Is American Liberalism Exhausted?

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal carried a superb column by Shelby Steele, author and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The piece was essentially a summary of his brilliant book, Shame, which is a must-read for conservatives.

In Shame, Steele, who is an African-American, explains how America since the 1960s has lived through what might be called an age of “white guilt.” He goes on to describe how most whites don’t feel actual guilt for America’s past treatment of minorities. Rather they are terrorized by having liberals (or as they now like to be called, progressives) denounce them as racists, sexists, or militarists. More recently, they like to label opponents xenophobic, homophobic, or “deniers.” Seizing on America’s unjust embrace of slavery for over 200 years and its shabby treatment of Native Americans and other minorities, the Left wrapped itself in a cloak of moral authority.

Focusing on America’s hypocrisies and injustices to the point of actually loathing America and its past, the Left appropriated the moral high ground, successfully shaming moderates and conservatives. While acknowledging and condemning this part of America’s past, conservatives nevertheless focus on the larger picture, which is that America is a land of freedom and opportunity – a country where the poor over the centuries have risen out of poverty. They also emphasize that America has saved Europe from Nazi Germany and Asia from Japanese imperialism, not to mention spurring the dismemberment of the Soviet evil empire. Conservatives continue to believe that America is “exceptional” and on its best days strives to be “a City on a Hill” – the phrase taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which both Presidents Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan used to describe America. This great ideological divide is the origin of the culture wars, which have polarized our nation to an extent not seen since the Civil War.

In Shame, Steele spells out how liberals have derived their political legitimacy from the premise of a morally bankrupt nation, which the Academy endlessly indoctrinates into its often-clueless students. Hence the anger which we see every day on TV in the frequent protests in our cities and on our campuses. Using its appropriated moral authority, progressives have imposed one failed social program after another, one distorting affirmative action program after another. The most recent is the nationwide affirmative action effort that progressives are fighting on behalf of the minute transgender community. Steele argues that in the place of these failed programs and an ever-more-divided America, we need to seek a color-blind society of aspiration, unity, and achievement.

In Steele’s Wall Street Journal piece, he interestingly hypothesizes that President Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton may well mean that the Obama presidency was the high water mark of the moral authority of the Left. Nowadays progressives label whatever person they oppose as racist and whatever idea they are against as some other ism. It no longer sticks, according to Steele, and he is right. The white working class in “flyover” America finally threw off the shackles of white guilt with the election of President Barack Obama. With the exhaustion of American liberalism, it is time for conservatives to dismantle much of the failed liberal agenda of the past decades and build a vibrant society where our motto of e pluribus unum is once again cherished.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm.