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Reason, Nature, and the Future of American Liberalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1986

On most influential accounts, the future of American liberalism looks pretty bleak. The overwhelming tide of Reaganism, along with associated phenomena including the rise of a significant religious right, have seemingly swept aside the notions of progressive reform that we tend to associate with the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. The undeniable disarray of the Democratic Party suggests that the main institutional defender of liberalism in America is now ill-equipped to do the job. Moreover, if we continue to insist that liberalism is, at base, something equivalent to the New Deal policy agenda, then surely liberalism has no future at all. For if anything seems clear, it is that the New Deal and its various offspring are indeed quite dead, repudiated finally and definitively both in the 1984 election and in the preceding two elections as well.

There is, of course, a recent and burgeoning literature on the nature of a “neo-liberalism” which, presumably, would reestablish the liberal consensus. But this literature tends to operate in terms of images, personalities, and policies rather than underlying philosophical principles. Such accounts will not do. For if we identify neo-liberalism largely in terms of some new set of persons and proposals, we will have begged the question as to why those persons and proposals should be called “liberal” in the first place. We will be unable to explain, that is, why this liberal candidate or that liberal policy should not be more correctly understood as just another part of the emerging conservative hegemony.

Despite all this, it seems equally clear that we do continue to have individuals who sensibly and without anachronism call themselves “liberals,” that there is in contemporary American politics a left as well as a right, and that the Reagan landslide hardly betokens a widespread consensus—perhaps not even a majority—on a number of the most fundamental issues. Thus we are tempted to look for some underlying principles such that someone can deny the contemporary-political relevance of the New Deal, yet still be classified with his New Deal forebears as a liberal.

Of course, the question of the “real” nature of liberalism is an old one, and has appeared most especially in recurrent controversies concerning the Lockeian and republican interpretations of American democracy. For some, liberalism as it appears in America is characterized by a veneration of the autonomous individual, natural rights, the sanctity of private conscience, and the like. For others, its hallmark is an emphasis on republican virtue, a kind of widespread public spiritedness in which the corruption of self-interest dissolves in the face of a vigorous and authentic patriotism. Without wishing to comment on this controversy, I would nonetheless suggest that there is another, rather different issue of deep philosophical significance upon which liberals and conservatives in all periods seem to differ, and which recent commentators have largely ignored. The issue pertains to the relationship between reason and nature and has substantive implications especially for the fundamental political question of redistribution.

Specifically, it seems that liberals have been characterized by their belief in the moral superiority of human reason to nature. They have believed that the natural, traditional, or otherwise unintended distribution of things—talent, economic rewards, social standing, and the like—necessarily lacks any clear moral justification. And they have believed, therefore, that human reason ought systematically to interfere with such unintentional processes, hence to redistribute things on the basis of some rational moral principle.

Thus the first great systematizers of classical liberalism sought to undermine a natural and venerable tendency toward oligarchy or monarchy by seeking to redistribute sovereignty, on moral grounds, to the people themselves. For John Locke, the principle of patriarchy—an allegedly natural principle rooted in the nature of the family—is inappropriate for political society which, unlike the family, is composed of free, morally responsible agents. Whereas parental power is said to flow naturally from the relations of parents and children, political power requires free consent and an abstract, philosophical justification. Similarly, the so-called bourgeois political economists sought to redistribute income by undermining traditional sources of power and privilege. Adam Smith’s economic philosophy, for example, requires a systematic and reasoned attack on a certain natural tendency toward monopoly, as well as on the traditional roots of a status-based economy. It is, of course, true that Locke relies upon the notion of natural rights and that Smith invokes the unseen hand of economic competition; but in each case, the theorist in fact employs a rhetorically useful metaphor in order to justify rationally and self-consciously interfering with, and undermining, a natural or historical process which, without such interference, would have continued indefinitely on its own.

To be sure, by contemporary standards both Locke and Smith would be programmatic conservatives; the policies they proposed are insufficiently redistributive. But for their own times, they were indeed strong supporters of redistribution. And again, such redistribution would be based on principles derived by human reason and designed explicitly to subvert the characteristic traditional or natural tendencies of their societies.

