You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Liberals’ Dilemma

In a transport, possibly, of Bicentennial excess, I ran in five elections during 1976. Each was contested; some were close. I ran, first, from the Bronx, to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Then I ran for a place on the Platform Committee. My next “campaign” was for membership on the drafting committee for the platform. Thence to the senatorial primary in New York, and finally to the Senate election itself.

In the end I won the Senate seat by 585,961 votes. Except for Robert Kennedy in 1964, I was the first Democrat to win a New York Senate race since 1950. Kennedy ran more than one million votes behind Lyndon Johnson in New York in 1964. Since I ran 300,000 votes ahead of Jimmy Carter, columnist John Roche, The New Republic and other disparate voices have suggested that my victory had more than merely statewide consequences.

If my success in wooing the voters of New York has a wider significance, what I said during those last two campaigns may be of some interest. What I wrote during that time was widely and accurately reported. But for the candidate as well as for the voters, the real campaign, the authentic experience, is almost wholly embodied in the stump speech. Morning and night, day after day, in—yes, just as the formula has it—in union halls in Tonawanda, in senior citizens centers in the Flatlands, by swimming pools in East Hampton, in drawing rooms high over Fifth Avenue, in basement halls in the South Bronx, in cafés in the Southern Tier, in taverns in the North Country, down to the last homecoming rally at Pindars Corners, this is what I said. The voters found it convincing.

The dilemma for liberals in New York, I said, is that we faced unprecedented government problems which however had come about under the auspices of impeccably liberal governments in New York City and in New York State. Not merely liberal, but most often patrician liberal. There had been a great coalescing of progressive forces, and government was truly given a free hand to do all that it could do. And all that it did was to go bust. New York City was in default. Its powers of self-government, intact since 1626 except for a brief spell under General Howe, had been taken away from it, and given to persons unknown to us and certainly not chosen by us. Some, impervious to evidence, blamed this on Washington where a thermidor or worse was said to have set in. But such an evasion would not survive scrutiny of the federal budget which had grown enormously, and largely for purposes of solving problems New York was finding insoluble.

None of this, I said, was helping the reputation of liberalism. Indeed, during the Presidential primary when Mo Udall came to New York he disowned the label. This led Scoop Jackson to remark that he might not be a liberal, but he was the only candidate willing to call himself one. Jimmy Carter had won the primaries by speaking continuously of “the horrible, bloated, confused bureaucracy” in Washington. So it wouldn’t do us too much good to blame tightwads in Washington. And there was no point getting nasty blaming ourselves. What we needed to do, I said, was to sort out our situation and to be as honest about it as we dared.

It was the Bicentennial, I continued, not just of the American Revolution, but also of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and I cited the theme of the later chapters: “the leakage of reality.” Something like that had been happening to public discourse in New York, and we must resist it—but not to the point of imprudence, because there are some realities that are simply too painful to confront.

I then described our situation in terms of three interconnected and reinforcing crises: a crisis of government, a crisis of the economy, and a crisis of social organization.

The essential of the government crisis was that New York City could no longer maintain its present level of operations. This situation threatened the state, and other jurisdictions already sufficiently shaky. Raising taxes to meet rising costs, as we had done in the past, would lead to the loss of taxpayers and reduced income. This the subway syndrome: higher fares, fewer riders, less revenue, greater deficit. In part this crisis derived from the honorable tradition of New Yorkers making a decent provision for one another. In part it derived from folly. We have become a people who know the value of everything and the price of nothing. This posture presents itself as highly moral; but Reinhold Niebuhr, if alive, would soon enough reveal the coercion involved in all that preachiness. “If we can send a man to the moon. …” In any event, it was a crisis very much of our own making. If we decide to pay twice what Texans pay for the same thing, we must expect to suffer twice the tax.

The decline of government is inexorably associated with the crisis of the economy. The economy of the Northeast is stagnant. In New York City itself there has been a crashing decline. Since 1969, 640,000 private-sector jobs have been lost—enough to sustain a metropolitan area of two million persons. The Hudson Valley is asleep, the Mohawk Valley is dying. Buffalo has lost more than one-fifth of its population in the past 20 years. New York State is losing population. We have only two percent of the nation’s housing starts. An executive in Manhattan would increase his real income by almost a quarter merely by moving to Austin, most of the difference being in reduced taxes. But such an executive, firm or industry might want to move away, because the decline of government services in New York City is making our area a less attractive place to live; and the rise of social disorganization is making it a positively dangerous place. Even loyalists like George Kennan are declaring the city “no longer fit for civilized living.”

