Monday, February 3, 2014

The Rhetorical Victory but Intellectual Exhaustion of Postwar Liberalism

"Perhaps nothing is of more importance, both as cause and as effect, to the conservative mood than the rhetorical victory and the intellectual and political collapse of American liberalism.....

They [the petty right] have brought to wide attention a new conception of national loyalty, as loyalty to individual gangs who placed themselves above the established legitimations of the state and invited its personnel to do likewise....And they have revealed a decayed and frightened liberalism weakly defending itself from the insecure and ruthless fury of political gangsters.

As the liberalism-of-the-'thirties sat in its postwar hearing, liberals became aware, from time to time, of how near they were to the edge of mindlessness. The status edifice of established bourgeois society was under attack, but since those of once liberal and left persuasion see nothing in the future below it, they have become terribly frightened by the viciousness of the attack, and their political lives have been narrowed to the sharp edge of defensive anxiety.

Postwar liberalism has been organizationally impoverished: the prewar years of liberalism-in-power devitalized independent liberal groups, drying up the grass roots, making older leaders dependent upon the federal center and not training new leaders round the country. The New Deal left no liberal organization to carry on any liberal program; rather than a new party, its instrument was a loose coalition inside an old one, which quickly fell apart so far as liberal ideas are concerned. Moreover, the New Deal...turned liberalism into a set of administrative routines rather than a program to fight for.

In their moral fright, postwar liberals have not defended any left or even any militantly liberal position: their defensive posture has, first of all, led them to celebrate the 'civil liberties,' in contrast with their absence in Soviet Russia. In fact, many have been so busy celebrating the civil liberties that they have had less time to defend them; and more importantly, most have been so busy defending civil liberties that they have had neither the time nor the inclination to use them.


Over the past half century, liberalism has been undergoing a moral and intellectual decline of serious proportion. As a proclamation of ideals, classic liberalism, like classic socialism, remains part of the secular traditions of western society. But as a rhetoric, liberalism's key terms have become the common denominators of the political vocabulary; in this rhetorical victory, in which the most divergent positions are all proclaimed and defended in the same liberal terms, liberalism has been stretched beyond any usefulness as a way of defining issues and stating policies."

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956), pp. 333-335

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