Daniel Patrick Moynihan protesting against the sale of fighter planes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 1978. © Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Daniel Patrick Moynihan protesting against the sale of fighter planes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 1978. © Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Leave it to an attentive historian to diagnose the state of American politics, its curious mix of passivity and agitation, and to identify its symptoms: “[T]he growth of the mass media of communication and their use in politics have brought politics closer to the people than ever before and have made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved. Thus it has become, more than ever before, an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected. Mass communications have made it possible to keep the mass man in an almost constant state of political mobilisation.”
So Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1954, when the chief spectacle was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist “investigations,” broadcast on radio and also on the infant mass medium, television. Some networks carried the proceedings live, hour upon hour; others distilled them in late-night excerpts. As theatre it was often boring, with just enough surprises, occasional bursts or flare-ups, to keep “mass man” glued to his seat, riveted, or narcotised; not mobilised in any normal sense—1954 was not a year for taking to the streets—but highly suggestible.
Sixty years later, little has changed but the media itself, in its many new invasive forms, which feed the growing appetite for “disclosure” and have changed the economic calculations of journalism, with “audience development” now at their centre. It is no longer enough for the reporter to “get the story.” He must also satisfy the “metrics” of page views, “clicks” and of Facebook “likes,” and attain the maximum exposure of tweets and retweets by “influencers,” who each command small armies of “followers.” The outward costs of this—the investment of time and energy—have been amply explored. What are coming into view only now are disruptions in the ways print journalism is written, edited and published, the almost continual heightening and vivifying of the news into melodrama, each item juicily spread before the reader like an episode of House of Cards. It is happening even in the United States’s greatest newspaper, the New York Times (where I worked for nearly a dozen years). When Maureen Dowd, a first-rate columnist with matchless Beltway sources, learned that Vice President Joe Biden was (once again) thinking of challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, prompted in part by urgings from his son, who died of brain cancer at the age of 46 in May, she didn’t simply relate this development, she contrived a miniature tele-novel: “My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m OK.” Such liberties aren’t really surprising in a columnist, and certainly not Dowd, whose gift is for measuring the ever-expanding egos of Washington “personalities.”
What is surprising is the steady infiltration of “story telling” into the Times’s news pages, including the hallowed acreage of “page one.” The paper’s coverage of the presidential candidates’ speeches to the National Urban League, the respected civil rights organisation, on 31st July—an important but normally staid event—came wrapped in overheated revelations. Jeb Bush, we were told, was hoping to give a “high-minded” speech on racial harmony, but was thwarted when Clinton, on stage before him, “stomped all over those plans” in remarks that included blunt jabs aimed at Bush. Some paragraphs later, however, we learned that, in fact, Bush read from his script and the speech was well-received—meaning, of course, that his “plan” hadn’t been thwarted at all. The reader first felt confused, and then misled. But without the overlay of spurious drama there would have been no “story,” only a straightforward account of another stop on the endless campaign trail.
Readers have begun to complain, though in somewhat different terms, interpreting much of this as bias against Clinton. In response, the Times’s excellent Public Editor (or ombudsman), Margaret Sullivan, has been questioning reporters and editors about the coverage and publishing their answers. “The vote for president is the most personal vote that Americans cast,” the Times’s Washington Bureau Chief explained. Learning about, say, Jeb Bush’s to-the-brink-starvation “paleo diet” helps us “to get to know the candidates as people,” in Sullivan’s paraphrase. That is to say, political journalism as tele-novel reflects and suits the mood and taste of the moment and keeps the reader-citizen interested. Reporters, meanwhile, say they are simply doing their job as they’ve always done it, digging up the facts, flattering and unflattering alike, even if “good” and “bad” news, “hard and soft” all strike the same titillating tone—whether it is a scrupulously assembled list of the “Fewer than 400 families” whose donations account for “almost half” the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign (with eye-popping sums included) or a cozy look at the Clintons’ summer holiday on Long Island, complete with the square-footage of rental mansions and name-checking roster of showbiz folk. This is dignified as an earnest glimpse of Hillary’s “quandary” as she seeks to stay on her new-found populist message while still “mingling at summer cocktail parties” with Alec Baldwin. (Well, wouldn’t you too, if you could?) The “fun” story balances the “serious” one, just as “positive” accounts of Clinton’s command of policy detail offset “negative” reporting on her use of personal emails to conduct State Department business, violating protocol, if not the law (no one seems quite sure). Journalists protest that accusations of “media bias” no longer apply, and they’re right. An aggressively adversarial press corps has given way to an unrelievedly prurient one. Story upon story sharpens Hofstadter’s picture of politics in the media age as “an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected.” The difference is that in 2015 the principal dynamic is no longer the familiar one of leader and led. It is the voyeuristic bond that unites “content provider” and “user.”
