The Magazine

Punitive Liberalism

What Reagan vanquished.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By JAMES PIERESON
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The punitive aspects of this doctrine were made especially plain in debates over the liberals' favored policies. If one asked whether it was really fair to impose employment quotas for women and minorities, one often heard the answer, "White men imposed quotas on us, and now we're going to do the same to them!" Was busing of school children really an effective means of improving educational opportunities for blacks? A parallel answer was often given: "Whites bused blacks to enforce segregation, and now they deserve to get a taste of their own medicine!" Do we really strengthen our own security by undercutting allied governments in the name of human rights, particularly when they are replaced by openly hostile regimes (as in Iran and Nicaragua)? "This"--the answer was--"is the price we have to pay for coddling dictators." And so it went. Whenever the arguments were pressed, one discovered a punitive motive behind most of their policies.

Naturally, it was somewhat difficult to advance the tenets of Punitive Liberalism in the public arena, and especially tricky to do so in electoral contests. The broader public, after all, is unlikely to take kindly to the idea that it needs to be punished for the sins of past generations. For this reason, Vice President Mondale, an experienced politician, felt that Jimmy Carter had made a serious mistake in calling the American people to task for their "malaise," since it is counter-productive for an elected politician to attack the voters. The Punitive Liberals thus chose instead to advance their causes in the regulatory bodies and in the federal courts--the latter being the perfect arena for leveling blame and exacting punishment. And they did so with considerable success.

Their success, however, was the undoing of the nation. The Punitive Liberals, because they sought to cultivate guilt in order to leverage policy, proved incapable of adopting practical measures to strengthen the economy or to advance American power in the world. Such goals, in any case, would have been contradictory to their deeper longings, which were to dispel American pride, and to shrink American ambitions at home and abroad. The Cold War, in particular, seemed to them a pointless struggle between two flawed empires, "two scorpions in a bottle." While they did not wish to see the Communists win, neither were they prepared to swallow the triumphalism that would accompany a victory by the West. A strong economy, meanwhile, would disproportionately reward the rich and the self-contented middle classes--the very groups that the Punitive Liberals wished to chastise.

And thus it was perhaps inevitable that the policies of the Punitive Liberals would give us the worst of all worlds--weakness and embarrassment abroad, inflation and unemployment at home, and a public that was beginning to lose hope in its future. By 1980, the nation had seen the results of its experiment with Punitive Liberalism, and was beginning to look for an alternative vision.

Fortunately for all of us, Ronald Reagan stepped into the void and supplied that vision. He understood, more than any other candidate of the time, that the pervasive negativism of the Democratic party was largely responsible for our national difficulties. And thus his pragmatic proposals for tax cuts, deregulation, and defense spending were accompanied with inspiring rhetoric about national pride and a hopeful future.

He stated the matter with abundant clarity in his acceptance speech before the Republican Convention in July 1980:

The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of the Democratic Party leadership--in the White House and in Congress--for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us that they have done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.

"My fellow citizens," he continued, "I utterly reject that view. The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves."

Ronald Reagan during the campaign and then in office challenged the leaders who had encouraged the spirit of malaise and doubt. He exposed, confronted, and eventually defeated the bizarre and self-flagellating doctrine of Punitive Liberalism. For this, as for so many other things, he earned the eternal gratitude of the American people.

James Piereson is executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation.