The following post is an edited version of a talk I gave at California State University, Chico this Winter, unpacking the process that led to my my book, Liberalism Is Not Enough, and its primary conclusions.
When I started this project I was a third year graduate student struggling to sustain a passion for my research on Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists of the early republic. Little did I know that the musical of the century was about to catapult these exact fellows into ever-lasting Broadway fame – so I guessed I missed that boat – but the problem was one that even a hip and historically dubious musical couldn’t solve, and that was the irrelevance of my work to our contemporary political landscape. This irrelevance was not absolute of course, since for our relatively young country even the founding decades reverberate consequences to this day, particularly since there has never been a fundamentally new constitution written up once the first was ratified. Nonetheless, as my politics were transforming from some weird mish-mash of faux-rebellious conservatism mixed with social liberalism to being just plain old, and slightly more coherent, liberalism, I found that understanding contemporary political life was increasingly important to me. So, I decided to switch emphases and study twentieth century American history.
Once that decision was made, however, the question of what I would study remained. My instinct was to join the burgeoning study of the New Right, but I felt that if every time I sat down with my primary sources I was overcome with a combination of despair and rage that this might not be very good for my productivity. So I thought to look at the “other side” of the political spectrum during the formative years of the New Right, 1960s liberalism and the policy initiatives of Lyndon Baine Johnson’s Great Society. I started my research by exploring the intersections of liberal and leftist thought at the height of liberal power, investigating the most disruptive of War on Poverty programs, the Community Action programs, to do so. I hoped to find some long lost gems of left-liberal collaboration, a moment of social democratic possibility long forgotten underneath the wreckage wrought by the New Right.
However, as I began catching up on the scholarship surrounding the Great Society, it quickly disabused me of this hopefulness. The most radical moments in the Community Action programs, it turned out, were engineered not by liberal civil servants and policy makers but by the residents of the poor communities using the rare influx of federal dollars to demand change, often in ways that made their paternalistic liberal overseers uneasy and even outraged. True, sometimes the white liberals working on these projects would join the community in supporting rent strikes, picketing city hall, or occupying welfare offices. By and large, however, the thrust of Community Action on a policy level, as liberal architects intended it to function, added up to little more than an expansion of service bureaucracies wrapped up in a rather condescending belief that poor people –and particularly poor black people – needed to be “taught” how to do politics correctly, since liberals assumed that many of their problems resulted from their lack of integration in a political system they did not understand how to navigate. So much for my idea of a substantial social, let alone socialist, democratic impulse from within Great Society liberalism.
In addition to this deflating discovery, I also encountered another strain of scholarship that criticized the record of the War on Poverty from a centrist or liberal perspective. I was familiar with the culture-of-poverty argument that posited family instability and social dysfunction as the primary causes of black poverty, but I associated that line of argument mostly with conservatives solidly on the right. Yet I discovered that there was also a liberal tradition that likewise believed that so-called identity politics and political correctness had made discussion of black family problems taboo, thus preventing effective solutions from being implemented. A recent example of this type of scholarship in book-length form is James Patterson’s Freedom Is Not Enough, to which my own title, Liberalism Is Not Enough, is a not-so-subtle reply.
In nearly all of these liberal narratives, the starting point for their story of missed opportunities is Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his infamous report on the black family, ever afterwards referred to as “the Moynihan Report.” To make a long a story short, Moynihan penned a governmental report that identified a crisis in the black family which, he argued, was depriving young black men of strong fathers and thus setting them up for a life of crime and dysfunction. As he wrote, “the tangle of pathology is tightening.” Key to Moynihan’s analysis was the assumption that being raised primarily by women could not help, at least in the contemporary United States, to produce pathology, leading feminists then and now to critique the report as a document infused with sexist as much as racist assumptions. In any case, when the report became public within weeks of the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles, the press eagerly pounced on Moynihan’s thesis to explain the rebellion as the consequence of a generation of wild, young black men without fathers and therefore, morals or direction.
Since Moynihan’s report played such a key role in the development of the idea of what was (and is still today) called a culture of poverty, I had to of course read it myself and, I figured, it would also be a good idea if I read widely in Moynihan’s other publications from the time period. I knew Moynihan had a reputation for being a brilliant thinker – a man of the center who defied conventional political labels by creatively tackling ideas from larger perspectives. So when I finally started reading his many essays, books and speeches for myself – well let’s just say, boy was I disappointed. What many took to be erudition plainly appeared to me as shallow ostentatious snobbery, what had been celebrated as innovative thinking actually turned out to be mainstream liberal and neoconservative talking points and what others described as a breathless and brilliant writing style served only the function, as far as I could tell, to distract from the incoherence of the ideas articulated, leading to internal contradictions and head-cocking moments that I had to sludge through on nearly every page.
