Two books help to understand the endurance of liberalism and why it now falters

The rhetoric surrounding last November’s election and the histrionics leading up to President Donald Trump’s inauguration have prompted my reading of two books that hold answers about forces at play in politics and society.

In this election, voters revolted against the status quo of New York, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood. Their revolt also preferred Allentown over Ann Arbor, Mechanicsburg (Penn.) over Madison, and Bethlehem (Penn.) over Boulder and Berkeley.

BooksPeople from Nowheresville meant to shake off those unelected administrators and regulators who impose policies from afar. An example is the Environmental Protection Agency’s blocking a proposed new road supported by officials in Marquette County, Michigan. Favoring wetlands over the needs of Negaunee and Ishpeming, the EPA intervened in the permitting process. As if Michigan has a swamp shortage.

Besides the broad movement against heedless central authority, the election of Donald Trump was a statement against the political correctness that increasingly entails speech codes and the denial of speech. In their protests, though, liberals go on claiming the high road.

As the Spectator wrote in 1909, “Liberals have always claimed that they represent the intellectual party in the State, while the Tories are the stupid party … So far as can be gathered from the record of the present Ministry, the modern creed of liberalism consists in certain vague aspirations for improving the social condition of the masses of the people by means of the action of the State.”

With the exception of President Obama’s two terms—which may come to be seen as an aberration, a last spasm of political correctness—the United States has since 1994 been moving away from liberalism’s tenets of class envy and self-loathing.

Yet some blocs of voters defy their own apparent best interests. For example, in 2016 Jews voted Democrat in a landslide, with 71 percent for Clinton to 24 percent for Trump. (It’s a phenomenon that has gone on since 1932.) The reward? Before leaving office, President Obama aced these party loyalists with the United States’ abstention at the United Nations, allowing the Security Council to censure Israel. The maneuverings led Bret Stephens to write, “What a fitting finish to this ruinous presidency.”

Even besides having to endure the government’s betrayal, Jews are a high-earning segment of the electorate and stand to lose more through confiscatory taxation.Yet my Jewish friends and acquaintances are often among the most reflexive of liberals.

* * *

Norman Podhoretz explains all in Why Are Jews Liberals? Early in his book published in 2009, Podhoretz, whose association with Commentary goes back to 1960, notes that Jewish liberals “take pride in … their refusal to put self-interest (which they equate with selfishness) above the demands of ‘social justice.’” Asserting that thought cannot be prescribed or regulated despite the intrusions of government, he cites the lines Dr. Johnson contributed to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Traveller:

How small, of all that human hearts endure,

That part which laws of kings can cause or cure.

Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,

Our own felicity we make or find.

President George W. Bush bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Norman Podhoretz in 2004.

Podhoretz continues: Not only do Jews stand with efforts to achieve social justice, but there’s also “their attachment to yet another high ideal—in this case the ideal of tolerance.”

The exception, he says, is the Jews’ lack of tolerance for the religious Right, which is the one group they should ally with as the Left “has grown increasingly hostile to Israel, and this hostility has by now metastasized to the point where the difference between ‘anti-Zionism’ and anti-Semitism has become almost invisible to the naked eye.”

Why Are Jews Liberals? takes us through the long history of persecution against Jews, mostly by Christians who brutalized and banished them or forced their conversions. Throughout the Inquisition, pogroms, and Nazi extermination, Jews distrusted and feared Christians and sought protection from the enlightened despot or tolerant regime. American Puritans displayed “a far more positive attitude toward the Jews than existed anywhere in Christian Europe,” Podhoretz writes, and the German Jews who came to the United States in the nineteenth century adopted an advanced type of Reformed Judaism, even sometimes modeling their synagogues after Protestant churches. Emanu-El, in New York, led the way. “Hebrew was almost entirely replaced by English, organs were introduced, women were seated with men, and heads were not only permitted but required to be uncovered.”

About two million Eastern European Jews flooded into the United States between 1880 and 1924, when the Johnson-Reed Act imposed restrictions. (The act not only limited Jewish and Italian immigration, but also curtailed Africans and stopped Arabs and Asians altogether.) These Yiddish-speaking Jews lived in tenements and worked in the garment industry. Their salvation was achieved through the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a Marxist-led “weapon in a war whose ultimate objective was the overthrow of capitalism.”

