like the regulars should have come to dominate in party offices and legislative posts, and therefore they have resorted to ‘bossism’ as an explanation.” They have the “habit,” he said, “of impugning the motives of anyone they disagree with.”
In 1963, Moynihan and Nathan Glazer published the path-breaking Beyond the Melting Pot on the persistence of ethnic and religious identities in America. The book, which ran counter to the established liberal academic opinion that religion and ethnicity were declining factors in American life, received a cool reception. Looking back a decade later, Moynihan wrote, “One began to sense that a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”
In the wake of the rancor evoked by the Moynihan Report, he repeatedly returned to the subject of what was happening to liberalism. He noted that the social scientist Walter Miller said his report had taken “elaborate care” to avoid even the hint that the black poor might be responsible for their own condition. Yet, Miller went on, even the suggestion that the problem of black poverty “might be attributable to causes other than Power-Structure villainy” was enough to make Moynihan’s name a code word for “grievous heresy.”
The proclamations of an impending Götterdämmerung—whether by race riots, environmental despoliation, or Vietnam-borne conflicts—contained, Moynihan noted in 1973, “an element of class aggression….The politics of our time are not always explainable in terms of traditional class interests, but they are not very far removed from the traditional struggle over who is to rule.”
As a senator beginning in 1977, Moynihan watched the social transformation of the two parties with dismay. In 1980, observing the impending presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, he wrote: “Psychologists call it role reversal. As a Democrat I call it terrifying….Not by chance but by dint of substance and often complex argument, there is a movement to turn Republicans into Populists, a party of the people arrayed against a Democratic Party of the State.” Once again he had seen into the future.
The disjunction between Moynihan’s prescience and his ill-founded opposition to the effective welfare reform passed in 1996 is so jarring that his admirers, such as James Patterson, author of the recently published Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama, largely sidestep it. How, we’ve repeatedly heard it asked, could a man so penetrating in his criticism of convention, both liberal and conservative, have become the chief critic of legislation that actually helped pull female-headed families from the marginality of an intergenerational dependence on welfare back into the mainstream, albeit humbly, of economic life?
Moynihan took to the pages of the New York Times and the New York Review of Books to warn that the “effect” of the 1996 bill—with its two-year time limit on welfare—could be “something approaching an apocalypse” for New York. Those involved in this travesty, he chastised his colleagues, “will take this disgrace to their graves….If the objective is putting welfare mothers to work, it’s going to be a flop.” But none of Moynihan’s fulminations about how Congress had built “coffins” for countless innocent children whom they were “put[ting] to the sword” had much effect. Twenty-five of the 46 Democrats in the Senate at the time voted with the Republicans to pass what was dubbed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
What had made this all the more odd is that Moynihan generally had high praise for the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, which had begun in 1994 to reduce the welfare rolls by requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work part-time for the city. No terrible consequences followed, as Moynihan was well aware. Yet he ignored this. Why?
Time and again, Moynihan had recounted “the moment lost” in the hailstorm over the Moynihan Report. First there was a 1967 article of the same name for COMMENTARY; in 1970 and 1973 the books Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding and The Politics of a Guaranteed Income went over the same ground. In the 1980s, he retold the story in an essay included in his collection Come the Revolution and in a book devoted to the issue, Family and Nation. In the early 1990s, his powerful essay “Defining Deviancy Down” recounted the subject from the perspective of the social breakdown gripping New York under the hapless mayoralty of David Dinkins.
In each of the recountings, he was reenacting the trauma of the moment lost—the moment in 1965 when, had the problem of getting unemployed black males into the workforce as a means of strengthening the black family been put front and center, the creation of the enormously destructive American welfare underclass might have been averted. But his social-democratic ideas for putting black men to work through federal programs never got a hearing—due, in part, to the din from ill-informed denunciations of the Moynihan Report. Instead, the Democrats adopted a social-services strategy, which did little to aid the black poor but proved a source of jobs and money for middle-class liberals.2
Through it all, Moynihan, who fiercely and rightly resisted the label of neoconservative, saw himself as the true liberal, as opposed to people like Bill and Hillary Clinton. In a 1989 letter to a Columbia law professor, he explained in reference to the Great Society that he was “in full agreement with all that liberalism was attempting.” But he regretted that questions about the means to be used were “too often greeted as a renunciation of goals….A quarter century later, I find that little has changed.” His sense in the Moynihan Report that the damage done to blacks by slavery and racism required the redress of racial quotas led him to insist in the 1990s that without guaranteed welfare, women and children would be fed to the wolves.
