Donald Trump’s reality show presidency has led his opponents to romanticize past U.S. leaders who displayed more admirable qualities. Over the past few years, for instance, liberals and centrists showered Sen. John McCain with praise for his honor and integrity, overlooking his 2008 selection of a proto-Trumpian running mate, Sarah Palin, and his enthusiastic support for policies such as the Iraq War and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Now, liberal centrists have found a new hero in Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a public intellectual and four-term Democratic senator from New York (1977-2001). A recent New York Times piece praised Moynihan as the “anti-Trump.” Likewise, the makers of an engaging new documentary film, “Moynihan,” screening this week at the AFI Silver, claim that his qualities are even more praiseworthy during the “age of Trump.”
There is little doubt that we would be better served by leaders with Moynihan’s integrity, intelligence and intellectual curiosity. But hagiographic treatments of Moynihan and the liberal centrism he represented are of little use in the age of Trump. They misrepresent Moynihan’s career and perpetuate a delusion that our problems would all be solved if only we were guided by wise leaders who respected facts. As Moynihan’s career shows, however, fact-based centrism won’t solve the problems of our time and would forestall the systemic changes we need.
Moynihan’s current admirers praise him for his ability to “speak his mind without perverting reality.” But they ignore the fact that, throughout his career, Moynihan was challenged by those to his left who believed that his facts and interpretations were mistaken.
Take, for example, the case of the 1965 Moynihan Report, formally titled “The Negro Family: A Case for Action,” which made its author a national figure. Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, argued that a major barrier to African American equality was the high proportion of “matriarchal” (female-headed) African American families. The report was controversial among civil rights activists for shifting focus away from structural racism and toward presumed defects in African American culture.
To Moynihan’s defenders today, his report was a progressive document that was simply misinterpreted by leftists. It is true that the report highlighted high rates of African American unemployment, which Moynihan believed led to female-headed families. However, Moynihan’s report was also open to conservative interpretations that suggested that it was up to the African American community alone to address its defects. Conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. immediately saw the report in such terms, and Moynihan never disavowed their use of his work.
Feminists rightly denounced Moynihan’s report for its presumption that healthy families required men to lead them. Moynihan specifically argued that jobs should be reserved for African American men at the expense of African American women. His report’s most concrete suggestion was to enlist more African American men in the armed forces, where they would benefit from “an utterly masculine world … a world away from women.” (That suggestion came during the escalation of the Vietnam War, during which African Americans suffered disproportionate casualties.)
After writing his report in 1965, Moynihan became one of a set of thinkers dubbed “neoconservatives,” who questioned the government’s ability to effectively engineer solutions to social problems. While uprisings in African American areas led many liberals to propose bolder policies for addressing racial and class inequality, Moynihan concluded that federal policies could achieve only limited ends. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy reportedly quipped about Moynihan, “He knows all the facts and is against all the solutions.”
Moynihan’s shift to the right led him to become a top adviser to President Richard Nixon. In the Nixon White House, Moynihan sought to replace welfare with the Family Assistance Plan, a more liberal policy of benefits paid to all low-income Americans. However, he also contributed to Nixon’s strategy of exploiting racial divisions for political gain. He presented the Family Assistance Plan as a way of shoring up law and order by defusing the threat of black radicalism and by stabilizing the “unusually self-damaging” black lower class.
By reinforcing the notion that lower-class African Americans were the main threat to social order, Moynihan contributed to the climate of ideas that produced the mass-incarceration boom that has had such devastating effects on African American families. He also overlooked the social disorder emanating from the police themselves, dismissing police brutality against African Americans as merely “routine” and suggesting that only “cop haters” would consider it a major issue.
After his election as senator in 1976, Moynihan tacked back to the left. He became, for instance, an eloquent opponent of welfare abolition. But throughout his career, he remained a liberal centrist, seeking to shore up the system while proposing limited reforms to address its flaws. Even his boldest proposal — federal jobs programs directed at unemployed African American men — would have reinforced patriarchal power and made but a dent in the larger structure of racial and class inequality.
Such technocratic tinkering cannot solve the problems of our time. Nor does it provide an adequate alternative to Trumpism. Hillary Clinton succeeded Moynihan as senator from New York and shared his predilection for evidence-based reforms that left the basic social hierarchy intact. But she proved unable to defeat Trump. Instead of pining for wise leaders such as Moynihan, liberals today need to grasp the one political reality that the fact-challenged Trump has clearly recognized: The system no longer works for many Americans.