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Why Liberalism Really Failed

In praise of the "old lady liberal," a dying breed

Not long ago one of the better university presses published a book with the somewhat unpromising title Why Liberalism Works. I have never read this book and have no intention of doing so, in part because I think I can explain the author’s question-begging premise with two words: old women.

I am not joking. As far as I can tell, American liberalism in the second half of the twentieth century could not have survived (if indeed it really managed to do so) had it not been for the mostly thankless efforts of those silver-haired Green Party voters who put “No Blood For Oil” stickers on their ancient Volkswagens and interesting books in the hands of millions of teenagers. The Democratic Party, the New York Times, critical theory, C.N.N.—all of this has been epiphenomenal, I’m afraid, in comparison with what I have come to think of as “old lady liberalism.” 

If you have ever visited a local library or were taught English in a public high school (especially in rural America) at any point in the last three or so decades, you will be familiar with the tendency I have in mind. The old lady liberal is a woman in her sixties or seventies. She wears wonderful baggy sweaters and odd jewelry that would probably get her accused of “cultural appropriation” in any other circles. She is an enthusiastic reader of the New York Times, even though it arrives a day late. She has an old-fashioned aspirational view of high culture and encourages teenagers to read Cervantes and Joyce and to listen to jazz CDs. She is a great baker, a grammatical prescriptivist, and a stickler for politeness. She is far more likely than the average liberal to be religious; often she is among the few remaining pillars of her local mainline Protestant congregation. She loathes what is sometimes called “safety-ism” and believes that even very young children are capable of riding their bicycles or visiting the mom and pop supermarket without adult supervision.

In the nineties she was cool on the Clintons, Goosebumps, and standardized testing; during the Bush and Obama years she consistently opposed the Patriot Act, the Iraq war, and privatization of the Postal Service. In recent years she has probably changed her mind about vaccines, though she privately maintains that it was no bad thing when chickenpox was a rite of passage. The old lady liberal was an opponent of Big Tech avant la lettre, and indeed her views on most subjects could probably be summed up as opposition to everything Big—Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Education, Big Defense, and so on. She holds, in other words, opinions that would be agreeable to many readers of this website.

Though I do not share all of their views, I have always been inordinately fond of old lady liberals. This is true not least because they were the first adults with whom I ever had conversations about books. There must be hundreds of thousands of other Americans of whom this is also true, and it is dreary to think what will happen when these genial old women are replaced by Teach For America scolds whose idea of reading is graphic “novels.”

It is worth pointing out that old lady liberalism as a political tendency was never the exclusive province of the people I have just caricatured (lovingly, I hope), or, indeed, of ladies whether old or young. Noam Chomsky is probably our best-known old lady liberal. Some aging staffers at the New York Review of Books and, especially, at certain neglected left-wing magazines, such as Dissent and the Progressive, are old lady liberals. In electoral politics the greatest exponent of old lady liberalism was probably Dennis Kucinich. (Until the most recent presidential election, I would have said without hesitation that it was Bernie Sanders.)

Some of what the old lady liberals achieved seems dubious now. Did my generation of teenagers really need to be introduced to the Beats, whose no-doubt imminent cancellation I shall welcome for aesthetic reasons? What about Henry Miller? This is to say nothing of their painfully earnest views concerning the Hollywood Blacklist and their promotion of Banned Books Week. (I have always wondered what other people who grew up with these narratives thought about the last half decade of anti-Russian hysteria, to say nothing of corporate deference to Chinese censors.) Still, I think it is fair to say on balance that the moralizing of the old lady liberals was consistent in the sense that it was always directed at people with more power than themselves, not less. And surely we could do with more of their decidedly non-utilitarian attitude toward reading, which they encouraged for the not very complicated reason that for them it was an unquestioned part of civilized life.

Some of you are probably wondering why I have been writing in the past tense. Here I should admit that I have visited the public library in the small town where I now live only once, despite the fact that my wife served as an elected member of its board for nearly four years. For all I know old lady liberalism is still going as strongly as ever. And if even one fourteen-year-old in the wilds of Michigan is working his way through Paradise Lost or The Idiot thanks to the encouragement of an elderly woman in a faded pantsuit and yellow beaded earrings, something of immense value is taking place, which I for one would be sorry to lose.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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