When the Democrats returned to power in 1993 with the presidency and both houses of Congress in their dominion, Moynihan had high expectations. It seemed for a moment as if something like the possibilities of the mid-1960s might again be on the agenda. But he held on to what was mistaken in the Moynihan Report, as David Blankenhorn has noted, not to what was profoundly true about it. He still insisted on sidestepping the cultural causes of black poverty by clinging to economic excuses. Stuck in the past, he failed to recognize the political impact that recent immigration and feminism, two subjects he scanted, had had on the welfare debate.
A new wave of immigrants had long since put paid to the argument that there was a shortage of entry-level work available. And since the 1960s, working women had become the norm, which meant that paternal indolence—though a terrible thing spiritually—need not be a catastrophe economically. Experiments at the state level encouraged by Moynihan in a piece of 1988 welfare-reform legislation called the Family Support Act showed that while there might be little hope of repairing the black family by encouraging more men to commit to stable relationships, underclass isolation could be breached by programs that put welfare mothers to work.
Moynihan was caught completely off guard by the GOP surge of 1994. He had dismissed all the talk of welfare reform on both sides of the aisle as “boob bait for the bubbas.” “I had expected the Soviet implosion; the Congressional debacle of 1994,” he explained, “came as a complete surprise.” Faced with a widespread sense that his 1988 welfare-reform bill had failed to work, Moynihan fell back in part on social science and his credentials from “the moment lost.” Writing in the New York Times, he insisted that the 1988 welfare overhaul he sponsored reflected “about as much as anyone knows” about the remedies. “That’s all we know…is not a defeatist message,” he asserted. “We are dealing with a profound social change. And those who first spotted it are entitled to be heard a generation later when we are saying we still don’t understand it.”
A bitter Moynihan noted that “beside the Catholic bishops, “none of the great marchers, the great changers, the nonnegotiable demanders” were energetically denouncing the welfare bill that had been negotiated by Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House, and President Clinton. “I had no idea,” he reflected, “how profoundly what used to be known as liberalism was shaken by the last (1994) election.” As he saw it, the cause of alleviating black suffering had once again been betrayed.
In 1973, reflecting on the failure of liberals to come to grips with the breakdown of the black family, Moynihan wrote that “a simple openness to alternative definitions of a problem and willingness to concede the possibility of events taking a variety of courses. This ought to be the preeminent mode of liberalism, and yet somehow it is not.” Those same words could have been written in the wake of the 1996 welfare reforms. But he no longer saw the truth in them as far as the plight of the black family was concerned.
Pat Moynihan passed away in 2003 having written, as George Will said, more books than most of his colleagues had read. This year, his intellectual collaborator, the esteemed sociologist Nathan Glazer, reflected on the failure of 45 years of generously funded state-sponsored efforts to close the gap between black and white. In what can be read as a gentle reproof to Moynihan’s opposition to the 1996 welfare bill, Glazer argued that “complex as it is, to frame a self-help policy narrative based on what is generally understood as the American immigrant path may be the best choice available: acceptance of how hard it is to get ahead in America, but recognition that one’s efforts can and often will succeed. That approach, after all, does have the merit of being largely true.”
It appeared that in denouncing welfare reform in 1996, Moynihan had experienced another “moment lost”—a moment in which he could have championed legislation to help remediate the disease he himself had diagnosed three decades earlier. Alas, the wounds he had suffered in 1965 made it impossible for him to see that the “moment” when America was ready to face some of its problems and find what was at least a partial solution for them had arrived.
1 Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by Steven R. Weisman, Perseus Books, 704 pages.
2 NYU scholar Larry Mead, who played a major role in the welfare-reform debates of the 1980s and 90s, suggests that Moynihan worked out his “inner political identity” first against the backdrop of 1960s romantic liberalism and then against what the senator saw as the comparable extreme of Reaganism. There’s something to Mead’s point. Moynihan saw both the McGovernites and the Reaganites as poseurs of sorts, pursuing their class privileges at the expense of the liberal consensus that had flourished so gloriously, if so briefly, during the mid-1960s. But once Moynihan became a senator, an office he loved, there were practical political considerations at work as well. Moynihan at times trimmed his intellectual sails so as to guarantee not only his tenure in office but also the record level of his senatorial victories, which was a source of great pride.