Future historians seeking to discover why America so easily surrendered its democratic traditions and constitutional government will find plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly disinterested in such values. Like all aristocracies, it existed primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue, and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.
For many years, 20th century liberalism was saved from becoming an aristocracy because of the dominance of such constituencies as labor, recent immigrants, and ethnic minorities. By the 1960s, however, these constituencies – thanks in part to successful liberal policies – had advanced socially and economically to the point that they no longer functioned as a massive reminder of what liberalism was meant to be about.
With the end of the Great Society, liberal Democrats began a steady retreat from liberalism climaxing in the Clinton’s administration’s systematic dismantling of liberal programs and paradigms.
The two greatest victims of this retreat were social democracy and civil liberties. It was not that the new liberal aristocrats actually opposed either; it just didn’t matter much to them. Liberalism was no longer a matter of masses yearning to breathe free, but of boomers yearning for an SUV.
While there were still repeated expressions of faith in a declining number of icons such as diversity, abortion, and the environment, the fact was that the liberal elite had become far more characterized by its capacity for self-defense than by its concern for others. After all, although seldom mentioned, the stereotypical boomer or yuppie was, in fact, were liberals. So were the rising elites of entertainment and journalism.
Most striking among these elites was the disappearing concern for those at the bottom. Liberal city councils went after the homeless and engaged in other forms of socio-economic cleansing; the Clinton administration attacked welfare in a manner once limited to the Republican right; prison populations soared without a murmur from the liberals; Democrats supported without question a cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs; the liberal media aristocrats prided themselves in faux realpolitik and patronizing prescriptions for the masses. And if you went to church or carried a gun you were a fool or worse.
The trend produced remarkable betrayals of liberal values. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the war on drugs; the leaders of NOW repeatedly defended a serial sexual predator in the White House. And liberal academia provided all purpose justification through the magic of postmodern rationalization.
Meanwhile, for all the talk of diversity, the percentage of blacks in colleges actually peaked in the late 1970s. The gap between the percentage of young whites and blacks in college likewise actually grew over the past thirty years. And meanwhile, the prison population – disproportionately minority – soared from under 400,000 in 1970 to about two million today.
Through it all, the liberal aristocracy was the dog that didn’t bark. Just as Sherlock Holmes’ creature failed to warn of an intruder, so America’s liberal leadership failed repeatedly to warn of infringements of civil liberties, of unconstitutional acts and legislation, or to rise to the defense of people beyond its own class.
When the liberal aristocracy backed the war on drugs, happily sacrificed national and local sovereignty to multinational corporations, yawned as the Clintons disassembled their own purported cause and became incensed when Ralph Nader dared to stand up for it, it was clear that this atrophied elite would not handle a real crisis.
And now it has happened – and only one liberal Democrat in the Senate opposes vast new police powers and hardly a liberal voice on TV or the op ed pages speaks for sanity. The irony is that the public will not reward the liberal aristocracy for its cowardice but will listen even more devotedly to those before whom the liberals have cowered. In the end, the liberal elite will not only have betrayed its own constituency, it won’t even have saved itself.