Daniel Moynihan predicted the breakdown of everyday American values in black families 50 years ago. Why are so many of us still unwilling to admit that what he said applies to all families?
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan is being vindicated—fifty years too late. His once-infamous March 1965 “Moynihan Report,” is now considered prophetic, anticipating the dissolution of the American family, and not just in African-American communities. But for all the New York Times talk about “When Liberals Blew It,” as Nicholas Kristof boldly put it, liberals—and most Americans—are still blowing it. Until we confront the modern confusion between liberalism and libertinism, Moynihan’s true warnings will go unheeded, and American society will continue degenerating.
In 1965, as Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty gained momentum, Moynihan, a 38-year-old Assistant Secretary of Labor, boldly warned about the epidemic of illegitimate African-American births. The “deterioration of the Negro family” ensnared blacks in a “tangle of pathology.”
Anticipating the next half-century of social tensions, Moynihan noted that establishing legal rights was not enough, the challenge was ensuring equal opportunity. “The most difficult fact for white Americans to understand,” he wrote, was that economically and even socially “the circumstances of the Negro American community in recent years has probably been getting worse, not better.” The once stable black families of the 1950s disintegrated, as the same openness that boosted the civil rights movement also undermined traditional family structure for blacks and whites, weakening community structures and strictures.
By 1990, the percentage of black children born to unmarried mothers hit 70 percent. Thanks to this all-American values breakdown, with sexual expression trumping traditional repression, today, over 40 percent of all American births are to unmarried mothers. Many of the 50th anniversary pieces have noted that, while any particular family configuration can work, collectively, the key variable separating America’s privileged and troubled kids is whether they are raised in two-parent families or single-mother households.
Most Moynihan Report anniversary discussions have gone this far, contrasting the ugly accusations calling Moynihan racist with modern studies validating the warm, supportive traditional family—once-conventional wisdom now grudgingly accepted only because data confirms it.
Modern liberalism remains too entwined with media-fueled, and now Internet-operated, nihilism.
However, Moynihan’s Report—and his vision—went further. Especially after enduring the backlash, Moynihan feared for liberalism’s future. The New Deal-based, rational, problem-solving liberalism he believed in had spawned a fanatic, self-righteous, nihilistic, and libertine identity-driven aberration.
As the 1960s spun out of control yet went mainstream, Moynihan soured on the New Left. Internationally, the “totalitarian-left” privileged non-white, non-Western dictators’ whims over democrats. Domestically, “the liberal-left” simply privileged individual whims, emphasizing rights not responsibilities, indulging impulses rather than fostering order. Moynihan would remain a liberal, serving as New York’s Senator from 1977 until 2001. But he would continue combatting the Far Left’s licentiousness and unruliness until his death on March 26, 2003, ten days after his 76th birthday.
The sexual revolution and its attendant earthquake in values galloped along with the civil rights and feminist revolutions. In this modernizing mishmash, it was hard to sift the beneficial from the harmful. Many liberals concluded that the admirable moral codes of yesteryear were too entangled with its racism, sexism, and suffocating conformism to save.
Alas, this cultural hurricane was socially devastating. Moynihan’s worst fears became common phenomena. His “tangle of pathology” entwined both blacks and whites. “Broken families” became mainstreamed along with the troubles they spawned, including the Great American Crime wave, the breakdown of public schools, and the if-it-feels-good-do-it culture.
The 1960s’ cultural, social, and political wildness triggered Ronald Reagan’s counter-revolution. By 1981, despite the “Culture War” talk, Republicans indulged in the sexual revolution’s forbidden fruits as much as Democrats. Reagan himself was the first divorced president, with a famously dysfunctional family. Reagan’s ally William Bennett reconciled Republican rhetoric and behavior by endorsing “constructive hypocrisy,” appreciating the value of having standards even if you deviated from them. Consumerism, materialism, individualism, entrepreneurship, the antigovernment impulse, the information age, capitalism itself, helped dissolve traditional sensibilities, fostering an American hedonism. Reaganites never acknowledged how much their own ideology undermined the very traditions they tried preserving.
By the 1980s, some liberals started resisting the lure of licentiousness. Communitarian thinkers including George Washington University’s Amitai Etzioni and Harvard’s Michael Sandel resurrected a liberalism fostering traditional community, not just individual autonomy. What became “Third Way” Democratic politicians founded the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to save liberalism from itself, celebrating community, opportunity, and responsibility.
By 1993, mourning the “manifest decline of the American civic order” Moynihan complained in The American Scholar that Americans were “defining deviancy down.” When mobsters killed seven gangsters in Chicago, it so offended American sensibilities of 1929 it became the legendary St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Now, the criminologist James Q. Wilson said Los Angeles suffered an “equivalent every weekend.” Despite such assaults, “our response is curiously passive,” Moynihan mourned. We were accepting the unacceptable.
While fighting this libertine liberalism and its consequences, Moynihan did not just blame American culture. He pushed for innovative programs, including his pet initiative to limit gun-related murders by limiting ammunition. Moynihan mocked the NRA by saying, “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do.”
When the DLC’s poster child, Bill Clinton, became president, hoping to renew America with a new balance, rooted in tradition and family values while celebrating progress and pluralism. Yes, Clinton compartmentalized, distinguishing between what he believed was best for America and how he actually behaved, but when addressing 5,000 African-American preachers in Memphis, Tennessee, the new president championed “changes we can make from the outside in”—government programs—buttressed by “changes we’re going to have to make from the inside out, or the others won’t matter.”
Despite his own character flaws, and despite testy relations with Moynihan, Clinton pushed hard for the drops in crime, drug use, premarital sex, divorce, and abortion that have led to today’s old-new conclusions frowning on such behaviors, especially at epidemic levels. Yet, as the partial embrace this month of the Moynihan Report reflects, Americans, especially mainstream media types and leading intellectuals, still fear embracing old fashioned morality out of fear of endorsing the fundamentalist, Reaganite, racist-sexist agenda. As a result, the moral reformation America and modern liberalism still need has proceeded fitfully.
Every day the media burlesque spotlights an American with too much binge-drinking, drug abuse, sexual violence, family breakdown, celebrity worship, and psychic pain. America’s soul hurts partially because we lack moral anchors in our new, ultra-liberal and libertine Republic of Nothing. Modern liberalism remains too entwined with media-fueled, and now Internet-operated, nihilism. Millions of us, and some of our leading thinkers, may have started rediscovering the value of tradition, but have yet to embrace the traditional values that anchored and guided our parents and grandparents—or a valuable new tradition.