What We’ve Lost

'Daniel Patrick Moynihan,' 'Age of Fracture'

Daniel Patrick Moynihan
A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary
Edited by Steven R. Weisman
PublicAffairs, $35, 608 pp. 

Age of Fracture
Daniel T. Rodgers
Belknap/Harvard University Press, $29.95, 360 pp.


How are we to think about the politics of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the maverick senator and public intellectual who died in 2003? “I am not a ‘neoconservative,’” Moynihan told the author of a 1979 magazine profile, “but instead a liberal much as John F. Kennedy was liberal, [even] a bit more so.” He insisted to the New York Times that his “ideological roots are in the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Mostly, he chafed at the attempt to pin him down. “God save us from labels,” he complained to the historian Christopher Lasch.

Any label we might place on Moynihan seems inadequate, too narrow to encompass his varied and improbable career. Just as improbable for a politician these days is the publication, from a respectable publisher no less, of a thick book of letters. (Try to imagine curling up with the collected correspondence—or is it collected tweets?—of Jim DeMint, Charles Schumer, or, God help us, Michele Bachmann.) Dead less than a decade, the Moynihan revealed by this Portrait in Letters is an artifact from another political age—comfortable at Harvard and in Washington, D.C.; a key contributor to Public Interest as well as a savvy pol. Moynihan’s four terms as a U.S. senator from New York, his service in key roles in three administrations interspersed with stints as ambassador and professor, constitute an extraordinary career, placing him at the center of many of the most important policy debates of the late twentieth century.

The beginnings of that career were less auspicious. Moynihan’s rough-and-tumble childhood on the (then) dicey streets of Manhattan’s West Side is not detailed in these missives, but editor Steven Weisman’s helpful introduction describes the Moynihan family’s effort to cling to the bottom rungs of respectability. The father abandoned the family when Moynihan was ten, and his mother struggled through a series of jobs and two subsequent marriages, barely managing to feed and house her two sons. “The richest inheritance any child can have,” he later told President Lyndon Johnson, is a “stable, loving, disciplined family life.”

Service in the Navy and the benefits of the GI bill propelled Moynihan into a different social orbit. He took a hurried PhD in sociology at Tufts and an additional degree, funded by the new Fulbright program, from the London School of Economics, where he developed the stylistic tics—the bow ties, the British locutions such as “whilst”—that marked him as an aspiring man of letters and man about town. He returned to the United States planning a book either on the topic of his dissertation (the International Labor Organization) or on New York’s governor Averill Harriman.

Neither book was completed. Moynihan’s temperament proved less scholarly than writerly, less attuned to the big idea painstakingly developed than the penetrating insight garnered from intense, abbreviated absorption in a topic. In years to come he would enjoy the occasional teaching stint, but he repeatedly gravitated from the academic sidelines to the policy arena. Moynihan was nothing if not ambitious; his flattery of Richard Nixon during the final, bitter weeks of the 1968 campaign—even as he worked in support of the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey—remains a case study in career advancement. “Have no fear that I will accept the job [with the Nixon administration],” he writes one Democratic party correspondent less than a month before the election and two months before he does just that.

Employment in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations suggests the difficulty of locating Moynihan on a right-left grid. Viewed in light of today’s polarized political climate, Moynihan’s distaste for ideological convention is especially refreshing. Allied with liberals in the early 1960s, he came to view the era’s reform efforts, especially Johnson’s war on poverty, as overly sanguine about the ability of Washington policymakers to shape individual behavior. Most famously—provoking in the process a torrent of abuse from liberal allies—he warned in a 1965 report that the surge of single-parent families in the nation’s African-American community boded ill for American society.

More than any other figure of his era, Moynihan pushed scholars and policymakers to think about the enduring role of ethnicity—here he drew on his intimate knowledge of New York City’s political tribalism—in organizing social relations. This focus prompted him to express skepticism about the long-term future of the multicultural and multilingual Soviet empire, at a moment when the left wing of the Democratic Party and the Republican Right shared a conviction (albeit for differing reasons) that the Soviet state would endure indefinitely.

