Liberalism Overthrown


IT WAS A FUNERAL TO REMEMBER. The rain had been pelting for hours when the mourners gathered in St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, in the Sunset district, but now the skies cleared as four National Guard helicopters clattered overhead in a “missing man” formation ” as scores of dignitaries—governors and representatives, senators and aides from Sacramento and Washington, Los Angeles and New York—stared gravely at the casket, draped in the red and white state flag. It was February 17, 1996, and Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, the liberal former governor of California, was being buried in San Francisco.

The mourners were burying more than a man; they were burying a political era. The decades-long liberal consensus that had begun with the New Deal had faded years before. But Brown’s passing offered friends and foes alike a chance to reflect upon that time.

As word of his death spread, the telephone at the Brown family home rang with calls from around the nation. Kathleen Kelly, one of Pat Brown’s ten grandchildren, walked outside the modest three-bedroom house in Benedict Canyon to address the reporters gathered in front. “My grandfather, I think, represented to so many people a compassion and a justice that we are just not seeing in this political era,” Kelly said. A political commentator named Sherry Bebitch Jeffe had been in New Hampshire covering the Republican presidential primary when she heard of Pat Brown’s death. “This place today,” she said, “is one million light-years away from where California politics and government were back then. Here I am following a group of men, including the incumbent, who are competing against everything that Pat Brown stood for … active government, government that could make civic life better for everyone. That is all under deconstruction right now, on all sides of the political spectrum.”

Why did liberalism fail? For the past thirty years that question has dominated many discussions of American politics, and the search for answers has become something of a national obsession. Conservative politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, tend to blame student radicals and pushy minorities for wanting too much too fast. Liberals generally either fault a white racist backlash or, when the issue is raised, act as if they were discussing sexual matters with their teenagers: They prefer to avoid the subject (remember Michael Dukakis in 1988?).


Scholars and journalists have also offered numerous explanations, and their studies of the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the New Left, and Vietnam have done much to answer the question, but most have missed a central reason: the rise as early as the 1960s of a well-organized, popular conservative movement bent on winning political power.

The best studies of the 1960s—Alien Matusow’s The Unraveling of America , John Morton Blum’s Years of Discord , and William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey —pay little or no attention to the rise of the right, one of the most important developments of the decade. Instead, these books divide the politics of those years into neat categories, describing, in order, the triumph of New Deal and Great Society liberalism, left-wing challenges to liberalism, and the disintegration of the liberal coalition. If they mention conservatism at all, it is usually only after 1968, and the one serious study that deals with both liberals and conservatives—Thomas Byrne Edsall’s Chain Reaction —minimizes the role conservatives played in their own victories and argues that racial backlash was the main key to the rise of the right.

BROWN should have won in 1966: California’s economy was booming, and he was a popular incumbent.

PREVIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF liberalism’s collapse are not wrong, but they are incomplete: None of them capture the complexity of the political transformations that took place in the 1960s. The decline of liberalism and the rise of the right were not, as many have suggested, two separate developments. Rather, they were inextricably intertwined, and to understand the sudden, dramatic shift, we need to examine how liberal failures and conservative successes worked hand in hand to reverse a long-standing political balance of power.

We also need to look back past the convulsions of the last thirty years and revisit a time that was so different- politically, ideologically, socially—from our own that it seems, as Pat’s son, Jerry, put it, “like a different country.” The time was 1966; the place, California. That year Pat Brown was being challenged by a bumptious political upstart from Southern California, Ronald Reagan.