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The Methods of Moynihan
How a maverick Senator from New York combined liberal instincts with conservative prudence.
During his time in the United States Senate, anyone who walked into the private bathroom of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would be greeted by an unusual sight: two framed magazine covers hanging side by side across from the lavatory. One from The New Republic read “Pat Moynihan, Neo-Liberal,” and the other, from The Nation, was entitled “Moynihan: Conscience of a Neoconservative.” The famously witty statesman clearly found these seemingly contradictory headlines amusing, but lurking within the joke lay a kernel of truth. Moynihan is an example of that rare thing—an immoderately moderate thinker who freely borrowed the very best bits of both conservatism and liberalism. It’s a type of politics that, though never common, is sorely missing today.
Despite his flamboyant style and characteristic mid-Atlantic accent, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was born into a lower middle-class Irish-American family in 1927. When he was a young boy his father abandoned his wife and children. This drastically changed the fortunes of the family, who found themselves moving to a new apartment each month to avoid creditors. A young Moynihan began to work as a shoeshine boy in downtown Manhattan just to help his mother make ends meet.
But the precocious Moynihan overcame these humble origins, earning a doctorate in international labor law and serving first as chief speechwriter, and later as secretary, to New York Governor Averell Harriman. This began Moynihan’s long career in the world of politics, a vocation interrupted by lengthy stints as a professor and author. Over the course of his life, this New York academic served four presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. He was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1976, and went on to serve in the upper chamber for twenty-four years.
Moynihan was famous for his forceful and seemingly contradictory political positions. An avid critic of détente with the Soviet Union, he nonetheless became one of the strongest opponents of Reagan’s bellicose foreign policy; a long-time proponent of welfare reform, he turned on Bill Clinton the second he began to compromise with small-government Republicans on the issue. All of this gave Moynihan a reputation as a politician who shifted right and left seemingly at whim. Even close friends such as Irving Kristol and Scoop Jackson sometimes felt Moynihan to be a weather vane who followed the political wind rather than his own considerable intellect.
But if they had studied his rhetoric and positions more closely, both his critics and his friends would have discovered the consistent and principled thinker beneath his often quirky exterior.
Moynihan was in many ways a conservative, though not in the way “conservatism” is often understood today. The fact that the word has an overwhelmingly partisan meaning shows how deeply impoverished our ideological outlook has become. Moynihan knew better. A student of the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, he stated in an interview that “liberals are people who would like to see things improved, and conservatives are people who would like to see things not worsened.” Along Oakeshottian lines, Moynihan saw conservatism not as a given political program, but as a disposition: a desire to preserve stability and cultural tradition. Moynihan possessed this disposition in droves. He frankly declared that anyone who did not see the incredible potential for things to go wrong in society did not have their head screwed on right.
This meant that, unlike many liberals, he could not bring himself to believe in the inevitability of human improvement. He had little patience for members of the left who took radical or hopelessly optimistic approaches to politics. In 1967 he chastised his fellow Democrats for acting as if the story of civilization was one of constant progress and improvement. Moynihan was even sharper with the revolutionary sentiments of the New Left. In a 1965 memorandum, he refused to grant the basic premise of student activists, declaring that “we have been brought up to think of revolution as the greatest achievement. I wonder if the great challenge of our time will not be in turning things upside down, but rather keeping them steady.”
And yet, as much as Moynihan feared revolutionary change, he still believed in the possibility of social improvement. He happily claimed for himself an ideological genealogy from the liberalism of the founding to the New Deal. Like his heroes Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, he saw it as the duty of government to secure freedom and equality for all people. He derided political conservatives for their skepticism of all state power, once proclaiming: “if you have contempt for the government, you will get contemptible government.”