Moynihan’s preoccupations were not especially Catholic. Though he attended Mass regularly, he kept his distance from debates among bishops and Catholic intellectuals. The term “abortion” does not appear in the index of this volume, and though he voted against the legalization of partial-birth abortion, describing the procedure as “too close to infanticide,” his voting record was prochoice. Yet his keen eye for the social structures undergirding working- and middle-class life gave him an appreciation for the institutional networks of twentieth-century Catholicism; the weakening of these networks over the past decade, shattered by declining Mass attendance and the sexual-abuse scandal, would have discomforted him. He repeatedly chided fellow Democrats for not realizing that vouchers for parents with children in Catholic schools fell within the best traditions of American pluralism. Supreme Court decisions claiming such aid to be a violation of the separation of church and state were wrong in “just the way” decisions permitting racial segregation were wrong.

When Notre Dame awarded Moynihan its Laetare Medal in 1992, some prolife groups protested, as did a few bishops, but to little effect. The contrast between that modest controversy and the furor over Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver its commencement address in 2009 charts the polarization of Catholic opinion over the past two decades. This polarization—not just among Catholics, but throughout American politics—makes categorizing Moynihan even more difficult. His instincts were empirical, as reflected in his most celebrated aphorism: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” If in the 1960s this meant warning fellow liberals against what he viewed as the excesses of social engineering, in the 1980s it meant decrying an individualism unconcerned about growing inequality in American society.

Age of Fracture, Daniel T. Rodgers’s survey of intellectual life over the past forty years, takes up an issue—individualism and its consequences—that concerned Moynihan greatly. A historian at Princeton, Rodgers contends that “conceptions of human nature that in the post–World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.” The abstract phrasing is deliberate. Rodgers is convinced that a shift in how intellectuals talked and wrote about the individual and society was responsible for the shifting character of politics and culture in the 1970s.

Rodgers’s confidence in the primacy of ideas is arguable, but the range and subtlety of his analysis are not. Age of Fracture dazzles as it moves from cultural history to political philosophy, Michel Foucault to John Rawls. Rodgers places particular emphasis on changes in academic economics, showing how the Keynesian focus on macroeconomics and economic institutions in the 1960s (often associated with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s close friend John Kenneth Galbraith) gave way to the triumph of microeconomics and the study of the individual economic actor in the 1980s. The same preoccupation with the individual characterized conservative jurisprudence, as opponents of affirmative action insisted that the fate of the individual white person who is edged out for a position mattered more than the complicated history of racial discrimination that kept African Americans, as a group, out of certain positions to begin with. The focus on the individual was not limited to conservatives, Rodgers notes. Liberals threw themselves into global campaigns for human rights—in its way a profoundly individualistic project—even as they embarked on fruitless debates about the very existence of the individual and the elusiveness of power.

In Rodgers’s narrative we see the Catholic bishops, clutching their pastoral letters on the nuclear-arms race and the economy, step onto the public stage in the 1980s, but only as a futile countercurrent to this individualist ethos. Episcopal pleas for an economy to be judged on how it treated the “poor and vulnerable” seemed utopian, even foolish, when contrasted with the overall growth promised by the elimination of trade barriers and the advent of new production systems. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc satellites only confirmed this market-oriented view, as economists from Harvard and MIT rushed to implement “shock therapy” and jolt these economies, regardless of their particular histories and cultures, into the newly flat world heralded by Thomas Friedman.

For a moment, Rodgers suggests, the horror of September 11 dismantled these market-based, individualist metaphors. Flags waved on front porches. President George W. Bush’s soaring rhetoric, much of it composed by speechwriter Michael Gerson (himself immersed in Catholic social thought), echoed the appeal in his first inaugural address that Americans “find the fullness of life not only in options, but in commitments.” The moment proved brief. Old habits, formed in the 1970s and by now deeply ingrained, reasserted themselves, and the Bush administration’s unwillingness to raise wartime taxes—even on the country’s wealthiest citizens—revealed the limits of civic solidarity. The tiny pool of Americans who volunteered for military service proved willing to sacrifice. Everyone else, at President Bush’s urging, shopped.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan makes only a cameo appearance in Age of Fracture, perhaps because he, too, found himself at odds with the market ethos of the age. It is interesting to imagine what he would have to say today if he were still alive. I’m guessing that he might contrast our American veneration of the free market with efforts in Europe and South America to diminish the gap between rich and poor. He might note the difference between Pope Benedict XVI’s call for global economic solidarity and the fretting of Kansas City’s Catholic bishops about “government socialization of medical services.” And he might even, perhaps, darken his typically ebullient assessment of American society, his conviction that “politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Would Moynihan still conclude, as he did just before his death in 2003, that we are “a better society in nearly all respects than we were”? Can we?


Related: New York's Senator, by Julia Vitullo-Martin

Published in the 2011-05-06 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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