In this sense, then, liberalism is fundamentally a species of humanism, understood as an ethos which esteems above all the capacity of humans rationally to construct their own social world, to create their own truth and reality, and to exemplify thereby their moral autonomy. In contrast, the conservative ethos celebrates the wisdom of individuals who seek to reconcile themselves to, rather than interfere with, such natural, extra-human or extra-rational processes. The conservative seeks a harmony with the rhythm of the universe, so to speak, and therefore requires that humans subsume themselves under some larger force. This force might be history and tradition, as for Edmund Burke; or it might be God, as for the contemporary evangelicals. It might be the everyday life of the community or neighborhood, as for neoconservatives such as Robert Nisbet; or it might be the physical world including human impulse and desire, as for certain of the 19th-century Romantics. Indeed, it might be language itself, as for Wittgenstein whose philosophy has political implications that are more conservative than many have supposed. In all such cases, the tendency is to accept the distribution of life’s benefits and burdens as imposed by some entity or process external to human reason itself and to renounce, thereby, the philosophy of redistribution in favor of an ethic of prudent reconciliation.

It is thus perfectly correct to identify liberalism with “secular humanism.” By rejecting external authority of all varieties, liberalism rebels against the givenness of things and demands that any system of distribution—political, economic, social—be justified essentially in terms of independent human reason. For better or worse, the true liberal refuses to accept that which the external world offers up of its own accord. He risks alienating himself from his environment and threatens to shatter the limits and restraints which nature prudently imposes on us, all in the interest of an elevated if hubristic sense of moral autonomy.

What then is the appropriate form of liberalism in the post-Reagan era? How can these rather abstract formulations be translated in terms of specific controversies and policies? In what way should the ethic of liberal reason and redistribution manifest itself in the wake of the New Deal’s final collapse? In examining such questions, it will be useful to begin by reexamining the apparent fall of the old order, as manifested most clearly in the 1984 presidential election.


My thesis is, in part, that the 1984 election was the first real test of the New Deal philosophy in more than a decade-and-a-half. The thesis rests, in large part, on an understanding of the peculiar nature of the Mondale candidacy. In brief, Mondale was the first “real” Democratic candidate, the first New Deal-type candidate since 1968, and also the first losing Democratic candidate since perhaps 1952 (one might be tempted to say, since 1924) without a built-in and plausible excuse.

Consider the McGovern campaign. Coming on the heels of the 1968 debacle in Chicago, and subsequent changes in the nominating system designed to help the chances of party “outsiders,” McGovern could hardly be considered a mainstream Democratic candidate. His nomination, and his repudiation in the general election, can be attributed in large part to his perceived ideological extremism, to his association with noncentrist elements of the Democratic Party, to his failure to incorporate the traditional coalition into his camp. The simple fact is that McGovern failed to win the official endorsement of the AFL-CIO; no such candidate could possibly be considered the New Deal candidate.

Of course, McGovern was also saddled with special problems including a dismal performance in the California primary, a powerful incumbent president for an opponent, an opponent whose staff conducted a campaign of dirty tricks about which we learned much more at a later date, and, finally, the health records of Thomas Eagleton. But such factors only contribute to our conclusion: the 1972 election could hardly be considered a valid test of the traditional Democratic Party and its ideals.

I would say much the same for the 1976 and 1980 elections. For the fact is that Jimmy Carter ran against Washington and against many of the established traditions of the Democratic Party. Indeed, we may say that in a very real sense the Reagan revolution started with the Jimmy Carter who told us that the federal government was not Santa Claus, that we would have to retrench, that we would have to learn to live within our means. Moreover, in terms of personal credentials, Carter was himself an outsider, a comparative political newcomer who, for example, had never experienced firsthand that great mechanism of political socialization called the United States Congress.

Thus neither McGovern nor Carter was ideologically, institutionally, or personally suited to the role of mainstream Democratic candidate. The real leaders of the Democratic Party in this period—Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, Edward Kennedy, and Henry Jackson—were, for a variety of very different reasons, unable to capture the Democratic nomination.

