There’s a brilliant passage in James Piereson’s remarkable book, “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism,” that reveals much about our current political and cultural moment. It’s a passage that explores liberalism’s difficulty with accepting tragedy. Reading it, one begins to understand why liberals, especially in the wake of the Paul Ryan vice presidential pick, have become so preoccupied with portraying the GOP as the party of death.
Piereson’s argument in “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution” is that in the 20th century up until the 1960s, liberalism was largely a doctrine of maintaining government programs and slowly expanding freedom and justice for all people. Institutional liberalism, the dominant political philosophy of the mid-20th century, was not radical. Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy liberalism was not the radicalism of the communist-infiltrated progressive movement; indeed, compared to the radicalism of the American left, pro-American liberalism could even be considered conservative.
This liberalism, argues Piereson, was effective, patriotic, often anti-communist, and did good things. But it became such a dry and programmatic philosophy that it was missing something vital: the human soul. It saw little role for God and less and less room for the complexity, excitement, unpredictability, and tragedy of life. This is why 1950s liberalism was criticized by the bohemian left as much as the right. Piereson cites the liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling, who criticized mainstream liberalism in his 1950 book “The Liberal Imagination.” Trilling: “The world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks.” As Piereson elaborates, “liberalism … because of its programmatic focus and near exclusive emphasis on politics, lacks an imaginative dimension that might give it a better sense of the richness and complexity of life.” This complacency, along with the belief in a bright future where government programs would solve everything, and coupled with blindness to the spiritual and tragic side of man, left liberalism vulnerable to, well, life. Piereson: “The absence of any genuine opposition [to liberalism’s] intellectual assumptions, [meant liberalism] lacked a sense of tragedy that might help see it through times of difficulty.”
Thus, when Kennedy was killed, liberalism shattered. This was a pivotal moment of modern politics. After decades of erecting a world in which conservatism was a fringe philosophy and the world was manageable through government, liberals were confronted with a senseless tragedy. Making matters worse was the fact that Kennedy was killed by a communist. Unable to accept that Kennedy was a martyr to the Cold War, liberals rushed to blame Kennedy’s death on conservatives. Liberalism as a realistic and patriotic philosophy began to crumble, replaced by the New Left. The New Left was violent, anti-religious, paranoid, and utopian, exactly what was not needed in order to gain some degree of acceptance and understanding about Kennedy’s death. Piereson argues that the old liberalism was thus replaced by “punitive liberalism.” America was to blame for Kennedy’s death, and should be shamed and made to pay. Punitive liberalism became the fundamentalist religion of modern liberals. Whereas the old liberalism was smug yet taciturn in its belief in its own rightness, the New Left was loud, punishing, and arrogant. They also, as Piereson notes, took on many of the traits of the old 1950s right — paranoid, angry, prone to conspiracy theories. Yesterday’s fluoridation in the water is today’s Koch brothers. Rachel Maddow’s labyrinthine explorations of how a quote in The Nation magazine from 1987 proves, following steps 1 through 5, that Paul Ryan is a right-wing Sufi cannibal, is nothing so much as modern-day John Birchism.