The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003) may be best known as a statesman. He served in the administrations of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford; was ambassador to India and the United Nations; and represented New York in the U.S. Senate for four terms. But he was also an intellectual of the first order, whose books and papers on topics ranging from welfare policy and ethnicity in American society to international law stirred debate and steered policy. Moynihan was, journalist Michael Barone remarked, “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.” He was, Greg Weiner argues, America’s answer to the 18th-century Anglo-Irish scholar-statesman Edmund Burke. Both stood at the intersection of thought and action, denouncing tyranny, defending the family, championing reform. Yet while Burke is typically claimed by conservatives, Weiner calls Moynihan a “Burkean liberal” who respected both the indispensability of government and the complexity of society. And a reclamation of Moynihan’s Burkean liberalism, Weiner suggests, could do wonders for the polarized politics of our day.
In its incisive analysis of Moynihan’s political thought, American Burke lays out the terms for such a recovery. The book traces Moynihan’s development through the broad sweep of his writings and career. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Moynihan once wrote. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” In his ability to embrace both of these truths, this “American Burke” makes it bracingly clear that a wise political thinker can also be an effective political actor, and that commitments to both liberal and conservative values can coexist peaceably and productively. Weiner’s work is not only a thorough and thoroughly engaging intellectual exploration of one of the most important politicians of the twentieth century; it is also a timely prescription for the healing of our broken system.
“Weiner’s subject is Moynihan, but the author’s critique is both institutional and theoretical. He provides rich historical insight into choices of political import where both liberalism and conservatism missed critical turns by hewing too closely to ideology, while losing awareness of the realities of public and private life in the United States.”
—Perspectives on Politics
“Anyone interested in postwar U.S. political history will find the book enlightening and insightful.”
—Political Science QuarterlySee all reviews...
“An exceptional book.”
“This is at times a brilliant and beautifully written book, which is perhaps not surprising coming from a former speechwriter for various cabinet officers, governors, and members of congress. Weiner offers an incisive examination of Moynihan’s thought, but more importantly he has shown us a way to rise above the dysfunctional politics of our time.”
—Perspectives on Political Science
“[A]n excellent short book on Moynihan, rightly comparing his thought and career with those of Edmond Burke.”
“By taking seriously the thinking of a scholar-politician who transcended the contours of our political divide, Greg Weiner illuminates possibilities for American politics that have been lost with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s passing.”
“Weiner successfully insulates Moynihan’s thought from simplistic labels while exploring a fruitful connection to Burke; such connections to American political thought are welcome at a time when Burke scholarship is exploding.”
“A sharply etched précis, dedicated both to reminding us of the range of the late senator’s intellectual contributions and to reconciling the seemingly contrary strains in Moynihan’s politics.”
“Weiner describes how Moynihan distinguished between two types of liberalism. Pluralist liberalism, with which Moynihan identified, emphasized situation and circumstance in making policy. This was the position, Moynihan wrote, held by those, who with Edmund Burke . . . believe that in . . . the strength of . . . voluntary associations—church, family, club, trade union, commercial association—lies much of the strength of democratic society. But Moynihan saw another kind of liberalism developing, one caught up in an overreliance upon the state. This statist liberalism produced the bureaucratic chill that pervades many of our government agencies and has helped produce the awesome decline of citizen participation in our elections.”
“[Readers will] be charmed and interested by the wit and insight on display in [American Burke]”
—Open Letters Monthly
“Like James Madison, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the most interesting public intellectual of his day and he refined his systematic political thinking during decades in the practice of politics. Greg Weiner’s masterful exegesis demonstrates that Moynihan’s robust liberalism was informed, but never deformed, by his Burkean sense of the purposes and limits of politics.”
—George F. Will, columnist for Washington Post
“Greg Weiner’s fine book helps us understand this complex thinker. He helps us appreciate the man in full without ignoring his subtleties, his ambivalences, and his contradictions. To understand American politics, one should read Moynihan, and to understand Moynihan, one should read Weiner.”
—R. Shep Melnick, O'Neill Professor of American Politics, Boston CollegeSee fewer reviews...