Mondale, on the other hand, was the legitimate heir and colleague of these latter individuals. Like them, he had a long history of involvement in the Democratic Party at the state and local level, including an apprenticeship with a major party figure. He had served in the Senate, where he had achieved a certain reputation for leadership both nationally and within the Capitol itself. Moreover, his institutional affiliations were impeccable. Whereas McGovern was never able to win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, Mondale won it even before gaining the nomination, the first time that has ever happened. His ties with the civil rights community, with the leaders of ethnic organizations, and with the local party hierarchy were longstanding. Ideologically, he stood four-square with the party’s traditions. Thus his candidacy could be considered a fair test of the strength of those traditions.

Moreover, the campaign itself contributed to the fairness of the test. It’s true that Mondale was up against an extraordinary campaigner, an incumbent whose powers of persuasion are well known. Still, the fact is that Mondale ran a pretty-good campaign in his own right. Particularly in the last month or so, he spoke to Americans with genuine fire and even eloquence. He proved himself to be perhaps the most capable television debater we’ve ever had, and he certainly showed himself to be well qualified for the presidency. Given his own abilities and institutional ties, given the fact that the Democratic Party was still the larger of the two in terms of voter registration (though the gap has narrowed considerably), and given the fact that, in purely statistical terms, Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings have never been as outrageously high as we have been lead to suppose—given all of this, many of us thought that Mondale would, at the very least, make a respectable showing.

It seems likely, then, that the extraordinary landslide must be explained, at least in part, not in terms of Mondale’s personal traits but, rather, in terms of what he stood for. The 1984 election was a reasonably fair test of the popularity of the traditional Democratic Party and its ideology, and it failed that test miserably. It therefore appears likely that Walter Mondale was in fact the last great New Dealer, the last link—via Hubert Humphrey—with the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. And in the light of 1984, it seems clear that that party no longer exists. It was dominant in an era other than our own, in an episode of American history that is now just that, history.


The demise of the old liberal hegemony leaves us with a new political system, one which, in retrospect, has been developing for a decade or more and which has, at its core, a brand new political creature. This creature began to emerge in the middle 1970’s and, it seems, has now come to dominate the political mainstream. In terms of 1984 politics, he or she might be called the Hart-Reagan voter. This individual may have preferred Gary Hart to Ronald Reagan, or Reagan to Hart, but he clearly found either of them far more acceptable than Walter Mondale. It is an astonishing fact that 34 percent of the people who voted for Gary Hart in the primaries turned around and voted in the general election for Ronald Reagan. We can only guess how many other individuals—Democrats who didn’t turn out in the primaries, independent voters who in many states were ineligible for primary voting, moderate Republican voters—were, in ideological terms, Hart-Reagan voters, people who liked both Hart and Reagan, but who would vote for the traditional Democratic candidate under no circumstances.

The Hart-Reagan voter may indeed be a Yuppie. But he is also a blue-collar worker now able to enjoy a white-collar lifestyle. He’s an upwardly mobile Hispanic in California or in Florida. Increasingly, he is a she, a career woman, perhaps, fed up with the marriage tax penalty, with CETA-type makework programs, with the irrelevant education courses that her children’s teachers are required by law to take.

At the core of this new political creature is a fundamental political prejudice, certainly only tacit and inchoate but quite powerful nonetheless. The Hart-Reagan voter rejects that part of the spirit of the New Deal which says that experts in government can devise programs that will fundamentally change the ways people think, act, and relate to one another. He rejects the view that government knows how to train people, reform delinquents, break the cycle of poverty and elevate the thoughts and impulses of his fellow citizens. On what basis does he reject all this? Ultimately, I think it is because he senses, with much plausibility, that the life of individuals and societies is extraordinarily complex, that social and psychological reality is somehow intractable, and that, as a result, the best of political intentions sometimes have consequences that simply cannot be foreseen. The project of using government to change the interior lives of persons and societies is simply infeasible; we don’t know how to do it and are unlikely to figure it out. As a result, the Hart-Reagan voter seems to have decided that, on balance, more good is likely to come from a process of economic-growth based on a vigorous system of free enterprise.