Still, the true heart of Moynihan’s political liberalism lay not in his faith in the state but in his general hope that it is, in principle, possible to solve many of the problems that plague humanity. He knew that progress is difficult, and often unlikely—but he also saw no reason to give up hope. Borrowing from his Catholic faith, he often said that to give into despair is a mortal sin.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his attitude toward welfare reform. Having spent his formative years impoverished, Moynihan never gave up on the cause of eradicating the problems faced by the nation’s poor. But he understood that this noble endeavor would take more work than many of his liberal allies wanted to admit. Drawing from his more conservative understanding of culture, he believed that the causes of poverty are never purely economic, and thus never solved by purely managerial solutions.
Instead, Moynihan preferred to fall back upon organic and long-standing institutions. He spoke often of his fondness for the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity—the belief that issues should be dealt with at the most local level consistent with their effective resolution. This made him one of America’s greatest champions of the family as the fundamental organizing unit of society (the controversial Moynihan Report that he authored was the first major government document to discuss the collapse of the family.) This appreciation for traditional social institutions gave Moynihan a different view of the problem of poverty than many of his contemporaries: he believed that reviving “little platoons,” such as the family or organs of local democracy, could do much to alleviate the economic suffering of the American working class.
In 1969, President-Elect Richard Nixon summoned Moynihan from Harvard to turn these ideas into action. Moynihan quickly set to work, shooting memo after memo to the president on the state of welfare in America. The target of his criticism was The Great Society. He believed that, instead of truly solving the problem of poverty, President Johnson’s signature domestic initiative had further alienated the poor by deploying a small army of middle-class social workers into disenfranchised communities.
Nixon agreed with Moynihan’s analysis of The Great Society. The difficult question was what to replace it with. Moynihan’s answer came in the form of the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), a proposal to substitute the complicated welfare bureaucracy with a guaranteed minimum income. The program would work by giving families with dependent children up to $1600, determined by the families’ income level. In addition, state governments were encouraged to supplement FAP. Such a program, Moynihan argued, would directly solve the basic financial difficulties of the poor, while allowing people to work without suffering any economic penalty or being degraded by social workers prying into their lives. The simplicity of this scheme embodied Moynihan’s conservative skepticism of central planning, but also his liberal faith that politics can help solve the problems society confronts.
From the start, FAP proved an uphill battle. Conservatives in the Nixon administration thought a guaranteed income bordered on socialism, while progressive members of Congress balked at a plan which provided slightly less money than Johnson’s welfare programs. Immediately after receiving the president’s blessings, Moynihan set to work trying to navigate his policy through the twin protests of the left and right. In television interviews and private meetings with members of Congress, he emphasized that FAP was, at once, the boldest innovation in welfare since Otto Von Bismarck invented the concept, and also an engine to revive traditional institutions such as the family.
In the end, Moynihan’s efforts fell short. FAP died in the Senate Finance Committee. But Moynihan never quite gave up his dream that universal basic income might one day become the heart of American welfare. In 1975, Democratic Senator Russell Long created the Earned Income Tax Credit, a measure designed to provide a refundable tax credit for low and middle-income families. It was initially a rather modest proposal, but Moynihan—now himself a member of the Senate Finance Committee—helped ensure its drastic expansion in 1986 and 1993. The Earned Income Tax Credit is today considered one of the easiest ways for a family to work its way out of poverty.
Moynihan later claimed with great pride that his dream for welfare had slipped through the political cracks and become an established part of America.
With Moynihan’s death in 2003, the political left lost its last voice of conservative prudence. The very idea that someone may be culturally and dispositionally conservative while embracing a liberal political vision seems anathema to everything we now see in politics. Such nuanced approaches to the problems of our day are banished as traitorous to the right or the left.
Yet it is in this conservative liberalism that we are most likely to find the solutions to what ails us. Moynihan offers a politics of hope in a world that has become politically despondent. Following an isolating pandemic that revealed how weak our civil society has become, he speaks to the importance of repairing our degraded intermediary institutions. In short, if we wish to rescue ourselves from the fetid miasma of contemporary politics there is no better place to start than the complex mind of a professor from the streets of New York.
Jeffery Tyler Syck is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and American Studies at the University of Pikeville.
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