The crisis of social organization is the easiest to describe, but the hardest to analyse. And even though it is easy to describe, few in public life care to do so, because it is now so far advanced that merely to raise the problem is to suggest how little it is likely to respond to public policy. I call it Weaver’s Paradox, from a memorandum Paul Weaver wrote in 1968 on New York City. The social fabric of New York, he wrote, is coming to pieces. “A large segment of the population is becoming incompetent and destructive. Growing parasitism, both legal and illegal, is the result; so, also, is violence.”

This parasitism (I argued) is to be found at every level of society, and not least in the hoard of New Yorkers who live well looking after the poor. Feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses. But Weaver’s point, and mine, is that no one senses the threat to freedom caused by this growing dependence.

Are we then witnessing the ultimate, destructive workingout of. . . liberal thought? The viability of liberal thoughtrested on the ability of the country which adopted it to be largely self-regulating, self-maintaining, and self-improving. As long as the typical individual was formed and directed in socially useful ways by more or less autonomous operations of private subsystems of authority, a government which permitted great freedom and engaged largely in the negative and peripheral activity of the umpire was possible. It was also possible for citizen and statesman to live with a rhetoric which denied the existence, functions, and basis of those private subsystems. The thoroughly liberal society, in short, cannot know what makes it work. Now, in parts of New York City, those subsystems are absolutely breaking down. At the same time, the rhetoric is getting an ever stronger and more blinding grip on “informed”  opinion as well as on partisan opinion. The rhetoric leads to policies which actually hasten the dissolution of the subsystems.

I quoted Pigou: “Environments … as well as people have children.” We therefore must expect our present situation to persist at least into the 21st century.

But this generational problem aside, the decline of the economy itself will increase dependency. Dependency of women and children probably will grow because of the shift in the job market away from male-defined jobs. Of 11.2 million new jobs created in this country over the past eight years, eight million were white collar, 2.5 million service and 1.5 million blue collar. The number of farm jobs actually declined. Of the eight million white collar jobs, 72 percent went to women. Women received 59 percent of new professional and technical jobs and 50 percent of new managerial and administrative jobs. Only among the blue-collar occupations—barely a tenth of the new jobs—did men get most of the new jobs.

The growth of government is beginning to divide the population. This is most readily seen in an upstate, rural county such as the one I have called home since the early Kennedy years, when the transformation began. The farmers there had been pretty much in the mud in those days, and pretty much still are. But a whole new class of public-sector employees has entered the scene, and it appears we are well on our way to becoming a society of public affluence and private squalor—until the crisis of government arrives and the future becomes more problematic.

That was my stump speech. Does it seem bearish? Despairing? Illiberal? It did not to my audiences. It seemed true. They told me so. I ran as a liberal willing to be critical of what liberals had done. If we did not do this, I contended, our liberalism would go soft, as Lionel Trilling warned a generation ago. I never yielded much on this. I even got close to belligerent when, in the primary debates, it was suggested that the budgetary crisis could be resolved by cutting $30 billion from defense appropriations. (Presumably the savings would be turned over to New York.) It would be the final corruption of our tradition, I said, to tilt the balance of world power in favor of the totalitarians in order to continue to pay for the subsidies we had voted one another.

This sort of talk caused convulsions in some West Side circles. But there was nothing illiberal about it except in the perspective of liberalism that has indeed gone soft. In the general election some perspective was restored when my opponent called for my defeat so that liberalism would never again show its “ugly head” in New York. Conservatives know.

I genuinely was concerned to identify the excessive moralizing of our politics, and to resist it. Everywhere I quoted Renata Adler: “Sanity … is the most profound moral option of our time.”