Beneath the distractions of our journalism lurks the giant wreckage of our injured politics and of America’s two damaged parties, neither capable, it seems, of marshalling a sustained idea, in its programmes and policies and in its arguments or rhetoric, of what might constitute a better or more just society in the 21st century. Such work is being done elsewhere—by activists and organisers, grassroots campaigns and micro-movements from “Occupy Wall Street” and “Black Lives Matter” on the left to the many Tea Party groups on the right. But our elected and appointed “leadership class” abandoned the visionary function of politics and government some time ago, and gives no sign of wishing to reclaim it.
That absence helps explain the revived interest in the singular career of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), who was for half a century the most vibrant, at times it seemed the only, genuine intellectual in American politics. He served under four consecutive presidents, two Democrats and then two Republicans, first in small jobs and then big ones—including Ambassador to India (under Richard Nixon) and to the United Nations (under Gerald Ford). He followed this with four terms in the US Senate. In between, he was a professor at Harvard and wrote dozens of provocative papers and journal articles, as well as 18 books (more, it was said, than most other senators had read), most of them stimulating and a handful first-rate.
The CV was impressive, but what set Moynihan apart was his temperament, the sense he gave of containing within himself many of the contradictions, and battling impulses, of mid-century American life. A lifelong Democrat, raised in and around working and middle-class Irish neighbourhoods in New York City, but educated in Boston (at Tufts University) and London (London School of Economics), he became dazzled by his era’s positivistic social science—its oceans of data and mountains of theory—and drew on both, along with a piquant prose style all his own, to devise grand and intricate schemes for ameliorating racial and economic injustice. A pioneer of social policy, Moynihan soon entered a strange limbo where he was both hero and villain, an intellectual who ridiculed the intellectual class, a fish-out-of-water Ivy League professor, a mentor and educator who battled constantly with the young.
Today, however, Moynihan towers before us a vanished, much-missed type, the reform-minded traditionalist, “the American Burke,” as Greg Weiner’s new book about him maintains, whose complex ideas weighed “possibility” against “limitation,” and “private pluralism” against “common purpose.” TheWashington Post columnist EJ Dionne recently recalled the memory of the “unpolarising Moynihan,” at home in Democratic and Republican administrations alike. But he was not a placatory figure. On the contrary, he lived to polarise and provoke, needed to feel surrounded by critics and carpers, enemies hiding in ambush. His strength was for seeking out the hidden sources of discontent. His weakness was in imagining they lay in wait principally for him.
There were better and more credentialled scholars than Moynihan in the US government. His scholarly work wasn’t consequential, nor was he a match for George Kennan, John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Arthur Schlesinger and Francis Fukuyama, or for any number of other “eggheads” of the 1950s, “action intellectuals” in the 1960s and “policy intellectuals” in the 1980s. Moynihan was a different creature, a working politician who drew on advanced data and talked reverently of “social science” but also thought in sweeping terms—about family, poverty, race; issues that were creating tensions in the emerging political culture of postwar America. And to get them right, to untangle the strands, required more than expertise. It required an almost romantic belief in politics itself and in the power of the political visionary, who synthesised schools of thought and areas of experience. This comes through today in the pungent but often hypnotic quality in Moynihan’s prose. No writer or thinker of the moment sounds anything like him—social scientist, historian, ethnographer, community organiser, cultural critic and angry satirist. But for any of this to matter, he needed a patron, a prince.
