E.J. Dionne commemorates the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King by proclaiming it the day that liberalism died. He argues that King’s death led to the election of Richard Nixon, thanks to his “coded racism” of law and order, and that liberalism died on the balcony at the Lorraine in Memphis. The only problem with this analysis is that it ignores the entire decade of the 1970s and misses the mark by eleven years:
It is easy to forget that the core themes of contemporary conservatism were born in response to the events of 1968. The attacks on “big government,” the defense of states’ rights, and the scorn for “liberal judicial activism,” “liberal do-gooders,” “liberal elitists,” “liberal guilt” and “liberal permissiveness” were rooted in the reaction that gathered force as liberal optimism receded.
From the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 until the congressional elections of November 1966, liberals were triumphant, and what they did changed the world. Civil rights and voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, clean air and clean water legislation, Head Start, the Job Corps and federal aid to schools had their roots in the liberal wave that began to ebb when Lyndon Johnson‘s Democrats suffered broad losses in the 1966 voting. The decline that 1966 signaled was sealed after April 4, 1968.
Liberals themselves share blame for the waning of their movement. Just because right-wing politicians used “law and order” as a code for race did not mean that concern about crime was illegitimate. On the contrary, the country was in the opening stages of a serious crime wave and had good reason to worry about rising violence.
Liberalism itself was cracking up in 1968. Liberals had turned on each other over Johnson’s Vietnam policy. The old civil rights coalition splintered as advocates of racial integration warred with defenders of Black Power, a slogan voiced in 1966 by a young activist named Stokely Carmichael.
First, the contemporary themes of modern conservatism existed at least a decade before the summer of 1968. By that time, William F. Buckley had solidified the conservative movement around his intellectual bases for it, with National Review uniting disparate conservative factions into a political force. Barry Goldwater ran on that platform in 1964, doomed by the martyrdom of a young President who is best understood as a centrist who supported civil rights in opposition to his own party and as a continuance of the Eisenhower administration’s efforts to enforce federal law in Jim Crow regions.
And Nixon was hardly the epitome of modern conservatism. Nixon, it will be recalled, imposed wage and price controls on the American economy that would raise screams of socialism today, even among centrists and independents. While he certainly believed in law and order (except in application to himself), Nixon expanded federal authority and land management in every direction. He started the EPA and pushed for the Endangered Species Act that constituted large intrusions on private property ownership that remains to this day.
The entire decade of the 1970s constituted a liberal experiment in American governance, and not just in top-down management of the economy. Affirmative action started and expanded not before 1968 but afterwards. We withdrew from Vietnam and allowed the Saigon government to fall, thanks to defeatism at home. We became weaker abroad and allowed our military to sag during the transition to an all-volunteer force. Unemployment and inflation rose while we allowed OPEC to batter our economy rather than ramp up our own domestic oil production capabilities.
And finally, in November 1979, we reached the nadir of American power when we allowed the Iranians to sack our embassy in Tehran without offering any appropriate response. The collapse of American prestige continued for 444 days while the liberal administration of Jimmy Carter floundered for a solution short of military action. Religious fanatics held our diplomatic personnel — and our credibility — hostage for well over a year, during which the Soviet Union felt emboldened enough to invade Afghanistan and set off a series of events that plague us to this day.
That was the end of liberalism as a credible political force. After a long run of American decline, voters corrected their poor 1964 decision and elected a Goldwater conservative in Ronald Reagan. We finally rejected the big-government model of politics and demanded a return to private-property respect and robust international power. Iran understood the implications and hastily arranged an end to the hostage crisis before Reagan could take action against the mullahcracy we helped establish.
The two 1968 assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy definitely changed the course of American history. They didn’t end liberalism by any stretch of the imagination.
Update: The Anchoress has some interesting further thoughts on what did end with the Kennedy and King assassinations.