http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110004485 IN MEMORIAM The Collapse of Liberalism An editorial by Robert L. Bartley. Friday, January 2, 2004 12:00 a.m. (Editor's note: This editorial, written by Robert L. Bartley, appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 14, 1968. Mr. Bartley died Dec. 10, 2003.) With both Republicans and a rightist third party running strong, many people are talking about a "swing to the right." We find it both more precise and more profound to talk about the collapse of the left. For some 35 years New Deal liberalism has been the prevailing intellectual creed in this nation, embodied in the Democratic Party as the prevailing political force. Even allowing for some recovery by election day, that the Democratic nominee should fall to 29% in the Gallup poll suggests that important new tides are flowing not only in politics but in public thinking. What have been the features of this creed that has dominated political life? In our time liberalism has come to mean dependence on the powers of central government to solve nearly all problems. This has stemmed from a view of man holding that any evil he displays is merely the rest of his environment, and that his innate good will be released by the simple step of giving him ample money, housing and other worldly goods. Thus, the liberal creed has come to demand an almost religious "commitment" to using the government to uplift the poor; not so much as a way to help the unfortunate, but as the answer to all the problems of mankind. The reputation of this creed, of course, is presently burdened with the unpopularity of Lyndon Johnson and his Administration. Since one of the great fonts of that unpopularity is the war in Vietnam, some will argue that the burden is an unfair one. They will argue that Mr. Johnson's war policy is either irrelevant to liberalism or a corruption of the tradition he inherited. This argument is stressed by two groups within liberalism itself. One group is the pacifists, the academics and other dissenters, but they have never been more than handmaidens to the central liberal tradition carried by Franklin Roosevelt and his successors. The other group hopes to exploit for its own future the myth of John F. Kennedy's "Camelot." Therefore it seeks to keep that myth untarnished by giving Mr. Johnson 200% of the blame for Vietnam. Yet it seems to us the blame rests heavily on both those liberal Administrations. In particular, it is difficult to imagine a conservative Administration giving, as the Kennedy one did, a go-ahead for the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. This is an important key to succeeding events. It would have been one thing to walk out on Diem for his offenses against liberalism. But after America had implicated itself in his overthrow and murder, considerations of both morality and international credibility made it quite clearly another thing to walk away without an effort to salvage the resulting situation. Many of the mistakes in Vietnam have been precisely the mistakes to be expected of men embodying the traits and habits of contemporary liberalism. We do not find it surprising that men who think the Federal Government can solve all of the nation's problems should also think the United States can solve all the world's problems. Nor that men who seek short-cut solutions on the domestic front should seek to solve a war by such a trick as overthrowing an allied government. Nor, to move into the Johnson Administration, is it surprising that men of liberal bent would compound the errors by too long trying to have both guns and butter, or would leave their war aims hazy by invoking not national interest so much as a crusade to bring liberalism to the poor people of South Vietnam. Without belaboring the point that liberal Administrations have led us into all of this century's wars, it seems quite possible to discern the effects of liberalism in the mismanagement of this one. People are not rejecting liberalism, though, merely for the peripheral part of its tradition bearing on foreign affairs. It is also being rejected at its core. Very few citizens any longer believe the current batch of national problems can be solved by domestic policies emphasizing big spending, Federal bureaucracy and liberal emotions. Indeed, many citizens are starting to suspect that these policies often make the problems worse. That suspicion is the reason law and order has become such a powerful political issue. It is a liberal Administration that has presided over not only rising crime rates but the explosion in the cities and the unruly deterioration in public discourse. Many of us believe this is not mere coincidence. The Supreme Court has carried reform of the criminal process beyond correcting demonstrable injustices; its majority pursues abstract liberalism for its own sake. In public debate the loud dissenters are steeped in the liberal creed. For fear of betraying its "commitment," a liberal Administration hesitated with the forceful actions that might have nipped the spread of riots. Even after the Administration had absorbed that lesson, other liberals apologized for the rioters and announced that the real culprits are all those who proclaim their racism by wearing a white skin. When the problem is a decline in public order, is it unrealistic to conclude that these attitudes will not help? More broadly, the heavy materialistic underpinnings of New Deal liberalism no longer move many voters. The tax-spend-elect formula does not work so well in an age of growing affluence and sophistication. Too many people feel the taxes; too many people have learned the meaning of inflation. As material wants are filled, also, people will turn to other issues and other concerns. We find it unfortunate that so many labor union voters are seduced by the appeal of George Wallace, but it certainly means they are going beyond bread-and-butter issues. The creative politician will be the one who takes them even further; who shows them their non-material concerns can be expressed in a more responsible way. Before such challenges, liberalism can think of nothing better than to fall back on materialistic appeals and materialistic answers. Faced with George Wallace, the labor union bosses babble about low wages in Alabama. Faced with the moral implications of the law and order issue, Hubert Humphrey pathetically orders a "massive" dose of Federal aid. Their appeals sound empty because their creed has grown irrelevant to today. Liberalism finds its old appeals faltering, then, just as it comes under powerful attack for its management of both foreign affairs and domestic policy. If present form holds, that will be the meaning of the 1968 election. Naturally we do not know how the forces involved will finally work themselves out. Present form may not hold on election day. Even if it does, how much of a watershed the election will prove depends on the skill and luck of the incoming Administration. One thing we do know, however. The reasons liberalism are in trouble are ones its critics have long predicted. The naive view of man, the search for frantic short-cuts, the devotion to commitment ahead of effectiveness, the excessive materialism. All these are not happenstance. Liberalism is collapsing not by chance or bad luck. It is collapsing under its own deficiencies. Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.