“On my level you never get to know a big man really,” he wrote to the sociologist Nathan Glazer, one of his many intellectual mentors, in July 1960. Then again, even at higher levels, “no one ever gets to know really big men.” At the time Moynihan was 33, a delegate to the Democratic national convention that nominated John F Kennedy, and like so many others was swept up in what seemed an almost boundless glamour and promise. “Kennedy does not represent a movement in the Democratic Party,” Moynihan wrote. “He represents a new era in American political history.” But Moynihan himself didn’t really fit in—the source of trouble later on. Unlike so many Kennedy favourites, he wasn’t really a Harvard man—teaching there, later, didn’t count and he didn’t yet have the easy polish and style that Kennedy liked. It was under the next President, Lyndon Johnson, that Moynihan achieved fame, though not in the way he wanted, when he was unmasked as the author of a penetrating, vivid report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” composed in 1965. An “eyes only” memo, written to stir policymakers into action, it became the basis for much of Johnson’s “Great Society” programme to eliminate poverty.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan with President Nixon in Washington in 1970. © AP Photo
Daniel Patrick Moynihan with President Nixon in Washington in 1970. © AP Photo
But there was a backlash. Once the report was leaked, the story ceased to be the rescue programmes, but Moynihan’s account of life in the inner-city blighted by the unbreakable rhythms of poverty: unemployment, little or no schooling, low wages (if any at all), children raised in “matriarchal” (fatherless) households and generations trapped in hopelessness, unable to lift themselves up or out. You could read it either as compassion for the wretched of the earth or as a kind of horrified anthropology. Moynihan was accused of blaming the victim. In reply, he reminded critics that the report explicitly pointed to the legacy of slavery. He was right. Those words were there, but they were drowned in the sensational data and the vivid prose. He didn’t coin the phrase “tangle of pathology.” But through Moynihan it entered the language, and in the tense climate of the 1960s seemed less diagnostic than judgemental. Wading so confidently into these question, treating black Americans as if their habits differed from those of whites, Moynihan failed to see, as the sociologist Herbert J Gans observed at the time, that apparently disabling features of inner-city life might actually be “positive adaptations” to exceedingly difficult conditions, ingenious and sophisticated methods of coping. Either way, Moynihan the political visionary was engulfed in an emerging culture war. The Democratic Party was splitting apart, as disagreements that had begun in policy-writing cubicles and the pages of small-circulation journals spilled onto the nation’s campuses and into the streets of its great cities.
Under assault by civil rights activists he thought had been on his side, and by campus activists, Moynihan was thrust into the role of unwitting pioneer, the first of the discredited “white guys,” the lecture-hall moraliser, the tone-deaf “expert” who actually didn’t know what he was talking about, because the truth of American life was known only to those victimised daily by it, in ways no intellectual tourist could ever grasp. Moynihan intemperately fought back, lashing out not only at individual critics but at the legions of “the liberal left” and their indifference to hard facts except “to the extent that they serve as an indictment of American society.” Conservatives were as bad, he pointed out. They respected data, but self-servingly, “to indict the poor; after that, they lose interest.” But his anger was aimed at those who had stung him, who questioned his good faith and mocked his principles. A lifelong liberal Democrat, he declared war on the “adversary culture” (a phrase borrowed from Lionel Trilling), the complacent inhabitants of “eliteland,” the cultural relativists and nostalgists de la boue he saw all around him: the professors in league with their privileged students, the anti-Vietnam war protestors and community activists, journalists at the Nation—“the new class,” as Moynihan’s friend Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservatives, later called it.
Kristol and others fled that world or scorned it. But Moynihan remained in it. He was an old-fashioned liberal, a product of the New Deal who had become a Great Society Democrat This was supposed to be the future and the path to deliverance, and still could be, except no one seemed to believe it any more, including other nations for whom America had once been a beacon. Named Ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, Moynihan became a hero on the right, defending Israel and denouncing Third World monsters like Idi Amin, but he was also labelled a neoconservative jingoist, infected with “paranoia about communism” and “cultural chauvinism.”
