Ed Driscoll

Interview: Bob Tyrrell on The Death of Liberalism

Ayn Rand, Russian-born American novelist, is shown in Manhattan with the Grand Central Terminal building in background in 1962. (AP Photo)

I actually recorded this interview last week, but due to some computer issues, I wasn’t able to render it until Tuesday night, which, for obvious reasons, makes it a rather…timely discussion, thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s win in Wisconsin. I’m not really a fan of “The Death of Conservatism / Liberalism / Democrats / Republicans”-type books. Short reason: as the Professor likes to say, “Don’t get cocky, kid.” The longer reason I explored back in 2010, in a post titled “Whatever Your Ideology, Your Opponents’ Worldview Is Officially Dead.” But as Walter Russell Mead wrote on Tuesday, in a post titled “Beyond Wisconsin: Blue on Blue in California,” what passes for liberalism in its current form is simply running out of other people’s money:

As Republicans and Democrats across the country struggle to manage the mess left behind by foolhardy union bosses and complaisant politicians, both parties are likely to agree on one truth: the war on arithmetic never ends well.

That’s a topic that James Piereson discussed in depth in his magnum opus in this month’s New Criterion titled “Future tense, X: The fourth revolution”:

The conflict today between Democrats and Republicans increasingly pits public sector unions, government employees and contractors, and beneficiaries of government programs against middle-class taxpayers and business interests large and small. In states where public spending is high and public sector unions are strong, as in New York, California, Illinois, and Connecticut, Democrats have gained control; where public sector interests are weak or poorly organized, as in most of the states across the south and southwest, Republicans have the edge. This configuration, when added up across the nation, has produced a series of electoral stand-offs in recent decades between the red and blue states that have been decided by a handful of swing states moving in one direction or the other.

This impasse between the two parties signals the end game for the system of politics that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. As the “regime party,” the Democrats are in the more vulnerable position because they have built their coalition around public spending, public debt, and publicly guaranteed credit, all sources of funds that appear to be reaching their limits. The end game for the New Deal system, and for the Democrats as our “regime party,” will arrive when those limits are reached or passed.

Then there’s the rampant oikophobia of the Democrats, who viscerally loathe the very people they wish to subjugate, for cultural reasons explored in a recent article by Jeffrey Lord, former Reagan White House political director, in “JFK and the Death of Liberalism” in the American Spectator: 

Let’s rocket ahead now to what Bob Tyrrell calls The Death of Liberalism. In particular the numbers — polling data. Tyrrell spends an entire chapter discussing polling data, as well he should. His findings are the ultimate teachable moment as we settle into the 2012 Obama-Romney race.

By 1968 — five years after the death of JFK and in the last of the five years of the Johnson presidency — the number of “self-identified” conservatives began to climb. Sharply. The Liberal dominance Lionel Trilling had written about had gone, never to this moment to return. Routinely now in poll after poll that Tyrrell cites — and there are plenty of others he doesn’t have room to cite — self-identified liberals hover at about 20% of the American body politic. Outnumbered more than two-to-one by conservatives, with moderates bringing up the remainder in the middle.

What happened in those five years after JFK’s death?

One very compelling thing.

The attitude toward Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson that was evidenced by Kennedy’s liberal leaning staff, by the Washington Georgetown set, by Washington journalists — slowly seeped into the sinews of liberalism itself.

Recall Caro’s descriptions of people who were “in love with their own sophistication,” who were “such an in-group, and they let you know they were in, and you were not.” Think of the snotty arrogance displayed as these people laughed at LBJ’s accent, his mispronunciations, his clothes, his wife (“Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop“).

Slowly, and then not so slowly, these elitist, arrogant and if not outright snotty attitudes sought out a new target during the years when LBJ was sitting in the White House — when, in the view of these people, “Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop” had replaced the King and Queen of Camelot.

That new target?

The American people themselves. They had, after all, elected LBJ in a landslide in 1964. Now Uncle Cornpone was the elected President of the United States. To make matters more unbearable, LBJ was using his newfound power and popularity to actually pass the liberal agenda of the day, which Johnson labeled “The Great Society.” Uncle Cornpone, it seemed, wasn’t such a ridiculous figure after all when it came to getting the liberal wish list through the Congress.

No one better than JFK would have known instantly what a huge mistake this elitist attitude would be. Discussing the relationship of a presidential candidate with the American people, JFK had told historian and friend Theodore H. White, author of The Making of the President series, that, in White’s re-telling, “a man running for the Presidency must talk up, way up there.” It was a principle Kennedy surely would have applied to his own party — and did so while he was president. Not from JFK was there a drop of elitist contempt — from a man who unarguably could claim the title in a blink — for his fellow countrymen.

But in a horrifying flash, JFK was gone. And the elitist tide spread.

Which brings us to our interview with R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the founder of the American Spectator, on his aforementioned new book The Death of Liberalism.

Tyrrell discusses liberalism’s civil wars of the 20 century, explores Mitt Romney’s “unexpectedly” surging candidacy, and defines some of his favorite terms, such as:

  • Infantile liberalism.
  • The Stealth Socialist.
  • Coat and Tie Radicals.
  • The Kulturesmog.

And we also discuss Angelo Codevilla’s essay “America’s Ruling Class,” which first appeared in The American Spectator in 2010 before being spun off into book form — and if America’s Ruling Class was beginning to severely fracture, what comes next? Before noting how David Brooks completely misread the semiotics of Barack Obama’s beautifully creased pants when staring at them caused Brooks to pronounce the tyro senator fit to be president back in 2005.

And much more. Click here to listen:

[audio:http://pjmedia.com/eddriscoll/files/2012/06/20120605-pjm-ED.mp3]

(15 and a half minutes long; 14.2 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 4.5 MB lo-fi edition.)

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