I also tried to argue against the apocalyptic voices that have begun to be heard in circles once so overconfident. Murphy’s law applies only in the short term, I said. I invited attention to the large complex of empty buildings on Wards Island in the East River that anyone using the Triborough Bridge will have seen, if not noticed. These were built in the 1950s to warehouse the mentally ill from Manhattan. At that time the rising resident population of New York State’s mental hospitals—doubled in the previous quarter century, likely to quadruple in the next—was our most pressing social problem. But there seemed no answer except to build more hospitals, and then more, until half the state’s population would be confined in them and the other half working in them. Then in 1955 Gov. Harriman authorized the large-scale use of the psychotropic drugs developed under Gov. Dewey. The next year and then every year for the rest of the decade the population of the mental hospitals went down. The new buildings never were occupied. What seemed at mid-century the most pressing crisis of state government—mental illness—today is nearly forgotten.

When there was time I went on a bit about what was at stake in sorting out our situation and becoming tough-minded about it. To begin with, our reputation is at stake. The reputation of New York, of an intelligent liberalism. Republican as much as Democratic. If it came to be judged in the nation that such politics lead to ruin, how will we be judged? Judgment apart, it is time we recognize, even if no one else will, what New York means. Trying to describe what Venice meant to the Mediterranean world of the 15th or 16th century, the French historian Fernand Braudel writes: “Venice dominated the ‘Interior Sea’ as New York dominates the western world today.” And if New York should collapse … what then of the West? What then of the Constitution? Of all the features of the American federal system, one of the most important (I would say) is one not at all provided for, but which evolved directly from the constitutional preoccupation with the separation of power. This is the separation between New York and Washington. Hamilton and Jefferson struck the agreement over madeira on a tavern in Broad Street. The political capital would move to Washington. For all the other purposes the first city of the nation would be New York. Those other purposes have been well served by New York, and none more faithfully than in preventing the behemothian amalgam of government, finance, business, industry and culture which the Founders most feared. It would not take much for Wall Street to move to Connecticut Avenue; for NBC and Time, Inc. to follow; for Broadway to give way to the Kennedy Center; for The Washington Post to become the national paper. In the long sequence of generations of New Yorkers, I would conclude (to audiences mostly first-generation like myself), the honor has fallen to us to defend the City against a collapse that would bring down so much else with it.

Program? Not much in the stump speech. I had drafted much of the urban portions of the Democratic platform and asked that my word be taken that it was all there. The one exception was welfare reform, which people genuinely wanted to hear about. (The fiscal condition of our cities has reached the point that if welfare meant a program to put arsenic in children’s milk, most municipal officials would settle for full federal funding.) The platform called for “an income floor both for the working poor and the poor not in the labor market. It must treat stable and broken families equally. It must incorporate a simple schedule of work incentives. …” Jimmy Carter endorsed this plan in his campaign. In my own, I emphasized the urgency of a single national welfare standard. The disparity between our level of support and those of states in the sunbelt was becoming fatal to our enterprise.

Clearly, I said, it was past time we made a legitimate claim on the rest of the nation for our share of federal expenditures. Neal R. Peirce has estimated a $10 billion “balance of payments” deficit between the mid-Atlantic states and the sunbelt. If we paid so little attention to our own interests, could we complain that others paid less? It has been a century since a New York Democrat was last on the Senate Finance Committee, half a century since any New Yorker served there. In each instance the tenure was a single term.

Apart from the total amount of Federal aid, there is the question of the mix. New York gets soft money; “they” get hard money. We get twice our share of welfare but one-quarter our share of the Corps of Engineers civil construction budget. Social services for us, infrastructure for “them.” Muskogee, Oklahoma is a seaport. The Erie Canal (now the Barge Canal) is about the size it was when it was dug by Irishmen and mules a century and a half ago. So also is the population of some of the counties along the way.

We do not need more government in America, I said. We do need more national standards which is something federalism can produce, and would be different from more government. We already have a huge amount of government, and the real task is making it work. We have no incentive systems, nor even serious measures of efficiency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, as governor, hit upon the idea of “public yardstick,” in this case a State Power Authority as a means by which to keep the private utilities honest, a concept later incorporated in the TVA. It is time we had “private yardsticks” to keep public operations honest as well.

For the rest, I said, there was one central issue, which was jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Not government jobs, not jobs to make government bigger, but rather jobs to make government, for us, once more solvent, and once more our own.