We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
I was programmed at birth to be a Democrat, a big city liberal. My parents were Irish and Catholic. Pardon any redundancy. In my slice of theEast Bronx, you went to high school, you did a few years in the military, and then you came home to look for a job with Con Ed or the city. Two of my uncles were on the job, NY City cops. The guy across the street was a fireman. The neighborhood was mainly blue collar Irish, Italian, Jewish, and just a tad Puerto Rican.
The local political machine was run out of the Van Nest Society, a store front political club; or run out of the Step Inn, a bar on White Plains Road next to the fire station. The Step Inn was a microcosm of the neighborhood; the guy who owned building was Jewish, the guy who ran the saloon was Irish, and the lady who made the pizza in the back was Italian.
If you wanted a job with the borough or the city, or you needed something fixed on your street, you had to see someone at the Van Nest clubhouse or at the Step Inn. There were no other political organizations in our precinct. Little did I know at the time, but my Bronx neighborhood was a mirror image of inner cities nationwide. I never heard anyone call themselves a “conservative” and, just as surely, there were no Republican or Libertarian precinct captains in our area.
I’m sure the good sisters of Our Lady of Solace School must have mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was the founder of the Republican Party, but for years I thought that that party had been killed by the Bull Moose Party at the turn of the 20th Century. Growing up, it would have never occurred to me, or anybody I knew, that political homogeneity was a bad thing. The Democrat Party was a rain maker, an employment office, and a pot hole fixer. There were no obvious reasons to question the civic monoculture – or not to be a true believer.
For me, the road to disaffection started with a novelist and ended with several liberal politicians. The light of skepticism was lit by George Orwell, fanned by the Kennedy brothers, and flared into full blown apostasy with Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
By the time I got to high school Orwell was already something of a cult figure. He appeared in the ubiquitous Survey of English Literature class, the textbook for which sold by the pound. Orwell was a popular assignment because most of what he wrote was mercifully short. Our instructor was a Jesuit who tended to emphasize allegory at the expense of Orwell’s political message. The harsh critique of the Soviets in Animal Farm and 1984 may have hit a little too close to home for urban American Catholics who shared some communal instincts, if not methods, with Communists.
Orwell had served with Communists in the Spanish Civil War against Franco Fascists. He was a curb level expert on the contradictions between leftist ideology and policy. Communism did not prevail in Spain, but it did prevail in Europe after WWII. In 1945 Orwell took on our Soviet “ally” while the Western press was still calling Joseph Stalin “Uncle Joe.”
The skepticism of literary figures like Orwell, and solitary politicians like Winston Churchill, would prove prophetic. Eventually, the Soviet experiment collapsed, but the influence of Marxism survived to invest the Cold War social democracies including the Americas. Orwell’s message, for me, was not ideological; it was utilitarian – how easily people might be misled, in a democracy, by promises that could never be kept. Orwell planted the seeds of doubt about utopian politics.
The second milestone on my road to apostasy appeared in March, 1968, during the Tet Offensive while I was in Vietnam. That month, Robert Kennedy announced he would oppose Lyndon Johnson and run for president. A few days later Johnson announced that he would not seek another full term. My reaction was apoplectic. If the Commander in Chief could resign in the middle of a war, what the hell was I doing in Vietnam? If I left my post, I could be shot – or rot in Leavenworth. The Vietnam War, up to that point, had been a Democrat Party foreign policy marker.
Nonetheless, for me, the worm really turned with the Kennedys. John Kennedy had cast a long shadow over Democrat politics in the 60s. He was every Irish Catholic’s pipe dream; handsome, witty, successful – and President. At the time, the nation knew little of his high-risk indiscretions, facilitated by a sympathetic Press. Jack’s brothers, especially Ted, were anemic political refractions, but Bobby knew weak knees when he saw them. Johnson was ripe for the picking in 1968. To my mind, Johnson’s cowardice and Robert Kennedy’s opportunistic duplicity made Richard Nixon possible. Years later, Ross Perot would perform a similar service for Bill Clinton – twice.
For many of us in Vietnam; the politics, riots and mayhem back home in 1968 were beyond comprehension. Growing up in the Bronx, and then in a war zone, courage under fire and loyalty were still virtues. Little of those qualities were evident among liberals or Democrats at the end of that chaotic decade.
The straw that broke the back of my “progressive” urban predispositions was Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003). He was another mid-20th Century Irish Catholic icon. Raised above his father’s hard-scrabble saloon on the lower west side of Manhattan, he went on to become a scholar, sociologist,US senator, ambassador, and sub-cabinet officer. He ran afoul of the loony Left when he dared to analyze the effectiveness of American social spending.
Moynihan’s research suggested that the road to fiscal disaster might be paved with failed government – and social programs that did more harm than good. Democrats threw him to the wolves of political correctness. He was ostracized as a racist.
Nevertheless, he may have been the last candid bipartisan spokesman for the Democrat Party and American Left. Moynihan was prophetic about the hazards of good intentions and the flaws of social democracy, in the same way that Orwell had been prophetic about the dark side of Communism. The specter of sovereign default for Western social democracies today might well be the ghost of Pat Moynihan. Like old school Communists, the Left created a social Ponzi scheme in America, making promises they can not possibly keep.
My disillusionment with Democrats in particular, and liberal thought in general, didn’t make me a Republican, but it did make me realize that “progressive” America had somehow become regressive at its best and suicidal at its worst. The Democrat Party had been hijacked by a very weird coalition of domestic entitlement shills and foreign policy appeasers.
When the American academy and the political Left came to the defense of indefensible Islamism after the 9/11 attack in 2001, my metamorphosis was complete. To my mind, the American Left, with the assistance of milquetoast Republicans, had become a threat to solvency at home and an enabler of our worst nightmares abroad. The rift was no longer a difference of opinion. For me, the Left had lost political legitimacy – no claims on domestic common sense or foreign policy prudence.
G. Murphy Donovan was schooled at Cardinal Hayes High School in the south Bronx, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. After graduating from several less illustrious institutions, he served as a career Intelligence officer with the US Air Force.