Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moynihan: "Capitalism is in the gravest trouble"

One of the most interesting documents recently released by the Nixon archives is this 1970 memo from Nixon adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In it, Moynihan notes accurately that the legitimacy crisis that Nixon faced was not just his own, but one that the entire political establishment faced. Lies about the conduct of the Vietnam war by Democrats and Republicans seemed to have completely discredited government among everyday people.

After cynnically suggesting that Nixon take credit for the decline in black urban rebellions, Moynihan gets to the heart of the matter: the collapse of establishment legitimacy has produced a revolutionary situation in the United States the likes of which it had not experienced since the 1930s. The questioning of U.S. Cold War policy has in effect opened a pandora's box. "Capitalism," Moynihan tells Nixon, "is in the gravest trouble, simply because it seemingly cannot produce persons who will defend it in terms that have to be respected."

Moynihan thus frames Nixon's cultural politics as extremely important. He describes as Nixon's principle task the articulation of an aggressive centrism of the socalled "silent majority"-- people who are scared of revolutionary upheaval but lack the language with which to counter leftists' devastating critiques of the U.S. Cold War culture of bureaucracy, conformity, and bigotry.

Nixon hardly took his marching orders from Moynihan. But Moynihan's think piece is interesting, partly because of its sophistication, partly because of passages Nixon underlined, but most importantly because it documents the profound fear that establishment liberals had-- especially in the wake of the student strikes of May, 1970-- that liberal capitalism was on the ropes.

We tend to forget that fear these days-- how pervasive it was, how deep it went, and the kinds of changes that fear informed. The language of dismissing the New Left as hypocritical and self-aggrandizing college students persists. But we more often forget the sense of threat that the establishment felt about the New Left-- the real concern that failure of the U.S. in Vietnam was precipitating an even more profound, potentially revolutionary crisis at home.

Moynihan believed that "the only persons with any vigor on their arguments [for capitalism instead of socialism] are the real right wingers." But this gave him little hope. He, like Chuck Colson and Richard Nixon, were not admirers of Barry Goldwater. They were admirers of Harry Truman: the embattled, tough-talking centrist re-elected by a slim margin in a 4 way race in a divided country who still took his election as a mandate to guide the U.S. head on into the Cold War.

Little could Moynihan foresee that American capitalism would survive its socialist critics, and the Cold War would be reactivated-- not by a revitalized liberal centrism, but by an insurgent hard right. To Moynihan, these people lacked "class." They were too angry, would obviously turn off too many people.

As he remained an advocate of welfare til his death, Moynihan failed to forsee that the sense of crisis in the establishment would inspire business leaders to not just rebel against the New Left, but against the New Deal itself. He overlooked the hard right business leaders Kim Phillips-Fein has documented in her new book, the Top Down Revolution. But perhaps most importantly, he failed to see the meanness and lack of "class" at the heart of the "silent majority": the resentment that ran so deep, and the sense of masculinity and whiteness so ingrained, that it could one day be mobilized to dismantle the very New Deal state that Moynihan spent the rest of his life defending in vain.

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