Eastern European Jews at Ellis Island in 1902. Credit:

The Marxist infection started in the sweatshops and spread to Jewish writers and intellectuals. Even after socialists and Communists fought among themselves, the tilt of the Jews was leftward, priming them for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Not only have Jews remained with the Democrats every since, but also they have been ready adopters of the modern era’s procession of “isms”in the social sphere.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and belief in collectivism ended, Europe’s social democracies began to inch toward American-style capitalism. Liberalism, in turn, became “an acceptable refuge from social democracy,” and defying logic, American liberalism has crept leftward. For American Jews, it has been institutionalized as not just

…a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a ‘substitute for religion”: it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and, Tertullian-like, obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.”

Podhoretz concludes by saying the Left sees oppression and injustice, the Right sees freedom and prosperity. American Jews’ natural place should be with the conservative view, and they are in fact obligated to defend “the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system.” His lamentation is that Jews will continue to accept the “Torah of liberalism.” But he hopes they will “break free of their political delusions.”

* * *

Because of liberalism’s feeble and failing underpinnings, it’s worthwhile to ask to what degree it endures because of white guilt? Shelby Steele isolates the phenomenon in his short but profound book of 2006.

White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era lays it out: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to white supremacy in the United States; a moral vacuum developed afterward.

By the mid-1960s, as Steele explains, white guilt elicited a new kind of black leadership. They were “not selfless men like King who appealed to the nation’s moral character but smaller men, bargainers, bluffers, and haranguers—not moralists but specialists in moral indignation—who could set up a trade with white guilt.” 

Instead of being obligated to stated principles, which had only applied to the privileged majority, American whites and American institutions were now obligated “to black people as a class.” The racist past became a kind of currency for blacks, every perceived racist incident like the beating of Rodney King was seen as the tip of the iceberg, and social determinism “was the idea that moved racism from the level of discriminatory events to the level of ‘impersonal’ and ‘structural’ forces that worked by ‘invisible hand’ to stifle black aspiration even when real racists were nowhere to be seen.”

Steele contends the strategy of those “bargainers, bluffers, and haranguers” was to make whites responsible for the advancement of blacks, to institute racial reform that should deliver results even though, as he says, there’s nothing worse.

“Of course white guilt—this voracious vacuum of authority—more than wants the responsibility that black militancy is determined to give it,” Steele writes. So a whole series of measures then arise, from anti-poverty programs to affirmative action. Social justice would “agent us into a competitive equality with whites,” he adds.

Militancy, he writes, “gave blacks a political identity with no real purpose beyond the manipulation of white guilt. Worse, because this identity was thought to be absolutely essential to black power, it quickly became the most totalitarian and repressive identity that black America has ever known. All dissent became heresy, punishable by excommunication, because anything less than uniform militancy weakened the group’s effectiveness with white guilt.”

Whites paid an unexpected price in now being unable to stand up for Western civilization’s greatest achievements. So we are overtaken by relativism, by feelings of illegitimacy. Liberal policies usher in a patronizing stance—“I couldn’t be racist because I supported affirmative action”—that Steele calls in his typical epigrammatic fashion “dissociated man,’ someone so conspicuously cleansed of racism, sexism, and militarism that he would be a carrier of moral authority and legitimacy.”

It makes a bountiful yield of hypocrites–especially the anti-reformers.

Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education

Steele emphasizes that dissociation “always works by eroding the quality of its host institution.” If it’s too good, if it’s too hard, it’s a relic of oppression. “And there is no better example of the self-destruction that dissociation brings to institutions than the American public schools.”

The protest movement of the Vietnam era became Occupy and now Resist, ritualized expressions of dissociation as the response to white guilt.

We call this the Culture War.

As Steele suggests at the end of his superb book, “In many ways, the special character of contemporary conservatism comes from the fact that is a reaction to the cultural decline caused by the culture of dissociation. This conservatism tends to think of itself as a historical corrective.”

We will take our positives where we find them during the turbulent period of transition.

2 thoughts on “Two books help to understand the endurance of liberalism and why it now falters

  1. I have never understand why the Jews are liberals. Unbelievable. How many people know the difference between a Democracy and a Republic? So many comments in the KC Star that really know what they are talking about. I guess the only reason we take the Star is for the Jayhawk sports.

  2. It’s music to my ears, eerrr, to my eyes to read about your recent views on the political climate and changes taking place in today’s world. In my opinion you have captured the very essence of the incongruent political actions of the Jewish voters as well as summing up so eloquently the reasons why Trump took the Presidency by storm.
    Uncle Chuck

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