Liberalism Overthrown


But liberalism failed for two other, lesser-known reasons. It collapsed first because the white working and middle classes, men and women in communities like Norwalk, had come to mistrust —and at times despise—what they had held in high regard since the 1930s: centralized government power. In the thirties liberals had used government to establish a lifeline for the millions of Americans left bewildered and impoverished by the Great Depression, but by the 1960s unprecedented prosperity, partly the product of liberal reforms, had given rise to a new middle class that was hostile to high taxes and to many of the social programs they financed. This newly minted middle class expected liberals to denounce immorality and social disorder, to speak out for traditional values, and to stop paying so much attention to the dispossessed—the poor, the minorities, the radicals. On all these counts this restive majority found liberals wanting. The white backlash was the most visible, and perhaps the most potent, issue feeding the new antigovernment mood. But it was also part of a larger revolt, a much deeper disillusionment with liberal government and those who championed it.

BY 1966 Reagan’s antigovernment ideology had come to seem moderate, rational, and a force for order.

Liberalism failed also because—and this is rarely acknowledged —conservatives had transformed themselves into powerful political contenders armed with a devastating critique of their opponents. In the mid-sixties the conservative movement emerged as a smoothly running political machine; it had repudiated extremism, developed a more positive political platform that stressed the efficacy of individual initiative, and found a middle class receptive to its message. By the mid-sixties the right was able successfully to portray liberals, the supposed champions of the common man, as elitists who had lost touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary Americans.

The campaign between Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan shows that we can’t understand the failure of liberalism without understanding the rise of the right. Brown’s and Reagan’s careers were not always linked, but their fates were. Brown became governor at a time when conservatives were just beginning to find a coherent political voice; his policies helped galvanize the movement, and his failure to resolve the social crises of the decade paved the way for Reagan’s victory in 1966, a victory that came in part from years of conservative organizing.

Thirty years ago this November Pat Brown’s political career—and the liberalism it epitomized—came to an abrupt end. As a politician Brown had his flaws: He wasn’t terribly charismatic, he was not a man of powerful intelligence, he had been in office eight long years, and he looked bad on television. But in 1966 he possessed one crippling defect: He was a liberal. And when Pat Brown went down, so did the philosophy that he had clung to throughout his adult life. It has never really recovered.

The Legacy of the Sixties