Is this creature, therefore, a conservative? That is not entirely certain. For the Hart-Reagan voter is also an environmentalist. He supports the Equal Rights Amendment and is-pro-choice on abortion. He thinks the nuclear freeze is a good idea, and he worries about the influence of religious zealots. He favors tax simplification, disapproves of windfall profits, and is leery of the trickle-down effect. According to the Harris Poll at the time of the election, 56 percent of the President’s own supporters rejected his position on the nuclear freeze, 53 percent on abortion, and 80 percent on environmental protection. In poll after poll, on issue after issue, analysts still find Americans supporting the presidency of Ronald Reagan but disagreeing deeply with many of his principles and policies. This kind of disjuncture between personal preference and issue preference is historically unprecedented, and has confused most observers. But in fact, the explanation is quite simple; the anomalous respondent is the Hart-Reagan voter.

We must bear in mind that this creature can hardly be described as a member of the “new right.” He’s not a born-again Christian, a romantic reactionary, a deprecator of modernity. Actually, the chances are that he’s something of a secular humanist. He believes in modern science. He may well have a personal computer in his home. He probably lived with his spouse before the nuptials, has tried mind-altering drugs, and is more interested in mortgage rates and IRA’s than in divine grace.

And in the extent of his preoccupation with his personal concerns, especially his economic self-interest, his general cynicism or lack of idealism, and his casualness about the use of power, he seems, and probably is, morally quite obtuse— perhaps no worse than the American citizen of the past but certainly no better.

Still, whether he’s ultimately a liberal or a conservative— more Hart or more Reagan—remains to be seen. For it appears that the Hart-Reagan voter is deeply confused on two dividing-line issues.

First, he is uncertain about questions of income redistribution. He rejects the New Deal, but he’s interested in fairness and justice and has no great affection for a return to the Robber Baron days. And second, he’s also confused about anti-communism and about America’s role in the world. He is tired of the country getting kicked around, and he may agree that the Soviet Union is up to no good. But he remembers Viet Nam and understands the difficulty of attempting to control events in the Third World. His general sensitivity to the complexity and intractibility of things prompts in him a certain isolationism with respect both to foreign and domestic policy. In my judgment, the battle for the soul of the Hart-Reagan voter may be fought in terms of issues such as these. This is the voter who now occupies the great center, and where he goes will decide the direction of the realignment that is most certainly taking place.


What then of the future of liberalism? At this juncture, we would do well to go back and reexamine for a moment the old liberalism itself and consider more precisely the senses in which it invoked the redistributive impulses of humanism and rationalism. For the fact is that the spirit of the New Deal was reflective of two quite different strategies, both concerned primarily with the less well-off in society, both consistent with historical liberalism as we have defined it, but each based on further principles and premises not included in, or even implied by, the other. One of these was a strategy of social engineering, the other a strategy of social justice.

The strategy of social engineering was based on the view that the disadvantaged could be helped through the enlightened application of the scientific method and that the miracles accomplished by the natural sciences could be at least approximated by the social sciences. Indeed, it was a perspective rooted in the great Enlightenment of the 18th century, echoing the claims of writers such as Helvètius and Condorcet who proclaimed that, through the assiduous utilization of science, one could realize the infinite perfectibility of man. More particularly, this perspective argued that one could use the authority of law—informed by scientific knowledge—to change the economic, social, and psychological situation of individuals in such a way as to produce predictable and desirable changes in their behavior, in their relations with one another, and, indeed, in their very feelings and attitudes.

As we have seen, this strategy now appears to be quite dead, at least as a dominant force in American politics. The Hart-Reagan voter, though a devotee of natural science, has lost his faith in the capacity of the social sciences to perform such miracles; it’s easier to send a man to the moon than to treat his neuroses, eradicate his racist impulses, undermine his antisocial habits, and the like.

The strategy of social justice, on the other hand, made no such scientific claims. It said absolutely nothing about changing human behavior, about using the law as a tool of progress, about the predictive powers of social science. Rather it was based on the principle that at least some of what happens to us in life is accidental, that accidents are not intrinsically fair or deserved, and that government therefore has an important role in tempering the good and bad fortune that befalls us.

This perspective presupposed that the wealthy individual did not earn all of his wealth but got at least some of it through blind luck—the luck of the social and natural lottery—and that the poor individual also owed at least a part of his condition to factors beyond his control. Such a view did not gainsay the role of hard work, dedication, and self-discipline, and therefore it did not envision anything approaching the complete equality of outcomes. But it claimed that, on the whole, successful individuals probably owed a certain part of their success to good fortune, to having been born with brains, or being lucky enough to have rich parents, or having been in a social/psychological situation conducive to the development of self-discipline and ambition, all factors which can hardly be called deserved. After all, one did nothing to deserve—to earn—one’s natural endowments, one’s parents, one’s social situation; these are things that we’re just stuck with.

In the interest of fairness, then, society was justified in demanding a little extra from the rich and giving a little extra to the poor. Whether redistribution would actually change anything—whether it would make anyone happier, more law-abiding, more productive, or whatever—was utterly beside the point. The goal, unlike that of social engineering, was not to change the way in which people lived; it was simply and solely to rectify a certain moral imbalance. The tangible consequences of this in terms of social behavior and achievement were completely and entirely irrelevant.

In my judgment, while the strategy of social engineering is now dead, the strategy of social justice is not. The fundamental idea of interfering with the natural and social lottery on the basis of reasoned moral judgment—the fairness issue, as it was called in the 1984 election—is fundamental to liberalism and is, in my view, what distinguishes the “Hart” from the “Reagan.” For the fact is that the Reagan revolution is an attack on the strategy of social justice as much as on social engineering, an effort to remove the influence of reasoned human judgment from the distribution of things and to restore the efficacy of natural, traditional, unintended forces, the forces of the marketplace, of autonomous technological change, and of the natural and social lottery.

The policy consequences are significant. Consider the perhaps prosaic issue of the tax structure. It seems clear that an important part of the Reagan Revolution has been the effort to undermine that structure’s redistributive implications. Cutting in half the capital gains tax, lowering dramatically the maximum tax bracket from 70 to 50 percent, reducing taxes in such a way as to ease the burden on upper-income individuals—all such decisions are aimed at the ethic of social justice in favor of a kind of Social Darwinism. Indeed, the issue pertains to the current controversy regarding tax simplification. It is common to view the leading proposals for tax reform as merely variations on a single theme, but in fact they differ precisely and fundamentally on the issue of social justice. Thus the Kemp-Kasten proposal seeks to limit redistribution by virtually ending the progressivity of the income tax (beyond a certain minimum tax-exempt income level); but other proposals—Bradley-Gephardt, for example—retain a significant progressive element, thereby endorsing the ethic of social justice.

In sum, the future of American liberalism seems to rest on the following kinds of questions: should government interfere with the natural rhythm of social life by seeking not only to provide equal opportunity but also to temper somewhat the vicissitudes of fortune? Are we happy to accept, indeed to embrace, the world as it presents itself? Or should we reaffirm the humanist project of insisting that our practices and institutions conform to the requirements of human rationality and ethical judgment? Should we be content with a society that reflects the traditional, natural, and unintentionel processes of human existence, or should we, with Immanuel Kant, demand an independent and autonomous role for human reason and judgment?

These may seem like abstract, philosophical questions and, of course, that is exactly what they are. But the fact is that liberalism’s past was shaped precisely by such questions— the decline of faith, the emergence of the scientific method, the rise of humanism. It is altogether likely that the future of liberalism will be similarly contingent on philosophy, on the way in which the most abstract questions are addressed and answered, and on the way in which those answers come to manifest themselves—as they always eventually do—in the day-to-day affairs of social life.


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