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.
Today’s liberalism is a hybrid of the worst of the old liberalism and the New Left. It has both old liberalism’s belief in a program for every problem, as well as the New Left’s rage, utopianism, and atheism. Like the liberalism Lionel Trilling criticized, it doesn’t accept tragedy, the complexity of life, or the importance of the human soul. And it has retained the New Left’s hatred of religion in favor of the state. In a recent MSNBC appearance, liberal journalist Jonathan Alter announced that if Obamacare is repealed “people will die.” Well, maybe. But people will also die if Obamacare starts rationing care. People will also die today from abortion and war. People will slip in showers.
The point is, tragedy is part of life. This doesn’t mean we don’t try and avoid it, or that we don’t feed the hungry and treat the sick, or have government programs to help people. But modern liberalism has become intolerant of the realities of life. It will not accept complexity and unfairness. (Years ago as a gag the paper the New York Press advertised a “March Against Tragedy.” Liberals actually showed up.) When welfare reform was passed in 1994, the left cried that there would be hungry bodies in the streets. At every DNC convention there is a brutally long and detailed lecture by a liberal politician, complete with gruesome details, about the slowly dying one-eyed child with no arms and asthma who simply wants mom and dad to be able to pay the hospital bills. If only they had the same passion about the unborn.
For the next three months, we are going to be bombarded by the Democrats and the media with a combination of smug New Left rage, old-school defenses of government programs, and a healthy serving of punitive liberalism. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are not just misguided; they are conservative white males who are betraying goodness itself. They hate America — the real America of welfare and gay marriage. In short, they are guilty and must be punished. They are the Koch brothers. And if elected, people will die.
It’s impossible to imagine John F. Kennedy waging such a campaign.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.