In his Senate years, which began after the bitter enmities of the 1960s and 70s had cooled, Moynihan settled into a kind of gentlemanly eccentricity, with his towering height and arched eyebrows, natty bowties, his strange, barking voice and Anglo inflections, in which he orated in a kind of drunken Irish poetry. He remained a provocateur, cantering off after curious causes—at one point he called for the CIA to be disbanded and squabbled with the Clintons over healthcare. But by this point he did not so much inhabit American political life as ornament it. New Yorkers took pride in him, his erudition and singularity, his cosmopolitan un-Beltway-like manner. The citizen who wrote to Moynihan asking for help in getting a passport could expect to get a history of passports in reply, it was said; his less Olympian colleague, Alfonse D’Amato (“Senator Pothole”) would get you the passport. When Moynihan retired from public life in 2000, he ceremonially bequeathed his Senate seat to Hillary Clinton, whom he once disparaged along with her husband as “children of the 1960s at long last in power.” He departed wearing the thorny cocked crown of quasi-buffoon, the would-be philosopher-politician who had become a caricature of himself, less Benjamin Disraeli than a character in a Disraeli novel or in one of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser volumes—“our political era’s most magnificent failure,” as the journalist Jacob Weisberg summed it up at the time.
Instructive though the surrounding Moynihan literature is, it’s better to read Moynihan himself. He really could write. One place to start is Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. Published in 2010, it began the trickle of interest that now amounts to a full-scale Moynihan revival. It’s most profitably read in snatches—a thumbnail sketch of George HW Bush and his wife, Barbara, arriving to greet him at the Beijing airport in 1975, “she in mink; he in tennis glow. They are quintessential gentle folk, who have lived most of their lives in oil fields, political conventions, and now Red China; a triumph of good manners and good digestion”; or an explanation (to Nixon’s aide John Erlichman, in 1969) of a new climatological concern called the “greenhouse effect”: “the atmosphere has the effect of a pane of glass in a greenhouse. The CO2 content is normally in a stable cycle, but recently man has begun to introduce instability through the burning of fossil fuels… I would think this is a subject that the administration ought to get involved with.”
Most impressive of all is that Moynihan continued to worry about the poor and kept dreaming up ideas for helping them. When Bill Clinton and Congress eliminated the country’s major welfare programme, in September 1995, Moynihan stood on the Senate floor and said, “If this administration wishes to go down in history as one that abandoned, eagerly abandoned, the national commitment to dependent children, so be it. I would not want to be associated with such an enterprise, and I shall not be.” By this time the civil rights establishment had come around. Its leaders now talked openly about “the culture of poverty.” Moynihan looked increasingly like a prophet. But prophets can’t fix social ills—at least not by themselves—no matter how clearly they see. In a memo written in January 1969, just before Nixon took office—elected on a platform of “law and order” that made an explicit appeal to middle-class whites anxious about the demands of an increasingly restive black “underclass”—Moynihan summarised the sources of black discontent. “The essence of the Negro problem in America,” he wrote, “is that despite great national commitments, and great progress a large mass of the black population remains poor, disorganised, and discriminated against. These facts are increasingly interpreted as proof that the national commitment is flawed, if not indeed fraudulent, that the society is irredeemably ‘racist,’ etc. This interpretation is made by middle-class blacks and whites… whom, outwardly at least, society seems to have treated very well, but the continued existence of black poverty makes their argument hard to assail. Moreover, increasingly that argument is directed not to particulars, but to fundamental questions as to the legitimacy of American society.”
