Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Warrior of the liberal centre

  • Themes: United States

Over his long career as a scholar, presidential adviser and senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan an was avid practitioner of liberal centrism against the threat of expanding government and corporate overreach.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1927-2003.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1927-2003. Credit: Alpha Stock / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1976 professor and former presidential adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced his candidacy for the New York Senate seat. The primary pitched the lanky and fiery centrist against progressive feminist congresswoman Bella Abzug. In an interview with Time magazine, Moynihan made clear the stakes of the race: ‘The god**amn elitist liberals almost succeeded in running the working man out of the Democratic Party… in their eyes, if you’re not a cultural liberal then you’re not a political liberal.’ In short, the Democratic primary was nothing more or less than a test of whether culturally conservative liberals could have a place in the modern left. After winning the primary against Abzug by a ‘whopping one per cent’, Moynihan started to punch right. He argued that his opponent, conservative intellectual James Buckley, was an ‘engaging and honest man who doesn’t have the foggiest idea what the 20th century is all about… we need to take part in the national government and we have a junior senator who does not believe in the national government’.

Those who had followed Moynihan’s career were not surprised by his dizzying turns against both the left and then the right. Having worked for presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, the future senator had earned an unfortunate reputation as a political weathervane – shifting from one direction to the next as the survival of his career dictated. Such a reputation is unfair. Though Moynihan’s career was defined by sudden swings and thrusts, these served an overarching political purpose: he was always, fundamentally, a partisan of the liberal centre – defending it against the inevitable extremism of the left and right. In the years following his election to the Senate, Moynihan spelled out in great detail exactly what the politics of the liberal centre should look like as the 20th century drew to a close.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan entered the halls of the Senate by an unusual path. Raised in a broken home and having survived severe poverty as a young man, Moynihan worked his way from the streets of New York City to receive a PhD in political science from Tufts University. After a brief stint in New York state politics, Moynihan moved to Washington to work as the assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. It was at this time, that Moynihan began to fully develop the first major tenet of his unique brand of liberalism – that real human flourishing exists in the ‘little platoons’ that connect the individual with the state.

A faithful, if sometimes lax, Catholic, Moynihan greatly appreciated the teachings of Catholic social thought and in particular subsidiarity – the idea that policy should be implemented at the closest practicable level to the communities it impacts. He argued that ‘between the individual and the state is to be found a great and beneficent array of social and economic entities’ such as ‘church, family, club, trade union, commercial association’. In these intermediary institutions, one could find the heart of genuine democracy. As a result, Moynihan thought true liberals must make it their chief aim to sustain these ‘little platoons’ from whence true freedom emerges. He summarised this stance in an interview with William F. Buckley Jr: ‘One of the clear points about liberalism, and one of its difficulties of doctrine, is that in order to maintain a liberal society – a society in which government is not all-powerful, in which coercion by the state is minimal – you depend upon systems that control and guide behaviour which are extra-governmental. And they are family, church, community. So any proposal that might strengthen these subsystems of authority must be attractive to a liberal.’

The meaning of the term community was fairly broad for Moynihan. At its heart, he thought community to be about ‘diversity and pluralism’. Much of this included the traditional communities mentioned above – trade unions, church, family, and so on, but Moynihan proudly considered himself to have founded, along with his co-author Nathan Glazer, the field of Ethnic Studies with the publication of his first book Beyond the Melting Pot. The book took aim at the common American thesis that the US had one large culture which gradually consumed the ethos of immigrants and local communities. By gradually studying the various ethnic groups of New York City, Beyond the Melting Pot argued that, far from homogenising, most ethnicities maintained their own distinctive cultural identities.

Though Moynihan’s own contributions to the book were somewhat paltry (he helped write the introduction and the chapter on the Irish), he transformed its conclusions into an important political point. In a speech delivered to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa later in his life, Moynihan reprimanded modern liberals for being too reasonable. A seemingly odd complaint, but he clarified that the intellectuals of his age always sought to be totally rational and thus allowed ‘the wellsprings of emotion’ to dry up. In the end, such liberals could not help but see ‘the tribal attachments of blood and soil’ as somehow unseemly and primitive. Moynihan did not deny that such emotional bonds could be destructive, but he also thought they were a natural aspect of human nature. The question should never be: how do we eradicate ethnicity and multiculturalism? Instead, how do we learn to live together in a diverse and pluralistic society?

In the mid-1960s, Moynihan left the Johnson administration and eventually became director of the Urban Studies Center at Harvard. While there, Moynihan became a major critic of Johnson’s signature domestic legislation, the Great Society, which sought to alleviate poverty at its cultural source. In practice, this meant empowering a small army of social workers and teachers to invade poverty-stricken communities across the US. Moynihan thought such a solution was a total waste of time. He argued that the very real problem of poverty in America could never be solved by government bureaucrats. Instead, the government should rely on major cash disbursements and jobs programmes designed to help enliven the many intermediary institutions that were alone capable of permanently lifting people out of poverty.

