The Magazine

Punitive Liberalism

What Reagan vanquished.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By JAMES PIERESON
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WE HAVE HEARD a great deal in recent days about how Ronald Reagan brought a spirit of optimism to Washington after his election in 1980 and thereby renewed the nation's belief in itself after a period of self-doubt, pessimism, and "malaise." President Reagan said America's best days were still ahead, and he thus renewed our belief in progress and a better future for generations yet unborn. In this sense, he did for the nation in the 1980s what had been done in the 1930s by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

This narrative about Ronald Reagan is completely accurate, so far as it goes. The problem is that it does not go far enough. Why had Americans become so pessimistic about their country during the 1970s? Why had they been overcome by a sense of "malaise," as Jimmy Carter described it? There was, of course, the long ordeal of Vietnam, followed by Watergate, and then a sluggish economy--reasons enough for Americans to feel some sense of doubt and disappointment. But why was Ronald Reagan able to reverse these doubts when Jimmy Carter could not?

The answer to these questions is that while Americans in general were not down on their country, Jimmy Carter, along with the leaders of the Democratic party and its main constituent groups, certainly was. President Carter could not overcome the "malaise" of the 1970s because he and his fellow Democrats had played a large role in fostering it.

From the time of John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.

Given this bill of indictment, the Punitive Liberals held that Americans had no right at all to feel pride in their country's history or optimism about its future. Those who expressed such pride were written off as ignorant patriots who could not face up to the sins of the past; and those who looked ahead to a brighter future were dismissed as naive "Pollyannas" who did not understand that the brief American century was now over. The Punitive Liberals felt that the purpose of national policy was to punish the nation for its crimes rather than to build a stronger America and a brighter future for all.

Here the Punitive Liberals parted company from earlier liberal reformers such as FDR, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, who viewed reform as a means of bringing the promise of American life within reach of more of our people. The earlier reformers believed deeply that the American experiment in self-government was inherently good, and that the task of policy was to improve it. But in the troubled years following Kennedy's death, the reform tradition took on a furrowed brow and a punitive visage.

In many ways, Jimmy Carter, and his leading appointees, were the perfect exemplars of Punitive Liberalism. Given their sour outlook, it is no wonder that their leadership generated a sense of "malaise" among the American people.

During the 1970s an impressive network of interest groups was developed to promote and take advantage of this sense of historical guilt. These included the various feminist and civil rights groups who pressed for affirmative action, quotas, and other policies to compensate women and minorities for past mistreatment; the welfare rights organizations who claimed that welfare and various poverty programs were entitlements or, even better, reparations that were owed to the poor as compensation for similar mistreatment; the environmental groups who pressed for ever more stringent regulations on business; and the various human rights and disarmament groups who pressed the government to punish or disassociate the United States from allies who were said to violate human rights. These groups took up influential roles in the Democratic party and in the Congress, and ensconced themselves in university departments from which outposts they promoted and elaborated upon the finer points of Punitive Liberalism.