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  • Why We Should Be Reading Reinhold Niebuhr Now More Than Ever:Liberalism and the Future of American Political Thought
  • Kevin Mattson (bio)

The right has been winning the war of ideas. Conservative intellectuals, politicians, and activists have pilloried liberalism, turning what was once a proud set of ideals into a curse word (the L Word) and even "treason." But to their credit, they have also constructed a public philosophy that undergirds and legitimates a broad set of disparate policies. This conservative worldview, replete with "keywords," reverberates throughout American political discussion: Government and public purposes in domestic matters are "the problem" (thus, cut taxes and shrink government programs); "traditional" values of "the people," not the Washington, D.C. liberal "elite," must guide politics (thus, ban gay marriage and abortion); America must be willing to act abroad unilaterally (thus, the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and Iraq). Somehow, these seemingly unrelated arguments have worked together to produce the current conservative consensus we are witnessing.

The right has also crafted a message disassociated from pleas made by its "special interests" (i.e., business leaders). Conservatives aren't just trying to pad the pockets of CEO's by lowering taxes but are sticking up for values and principles ("it's your money," Bush reminds people). The right shares a faith that its political activity has a higher purpose, precisely because it is armed with ideas of what's good for society. The left, on the other hand, appears as a collection of nay-saying protestors trying to hold onto the last remnants of the New Deal and who have few discernible values and no more intellectual ammunition than that of Saturday Night Live writers.

As the outlines of the right's intellectual history become clearer, it looks like Leo Strauss, a once relatively obscure political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago, stands as one of the more important message-makers for contemporary conservatives. No doubt, there were others: Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and William Buckley. But what Strauss did so successfully was conjure key principles that conservatives constructed a scaffolding around: an attack on modern relativism in all its forms (including liberalism) and support for moral absolutism; a belief that particular countries or "regimes" can discover universalistic values and defend them; a faith that religion provides social order; and a trust in "virtue" and strong leadership. These ideas help form an overarching orientation towards politics. Today, Strauss's intellectual progeny litter the ranks of the conservative movement: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, and William Kristol. These people don't necessarily agree on all the issues (in fact, they've disagreed over Iraq), but they share a set of fundamental principles that stitch together their political visions about both domestic and foreign policy.

So what if liberals, anemic as they are, have an intellectual godfather, someone who constructed an intellectual scaffolding that could cement a set of values and an orientation towards contemporary politics? Such a person exists, and his name is Reinhold Niebuhr, America's leading theologian and liberal activist during the Cold War. Interestingly enough, Niebuhr and Strauss shared some things in common. Not only did they write major works during the Cold War, they deployed their vast knowledge of Western intellectual history to ask penetrating questions about the nature of modernity and the Enlightenment. Unlike Strauss, though, Niebuhr came to decidedly liberal answers to these questions. In his ideas can be gleaned a worldview and public philosophy that provides the intellectual ammunition so desperately needed by the left today.

Of course, "progressives" traditionally look to the future, not the past, for inspiration. That's one reason Niebuhr's not a candidate for rethinking the left today. But there's also a specific intellectual hangover from the 1960s that gets in the way. For some time, descendants of the New Left have condemned "Cold War Liberalism." Those sympathetic towards the student movements of the 1960s chastised liberal intellectuals for growing too comfortable with American prosperity and anti-communism during the Cold War and failing to create new ideas for young leftists. Listen, for instance, to the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch. Growing sympathetic to the New Left...


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pp. 77-82
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