The concept of benign neglect was coined by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) in a January 1970 memo to President Richard M. Nixon while he served as the latter’s Urban Affairs counselor. The widely circulated memo, which was leaked to the press in March of that same year, read: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect’.” At that historical juncture, Moynihan declared, Americans needed “a period in which Negro progress” continued and “racial rhetoric” faded. Moynihan believed that the antipoverty programs of the “Great Society” of the 1960s had failed miserably, not only because they had attempted to use money alone to solve the nation’s inability to properly educate the African American poor but also because they did not raise issues in reference to the viability of integration as a solution to U.S. racial problems. To most liberals—especially many civil rights leaders of the period—Moynihan had provided the rationalization for what Swedish political economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his classic An American Dilemma (1944), labeled a “laissez-faire” or “do-nothing” approach to racial problems. Most liberals at the time thought—and they thought correctly—that Moynihan’s concept was fatalistic—that is, that the intervention of the federal government on behalf of the African American could not alter the inexorable social forces that could only be assuaged by local initiatives. In short, the concept of benign neglect for all intents and purposes suggested that social programs that were endorsed and funded by the federal government created attitudes of dependency among the African American poor.
In contradistinction to Moynihan’s dire assessments, the recent research on antipoverty programs, conducted by such persons as Lisbeth B. Schorr, Daniel Schorr, Phoebe Cottingham, David T. Ellwood, James Comer, and many others, which were based on substantive, empirically verifiable data, demonstrated that social programs, when properly planned and executed, succeeded in reducing infant mortality and the incidence of low birth weight. Furthermore, programs such as Head Start and Job Corps succeeded in helping to remedy such problems as chronic unemployment and poor school achievement; and aided in the prevention of teenage pregnancy. The aforementioned programs, which had their origins in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, helped many African Americans break the cycle of disadvantage. In essence, the concept of benign neglect, which was not based on empirical reality, ultimately blamed the victim and thus ignored the effects of the flawed structure of society in this nation.
Nevertheless, there has been a recent revival of the benign neglect arguments, which resulted in the 1996 welfare reforms and the introduction of the rhetoric of a “compassionate conservatism” into the presidential campaign of 2000. Furthermore, conservative black politicians and spokespersons have promulgated variants of the concept, which rationalized a terribly flawed social system.
SEE ALSO Culture of Poverty; Great Society, The; Lewis, Oscar; Moynihan, Daniel Patrick; Neoconservatism; Nixon, Richard M.; Race; Racism; Welfare; Welfare State
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the four-term senator from New York who died in 2003, was that rare soul who was both a political and intellectual giant. Stephen Hess, who worked in the early Nixon White House as an aide to Moynihan, was the rare individual friendly with both Moynihan and Richard Nixon. The Professor and the President is a short but revealing memoir-cum-narrative of Moynihan’s service in the executive branch.
What brought Nixon and Moynihan together was a tectonic shift of the political plates. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the backlash against the riots that had ripped through America’s cities. What made Moynihan a Democrat of extraordinary insight, willing to serve a Republican president, were his reactions to those riots—and to the excesses and wrong turns of American liberalism.
Today, 50 years after its issuance, some liberals “bravely” acknowledge that 1965’s so-called Moynihan Report, in which the future senator warned about the dire future consequences of the collapse of the black family, was a fire bell in the night. But at the time, and for decades to come, Moynihan was branded as a racist by civil rights leaders, black activists, and run-of-the-mill liberals. “One began to sense,” Moynihan wrote, that “a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”
His capacity for irony notwithstanding, Moynihan came close to a nervous breakdown and “emerged changed” from the experience. He came to feel “that American liberalism had created its own version of a politique du pire (i.e., the worse the better) . . . in which evidence had been displaced by ideology.” His fear that the empirically oriented liberalism of his youth was under assault from racial and cultural nihilists intensified after the 1967 riots that burned through Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, where 43 died. “The summer of 1967,” Moynihan wrote at the time, “came in the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary periods of liberal legislation, liberal electoral victories and the liberal dominance of the media . . . that we have ever experienced. The period was, moreover, accompanied by the greatest economic expansion in human history. And to top it all, some of the worst violence occurred in Detroit, a city with one of the most liberal and successful administrations in the nation; a city in which the social and economic position of the Negro was generally agreed to be far and away the best in the nation.”
In the wake of the riots, a candid Moynihan, notes Hess, addressed the liberal stalwarts of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization created as an anti-Communist counterpoint to the philo-Soviet liberals of the 1940s. “The violence abroad and the violence at home” was “especially embarrassing for American liberals,” Moynihan told his ADA listeners, “because it is largely they who have been in office and presided over the onset of the war in Vietnam and the violence in American cities . . . [which] must be judged our doing.” But the liberal media and establishment didn’t see it that way, shifting the blame on to the shoulders of Richard Nixon and the blue-collar voters who supported him. Fearing that America was headed toward a crack-up, Moynihan told his fellow ADA liberals that they needed to look, at least temporarily, to an alliance with conservatives to head off the breakdown.
Inside the Nixon White House, Moynihan, says Hess, proved “to be an amazingly agile bureaucratic player,” and he charmed the president with his fount of anecdotes and insights. “Pat saw that Nixon, who had experienced extreme poverty in his youth, was open to a sweeping measure that could do away with the vast ‘service’ apparatus of the poverty industry that had been created by the Great Society,” Hess writes. “Tory men and liberal measures” could shake up Washington, Moynihan told the president. He translated that approach into the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which would have provided a guaranteed income to families in poverty. But FAP, despite Nixon’s support, was defeated not by the predictable right-wing critics like Arthur Burns, the thoughtful but dour chair of the Council of Economic Advisors who thought it too costly, but by intemperate liberals, who insisted on even more spending.
As an aide to Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey in the 1990s, Greg Weiner knew Moynihan, and he picks up on the crosscurrents that made the senator such a fascinating figure in American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Weiner describes how Moynihan distinguished between two types of liberalism. Pluralist liberalism, with which Moynihan identified, emphasized situation and circumstance in making policy. This was the position, Moynihan wrote, “held by those, who with Edmund Burke . . . believe that in . . . the strength of . . . voluntary associations—church, family, club, trade union, commercial association—lies much of the strength of democratic society.” But Moynihan saw another kind of liberalism developing, one caught up in an “overreliance upon the state.” This statist liberalism produced the bureaucratic “chill” that “pervades many of our government agencies” and has helped produce “the awesome decline of citizen participation in our elections.” That decline has continued to the present day, producing record-low turnouts in the recent New York and Los Angeles elections.
The two liberalisms also diverged in their view of America. Moynihan’s older liberalism identified deeply with America even as it acknowledged its failings. It respected facts and evidence. But the new liberalism, the radicalism of the late sixties that captivated educated elites, was shot through with an irrational anti-Americanism. “Radical politics,” explained Michael Novak at the time, “is so much the province of the affluent . . . that it fairly reeks of class bias,” a bias against “middle America.” Moynihan feared that “a society suffused with the alienation of its elites” would be “a society that courts—if not totalitarianism, at least statism.” He saw “totalitarian seeds in the new politics of who thinks what, and who feels how.” Moynihan understood that anti-Americanism was a useful lever for liberal elites who insisted that their inclinations be propitiated lest they undermine American society from within. But after being scorched by critics of the Moynihan Report and his Nixon-era comments about the need for “benign neglect” when it came to racial policy, Senator Moynihan confined his criticism of liberalism to occasional forays, such as his memorable 1993 essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” prompted by the frightening failures of the Dinkins mayoralty in New York.
By then, Moynihan had become an outlier whose personality and intellect insulated him from the changes that had corroded ADA liberalism. The “boodlers” Moynihan had warned Nixon about were organized into the powerful public-sector unions, whose statist aims came to define political liberalism. Obsessed with race and gender, modern liberalism has no use for Burke’s “little platoons,” among which the family stands as the central institution of social stability. Nor, with its emphasis on “narrative” as opposed to empiricism, has contemporary liberalism shown much interest in facts. The protesters screaming that “black lives matter” even as police killings of African-Americans reached new lows represent an ideological fervor whose grievances can never be sated.