Moynihan’s attack on the Great Society earned him an unlikely ally in the crusade for the liberal centre – Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon. After winning the election, Nixon summoned Moynihan from the ivory tower to direct the new administration’s domestic policy. At the White House, Moynihan advocated a tremendous amount of ground breaking policy initiatives – a universal basic income, an overhaul of the American healthcare system, and plans to attack global warming.

During this time, Moynihan also began to flesh out his understanding of the science of politics. He thought that in addition to failing to understand the importance of local community, the Great Society also misjudged the usefulness of expert knowledge. Moynihan strongly believed in the power of experts to fully understand and perhaps even solve many of the problems that plague society. For this reason, he devoted a significant amount of his career to the scientific study of various social phenomena and attempted to offer firm solutions. This is most obvious in his extensive study of the collapse of the family, the epidemic of car accidents, and the issue of poverty. Moynihan continually advocated that government policy should more often draw upon the knowledge of academics such as himself and in his later career lamented the collapse of the scholar turned bureaucrat.

The knowledge of experts was so vital to Moynihan not because such individuals always know the answer but precisely because experts tend to appreciate, more than politicians anyway, how complex the world is. To observe trends, highlight potential solutions, and solve each major crisis as it arises – this, to Moynihan, was the hallmark of useful social science. Moynihan was happy to condemn experts who strayed beyond the realm of human knowledge to provide firm answers to questions, rather than tentative ones. He made this clear in a book written soon after leaving the Nixon administration: ‘Those [public servants] I have respected most and most tried to emulate have not tried to think immensely far ahead, but only a little way ahead; their art is not that of prophesying but of coping.’ Such limits are vital because ‘no one ever knows when he is wrong and at best only has a feeling about being right’. Moynihan thought that to execute government policy with force, when human reason is so limited, was the political equivalent of medical malpractice. This is the mistake he felt proponents of the Great Society had made so grievously.

Moynihan’s epistemic humility is the vital link between his faith in expert governance and support for local democracy. Because if we can never be completely sure if we are right, it is crucially important that the bulk of politics is left to the smallest level of governance possible – where people can decide for themselves what is right. It is this unique mixture of political expertise and localism that served as the basis for the last chapter of Moynihan’s career.

After several years working in senior foreign policy posts and another stint at Harvard, Moynihan successfully entered the Senate. In his campaign, he hinted at the liberal centrist view he planned to advocate but after entering office he made his complicated political position crystal clear. Moynihan argued that the liberal centre faced threats from two sides – the swelling state and private tyranny. He put this point frankly to a packed Union Hall in 1978: ‘We the forces of the liberal centre, must not allow ourselves to be trapped helplessly between a New Right whose anti-statist and anti-government crusade is so often a defence of undeserved privilege, and a new left whose supposed liberalism is too often a mask for its own self-interest.’ To put this more simply, liberalism remained continuously threatened by influential individuals (often through private corperations) and a state that unwittingly robbed the populace of the art of freedom.

These twin threats required that liberals focus not just on private tyranny and state overreach but that they self-consciously push against whichever poses the greatest threat at the moment. This is exactly what Moynihan did throughout his tenure in the Senate. In the early days of his first term, Moynihan battled against the idea the state should be the sole arbiter of public goods. Soon after his election to the Senate, Moynihan joined forces with Oregon Republican Bob Packwood to pass a national school voucher programme that would have permitted parents to send their children to private Catholic schools using the money that would have been spent on their child in public school. The Democratic party did not share Moynihan’s view and President Carter firmly opposed all attempts to provide public money to private schools. It was clear that in the eyes of many of his Democratic colleagues, public education was the only form of instruction worth having. Moynihan argued that this displayed, once again, the reflexive statism of the modern American left – first they thought it was only the state that could resolve the nation’s problems and second, they saw any attempt to support civil society as dangerously illiberal.

With Reagan’s election in 1980 Moynihan suddenly changed tracks. He felt that the threat to the liberal centre no longer came from the statists but instead from those who wished to elevate the private sphere at the cost of shattering almost all government power. First, the New York senator spent a great deal of energy challenging the logic of Reaganomics. He feared that drastic tax cuts, when coupled with increases in defence spending, would bankrupt the government and limit its ability to spend money on important domestic causes. In his more conspiratorial moments, Moynihan thought that, far from an accident, this was exactly what the Reagan administration intended. Later, when Democratic president Bill Clinton began to follow the lead of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Moynihan continued his fight on behalf of government. He argued that Clinton’s welfare reform plan would devastate America’s most impoverished communities. His own party – once enraptured by the power of the state – seemed now unwilling to defend the most basic of government necessities.

Whether we agree with the particulars of every stance Moynihan took throughout his long career, there is much to admire in the general disposition that characterised his liberal centrism. Even today most people concern themselves almost only with private tyranny or public oppression – rather than seeing the significant threat of both. Moynihan highlights why this is a mistake. We should follow his example.


Jeffery Tyler Syck