Published in Dallas Morning News July 18, 2006
This city — every American city — is beset by isms. For a long time leaders in Dallas thought they were free of such things. They believed, like John F. Kennedy, that they had no ideology, that their ideology was problem solving. This persisted through the years of Lyndon Johnson, who carried Dallas in 1964 despite the growing wave of Republican economic conservatism lead by Peter O’Donnell, Rita Clements and a band of breathtakingly effective forces.
Dallas leaders stuck with LBJ for practical reasons: They wanted a federal building downtown, and they got it. For this they willingly overlooked that President Johnson was the last of the great liberals in the White House. They weren’t even much bothered by it because they understood, whether they said so or not, what liberalism really meant.
In its purest sense, liberalism emphasized the importance of the individual in relation to the state. This is precisely what Nikita Khrushchev was resisting when his Soviet censors pilloried Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, in 1957. Boris Pasternak may have won the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year, but the Kremlin could not accept his putting a love story above the Communist system.
Under LBJ, however, liberalism came to mean more than protection for the individual. It began to be seen, ironically, as statism itself, as the assertion of government lavishing dollars on the poor and the dispossessed. Now liberalism is associated also with the extension — some say the creation — of human rights in numerous arenas. But before arriving at this juncture, while still in the spending stage, liberalism gave way to the aggressive, confident capitalism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, to be followed by the religious passions of the right all across the American south, stretching westward till they bumped into the passions — environmental, cultural, intellectual — of the Pacific coast. Then, to the puzzlement of many, came neo-conservatism, which is really the old liberalism in a change of clothes.
What comes next nobody knows. Dallas is not alone in its fever of anti-liberalism. Conservatives here and everywhere are scarcely aware that they favor liberal democracy for emerging nations, but not here at home. This is because the true meaning of liberalism has been dropped from the national memory–the importance of the individual in relation to the state. Until this conviction is recovered and reformulated for the current age, liberals haven’t a prayer.
Neither have the praying fundamentalists of the right wing. For all their impressive powers of belief, they are about to overdo it. This can be seen now in what is coming to be called the Kennedy court, after Justice Anthony Kennedy who is not prepared to form a permanent alliance with the Roberts-Scalia-Alito-Thomas combination. If a Democrat is elected president in 2008, we could see the court shifting more to the center. If not, of course, the Roberts faction increasingly will prevail.
While the center struggles to settle itself philosophically, other isms are moving to the fore. Those who can afford it are taking refuge in radical privatism that goes far beyond enclaves guarded by gates or VIP boxes from which to glance occasionally at the Cowboys. Home theaters, home gyms are the order of the hour. And soon, I’ve heard it predicted, flying privately will be routine for the well-off.
Hence a crucial group of highly influential people, many of whom run companies and preside over the lives of multitudes, will have no experience of bumping into others in the popcorn line, going through airport security or getting on and off the stairmaster. George H.W. Bush’s ignorance of scanners in the supermarket will be nothing compared to the isolation money will buy. This has been going on for years, of course, but it will become more accentuated.
No doubt it will call forth a reaction, and that reaction may well be recognized as the return of populism. Already it can be seen in Texas in the candidacy for governor of Kinky Friedman who’s scoring about 20 percent in various polls. Rick Perry, the GOP incumbent, has to be considered the favorite, but still, Kinky will rekindle the populist imagination, and who knows what this will do to a community whose elites are increasingly in hiding. What is needed now is a new ism for moderates. The best place to begin might be the old idea of problem solving.