But alright – Moynihan might have been a terrible writer but this is not what was important about his work. Rather, reading Moynihan led me down the path of wondering whence it came – and this question brought me to men Moynihan himself shared close friendships with, a group of scholars who together articulated a body of political thought referred to in most scholarship as pluralism. Note that in this context, pluralism does not refer to the broader principle of democratic diversity but rather, the belief of men like Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and others that the specific political institutions of America had solved the riddle of how to maintain a functioning democracy without sliding into a totalitarian system of either the left or the right. As Moynihan rather succinctly put it, “I am in all things a man of the center; I think we have produced the best social system the world has so far seen, despite the obvious fact that it can be improved.” From local up to national politics, the pluralists believed that American democracy allowed anyone who wanted to exert influence and get a share of power to do so. While I worked my way into the details of this body of thought, I found that the core ideas made some sense not only out of Moynihan’s extravagant bloviating but, more importantly, the key notions guiding the policy of Johnson’s War on Poverty.
This came slightly as a surprise, since according to much of the literature on the Great Society the War on Poverty, if anything, represented a break with pluralist thinking, acknowledging as it did that poverty still existed on a scale worthy of declaring a war against. Yet, as I argue in the book, the opposite was true. From how liberals approached – or more accurately, avoided – the question of race, to how they believed that poverty could be solved by absorbing the poor into a political system they supposedly did not know how to navigate, to the pop-psychology often deftly applied by the pluralists to explain the existence of such “oddities” as the somehow-still-existing radical right and left, I found the mark of pluralists all over the policy of the War on Poverty. Eventually, this discovery would be the focus of the first chapter of Liberalism Is Not Enough, but it also connects the dots throughout the entire book because it told me, as my wonderful dissertation adviser sociologist Fred Block suggested I think about, what was in the drinking water. And this, in turn, explained how an idea that would later be associated with the most infamous mouthpieces of conservative commentary could have been the brain child of almost entirely liberals.
The idea of a culture of poverty first began congealing in studies by sociologists and social workers published in the 1950s and the 1960s. The term itself was coined by a Marxist sociologist, Oscar Lewis, in his famous but deeply problematic book on Mexican poverty. It was not really picked up by a broader public, however, until Michael Harrington used it in his least polemical work – and the only one where he did not mention or advocate for socialism – The Other America. This expose of the persistence of poverty in America nonetheless painted the contemporary poor as fundamentally different from, and far more damaged than, the poor that had occupied the slums of the nineteenth century. The good old-fashioned poor, Harrington wrote, “found themselves in slums, but they were not slum dwellers. But the new poverty is constructed so as to destroy aspiration; it is a system designed to be impervious to hope.” This idea captured the imaginations of the liberal mainstream, a dynamic reflected in the most-likely-myth that after reading the book, John F. Kennedy decided something must be done to eliminate poverty. The culture of poverty quickly became the go-to framework for explaining the persistence and, in certain regards, worsening of black poverty, and this mish-mash of ideas from sociology, psychology, and pluralist thought made up the raw material with which Moynihan composed his infamous report.
It is crucial to note the timing of the “discovery” of the culture of poverty. Moynihan penned his report in 1965, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act but before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Johnson Administration, and the liberal establishment more broadly, was struggling to respond to a black freedom movement which increasingly demanded not just desegregation, but a program to tackle the systemic patterns of racialized inequality – the March on Washington, after all, was a march for jobs and freedom. Moynihan wrote the report in part, as he later put it, to try and “leap-frog” the civil rights movement on these issues — to put the initiative in the hands of the administration, in other words, instead of taking direction from the civil rights organizations that continued to place immense pressure on the Democratic Party. So while the culture of poverty emerged as a popular idea at the peak of liberal power in the postwar period, it also coincided with the most serious challenge to that order up to that point – the civil rights movement.
And as I read the scores of articles, essays and books that articulated different aspects of the culture of poverty idea in the mid-to-late 1960s, the political work that the idea was performing became increasingly clear. Because the ultimate virtue of the culture of poverty framework was that it provided liberals with a way to acknowledge black poverty, and to appear to be addressing it with concern and sometimes policy, but without addressing the underpinning structural sources of that very poverty. Because the culture of poverty does indeed put the culture of poor people front and center, it deftly skirts around the issue of structural racism and inequalities produced by the market itself. In more than one way, the culture of poverty operated as a get-out-of-jail card for liberals: appear to be doing something about black poverty, but without calling into question the fundamental institutions of the American state and economy.
So, in my book, via zeroing in on the development of this idea, I make several arguments about the nature of postwar American liberalism and, I dare say, liberalism itself. First, I argue that postwar liberalism provided a fertile soil for the New Right to take root. This is not, to be clear, an argument that liberalism somehow caused the rise of the Right but, by refusing to address certain problems and by sharing key assumptions and commitments with conservative philosophy, liberalism did not provide a sufficient alternative to conservative ideology for anyone who might be disillusioned with or skeptical about it. The fate of the culture of poverty is an excellent example — today, the notion is most often employed by the Right, who took the core of victim-blaming that already existed in the liberal version and ratcheted up the intensity of this tactic to 11. This can easily be observed today simply by listening to conservative commentators, who often invoke Moynihan as the rare exception of a “good liberal” who had it right but was drowned out by a chorus of unfair accusations of racism. This version of the story also gets reproduced by liberals today, such as Nicholas Kristof’s 2015 column marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. Titled, “When Liberals Blew It,” Kristof called the measured and actually quite generous critiques of Moynihan “terribly unfair,” reproducing the myth that Moynihan suffered harshly from accusations of personal racism and that this, in turn, scared off future liberals from discussing black poverty. In reality, however, the primary reason that Democrats failed to aggressively tackle black poverty was not because they were cowed by the power of identity politics, but because their own politics shared much with conservative takes on the problem, leading them merely to wring their fingers and try to insist that some assistance for the poor was better than wholesale abandonment and itself would ultimately be a market-friendly move by integrating the black poor into the economy. They were not about to say that the market itself was a primary cause of the problem.
And of course liberals would not take their critique in this direction — if they did, they would no longer be liberals! This sounds like a tautology but really, the argument I make in the book is, or should be, incredibly obvious – which is simply that liberalism is a political philosophy which is ultimately committed to capitalism, and in the American context, at the very least, has never shown a willingness to directly attack structural white supremacy and white privilege, either; because racism and the market are too intwined to address one without seriously addressing the other. This is why I use the term racial capitalism in my book, because I really do not think you can talk about either dynamic in isolation.
For sure, liberalism is not the same as conservatism, but they are both philosophies of capitalism, and they share far more than contemporary liberals want to recognize, particularly in this age of Trump when liberals look back to the policies of the Great Society with misty-eyed nostalgia about how liberalism was true to its values then. Yet look a little closer, and the War on Poverty looks, at best, like a mild skirmish with poverty, and never came close to deserving the name of war.
And this brings me to my second major argument: if we are going to understand liberalism as a historical phenomenon, we cannot artificially segregate what we today consider its good qualities from the ugly stuff — racism, sexism, and classism — that it was, and continues to be, fundamentally intertwined with. Interestingly, a common concern I hear is that analysis that centers this ugly stuff is somehow presentist, and in a bad way; that it is not recognizing someone like Moynihan, say, as a product of his time. On the contrary, I argue that to not center these qualities is truly the presentist move, because it springs from our desire to believe that somehow, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, the ugly stuff is not the “true” liberalism, and it can be cured of this cancer. But I do not see how this analysis is maintained without falling into a dynamic of No True Scotsman and, moreover, it relies almost entirely on analyzing political ideas on the basis of what their most passionate adherents declare about them; and to me, this is not a historical approach.
Finally, to those who might counter, in this case in particular, with the record of civil rights legislation passed by Democratic administrations from the 1940s on, I would simply remind them that the people putting pressure on the Democrats to do so, and ultimately making it politically disastrous for them to continue with an explicit endorsement of white supremacy, was not white liberals, but African Americans. As Jefferson Cowie reminds us, prior to the civil rights movement, “the fight against racial segregation was simply beyond the political calculus, even the imaginations, of even the most progressive white politicians.”
But, because none of this was obvious to me when I started the journey that would culminate in this book, that is why I think and hope that it was worth writing and, hopefully, will be worth reading.
 Moynihan, “Three Problems in Combating Poverty,” in Poverty In America: Proceedings of a national conference held at the University of California, Berkeley, February 26-28, edited by Margaret S. Gordon. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965, 47.
 Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States, 1962, 10.
 Daniel Geary, Beyond Civil Rights, 75-76.
 Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception, 126.