Amid the cultural and political tumult of 2020, the private memos of an erudite adviser — who later became a prominent Democratic senator — to a Republican president in the wake of the upheaval of 1968 offer relevant perspective and insight.
The prescient Daniel Patrick Moynihan might have been the first liberal canceled by the left in the 1960s for his 1965 report concluding the “steady expansion of welfare programs can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States,” notes Powerline blogger Steven Hayward.
Four years later, as the counter-cultural revolution exploded, Moynihan wrote to President Richard Nixon and others a series of memos warning of a “profound movement of opinion” with serious long-term consequences.
“To a degree that no one could have anticipated even three or four years ago, the educated elite of the American middle class have come to detest their society, and their detestation is rapidly diffusing to youth in general,” he wrote.
“The effects of this profound movement of opinion will be with us for generations.”
When he wrote his controversial 1965 report on the black family, Moynihan was assistant secretary of labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson, focusing on the War on Poverty. He left the administration in 1965 and became a professor at Harvard University.
In 1969, he accepted Nixon’s offer to serve as an assistant to the president for domestic policy and later that year was promoted to counselor to the president.
In a memo to Nixon, he wrote, “What we are facing is the onset of nihilism in the United States,” meaning the rejection of all religious and moral principles based on the belief that life is meaningless.
“The three most important points are that nihilists are almost entirely drawn from the educated, even upper classes,” Moynihan wrote. “They are extremely idealistic, seeing themselves as agents of the purest charity. They are violent in the most extreme ways.”
He warned that nihilist movements “typically have led to political regimes of the most oppressive and reactionary qualities.”
Moynihan, who earned a Ph.D. from Tufts University, said “there is an authoritarian Left in this country, and I fear it.”
He observed that “the vulgarity of the supposed intellectual and social elite of the country has led increasing numbers of man and women of no especial political persuasion to realize that something is wrong somewhere.”
“The elite intelligentsia of the country are turning against the country — in science, in politics, in the fundaments of patriotism,” he wrote. “How can we not pay for this?”
Moynihan posed to the president the question on the minds of many today.
“Are we then witnessing the ultimate, destructive working out of the telos of liberal thought?” he asked, employing the Greek word meaning the ultimate objective or, literally, the “end.”
Moynihan represented New York in the Senate from 1977 to 2001. He died in 2003 at the age of 76.