In 1988, a Moynihan-sponsored welfare reform bill opened the way for state-level experiments and eventually made possible the successful bipartisan welfare reform bill of 1996. But sadly, Moynihan’s most enduring impact remains his advice to Nixon against cutting back the Great Society programs. Moynihan identified with the New Deal’s support for social insurance as opposed to the Great Society’s provision of social services. The services strategy, he argued, diverted money from low-income taxpayers to middle-class social workers—a version of feeding the horses to nourish the sparrows. Yet Moynihan helped save the Great Society from Nixon’s budgetary axe. He warned Nixon: “All the Great Society activist constituencies are lying out there in wait, poised to get you if you try to come after them, the professional welfarists, the urban planners, the day carers, the social workers, the public housers. . . . Just take [the] Model Cities [program], the urban ghettos will go up in flames it you cut it out.” Ironically, Moynihan spared the forces he rightly feared as a threat to American well-being.
The farrago of interests and organizations spawned by the Great Society became, by way of public-sector unions, the organizational backbone of Obama-era redistributive liberalism. Today’s liberalism is nearly unrecognizable by Moynihan’s egalitarian standards. Liberals in New York and California are increasingly comfortable with a stratified society governed by crony-capitalist political elites. Their idea of reform is to make the lives of those in poverty more comfortable, even as they import cheap labor and reduce wages for working-class blacks.
Moynihan was baffled by what had become of liberalism. “A simple openness to alternative definitions of a problem and a willingness to concede the possibility of events taking a variety of courses. This ought to be the preeminent mode of liberalism, and yet somehow it is not,” he wrote. That “simple openness” was blocked by an architecture of indignation built not on evidence, as Moynihan understood it, but rather on what Shelby Steele calls “poetic truths,” which insist, among other things, on the persistence of racial repression. The new shape-shifting structures of micro-oppression (and microaggression) guarantee explanations for why blacks are still held back by white subjugation, even as the symbols of that oppression—such as “hands up, don’t shoot”—have to be manufactured out of whole cloth.
Steele’s new book, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized our Country, explains why Moynihan’s fears of statist liberalism have been realized and why Moynihan has had no political or intellectual heirs. While generations of immigrants have passed African-Americans on their way up the social ladder, black leaders continue to excel at trying to leverage grievances into more entitlements. African-Americans, explains Steele, courageously won their freedom only to sell themselves into a new sort of bondage—to perpetual victimization and federal subsidies. The doors to modernity, which demand that individuals make something of themselves so as to advance in the marketplace, opened for blacks in the wake of the civil rights movement—only, explains Steele, to have blacks retreat into a group identity based on cultivating grievances.
When blacks balked as they approached the promised land of equality before the law, they engendered a new multicultural ideology to explain away America’s achievements in finally confronting its racial sins. Black nationalists, along with the new upper-middle-class white radicals, insisted on the permanence of racism, and politicians black and white used the specter of racism to expand their political influence. Anti-Americanism became “a new and legitimate source of moral authority,” Steele contends, as blacks “found a recognizable home in grievance. Here we knew ourselves and felt empowered” by supposedly ongoing oppression in America. The new liberalism tragically asked “minorities to believe that the inferiority imposed on them is their best leverage in society—thus making inferiority the wellspring of their entitlement and power even as it undermines their incentive to overcome it.”
Postmodernism and multiculturalism similarly rendered intelligent attempts to deal with social problems impossible. The stuttering uncertainty of postmodernism nevertheless supplied rituals of repentance for white liberals ever anxious to shed their “privileges,” even as they expanded their power. But postmodernism offered no map to help blacks escape the pathologies of inner-city life. Multiculturalism has given liberalism a litany of racial and gender complaints that prove impervious to evidence.
Many accounts of Moynihan’s career overemphasize the failure of FAP and his later overwrought criticism of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare bill. They overlook the enormous influence he wielded while close to the seat of power. Moynihan’s great mistake—allowing the self-serving panoply of government programs to survive—helped displace the Burkean liberalism that he otherwise tried to preserve. Statist liberalism’s half-century of efforts and trillions in expenditures, Steele rightly observes, has produced a society fit for continued second-class citizenship.