Forty-six years later, those conditions are unchanged and race is still on many minds, yet Moynihan’s memo strikes the nerve more directly than anything you will read on the subject today. And, unlike any current political thinker, Moynihan had an idea of what might be done. Another new book, The Professor and the President, by Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, tells from the inside the interesting story of Moynihan’s unlikely partnership with Nixon, the third president he served, and the one he connected with best, since Nixon too was a proud-wounded outsider, with an odd blend of insecurity and delusion and unexpected intellectual scope—all qualities Moynihan could understand because he shared them. Whispering to Nixon that history had appointed him the American Disraeli, who could achieve from the right what no Democrat could from the left, Moynihan argued that what kept the poor in a condition of permanent immiseration was not the facts of poverty but the psychology of “dependency.” What they needed was to become agents of their own emancipation. Nixon’s purpose should be “not to dismantle the Great Society but to try to do it better,” through the surgical instrument of the “negative income tax” or “guaranteed income,” a pet notion of Milton Friedman, king of libertarian economists. “The negative income tax provided an alternative that was both activist and Republican,” Moynihan wrote later. “It was relatively easy for conservatives to accept, because Friedman was very much a conservative Republican, and it was something of a pleasure to argue, because the analysis cast doubt on all manner of liberal assumptions without quite questioning motives.” Out of this came, in 1969, the Family Assistance Plan, blandly named but colossal in its ambitious and reach, since it promised to overhaul the welfare system, making it simultaneously more market-based and more humane. It rested not on whimsy but on the belief that in pragmatic America ideology obscures, or masks, the facts of political life as it is actually lived.
Even as citizens railed to pollsters, legislators and one another that “big government” was a danger to be feared and stopped, “this same public had, if anything, a more lively sense of social ills than ever before.” The Family Assistance Plan foundered in Congress and died, picked apart by legislators of left and right and overwhelmed by the growing catastrophe of Vietnam. But, as Hess points out, Moynihan’s grand scheme eventually led to smaller expansions of social security programmes that helped the elderly, the blind and the disabled, tinkerings which enlarged the welfare state in ways most Americans supported because, as Moynihan cannily argued, they didn’t seem tilted towards “special interests.”
No matter. Moynihan remained a pariah. There would be other cases after him. His collaborator Glazer, a brilliant sociologist who questioned affirmative action programmes (he later changed his mind), was soon attacked. Later it was Schlesinger, a stalwart of the Democratic party and superb court historian to the Kennedys, but ridiculed for denouncing multiculturalism and warning of the dangers of ethnic “tribalism.” All three were giants, but belonged to the old guard with its outmoded patriotism and misplaced, if touching, faith in American “exceptionalism.” Moynihan, like Schlesinger, opposed the war in Vietnam, but neither deemed America evil for waging it. The Democratic Party, and the intellectuals aligned with it, split in two, one faction going left, the other toward the centre. This was the beginning of a fratricidal ideological war, tinged by racial difference, that is still being fought today. You can find it in the lengthy exchange between the journalists Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait, their subject “the culture of poverty”—another term for Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology.” You can see it, too, in the tortured responses to Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, as liberals cower before its argument that white supremacy is not only an ingrained feature of American life, but the nutrient on which the republic has been fed throughout its history.
You can see it as well in the cringing, and cringe-making, attempts of an old-style progressive like Senator Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old Vermont socialist and presidential aspirant, to find surer footing with black and Latino audiences unmoved by his antiquated dream of working-class solidarity. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Moynihan wrote. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” This was the synthesis he had sought but that neither party could accept, and can’t accept still, because it demands that each side give something up, which itself presumes a common interest and stake—not only a shared faith in the future, but a similar idea of what it might look like.
Today that idea simply doesn’t exist. We are left to observe the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report and of the Watts (Los Angeles) riots that came five months later and to note how familiar it seems, and to be shocked, but not surprised, when violence—as if on cue—visits Ferguson, Missouri, on the anniversary of last year’s trauma. The more our leaders speak not of a divided nation but of the “United States,” the more we know the unifying principle has been lost. It looked, briefly, as if it might have been found by Barack Obama—an intelligent and accomplished statesman who is as sensitive as anyone in politics today to the competing strands of progressivism. But he too has been unable to reconcile them. This is the cost of disenchantment, of the growing suspicion that the next presidential election will extend the frustrations of divided government, the two parties locked again in their death grip. These realities—more than economic pressure and the advent of new media, more than disgust at the ceaseless flow of donor money—account for the harsh, cynical strains in America’s public “conversation.” The pragmatism that once bound our parties has been in retreat for many years. Moynihan was one of its last witnesses—and casualties. In its place we have partisanship of every kind, save partisanship for serious ideas. This is the story latently present in our journalism of distraction and entertainment. The “mass media of communication,” as Hofstadter saw so long ago, is a symptom, not the cause, of our wounded democracy.