When Democrats liked limited government

Authored by Jeffery Tyler Syck

The conventional wisdom about American parties is long established: Republicans are the party of small government and Democrats are the party of big government. However, recent events have started to challenge this notion. Increasingly, candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination talk a great deal more about reforming the swamp than draining it. Even more convincingly, recent scholarship has shown that though Republicans talk a great deal about limiting national power, they are just as likely to expand the state as their Democratic counterparts. All that is missing to fracture our outdated conceptions of the party system is some clue as to what a small government Democrat might look like – this is where the tweedy visage and complicated mind of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan enters the picture. Though it would be erroneous to describe Moynihan as a supporter of limited government, his career does challenge our contemporary notion of what it means to be a Democrat. In 1979 Moynihan described the heart of his liberalism as an attempt to enliven and ennoble the intermediary institutions – such as family, club, and trade union – that form the heart of a democratic society. To this end, the New York politician spent much of the 1970s viciously attacking the power of the American state, all while outlining a set of policies whose purpose was to use government to save, rather than replace, America’s many communities. 

A Pluralist Liberal

Throughout this long public career, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was frequently accused of being an inconsistent opportunist. His opponents relished in pointing out his seemingly contradictory stances on welfare, foreign policy, guns, labor, and so on. Whatever the faults of the late senator, these observers have failed to apprehend the heart of Moynihan’s politics. If you cut through the apparent contradictions and disharmonies of his career, you will find one central premise: an appreciation of the complexity inherent to all human life. In Moynihan’s view, politics must reconcile itself with such complications – seeking always to understand and rightly arrange rather than simplify and homogenize. Moynihan expressed this point himself in a speech to the officers of the United Way of America: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.” Moynihan himself sometimes call this form of liberal thought “liberal pluralism” or the liberal center.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the set of “Firing Line.” (1993)

Though too often forgotten by the newest generation of young American politicos, Moynihan was one of the most prolific political theorists and statesmen of the 20th century. He is the only person to serve as a senior advisor to four successive presidents of varying partisan affiliations. His tenure in high-ranking domestic policy and diplomatic posts was regularly punctuated by short stretches at Harvard University, where he could write, teach, and regroup for his next political venture. In 1976 he defeated conservative incumbent James Buckley to become one of New York’s longest-serving U.S. Senators.

Moynihan connected this appreciation for complexity with the Catholic concept of subsidiarity – the idea that policy should be implemented at the closest practicable level to the communities it impacts. He argued that “between the individual and the state is to be found a great and beneficent array of social and economic entities” such as “church, family, club, trade union, commercial association.” In these intermediary institutions, one could find the heart of genuine democracy. As a result, Moynihan thought true liberals must make it their chief aim to sustain these “little platoons” from whence true freedom emerges.

Against Statism

For most of his life, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a proud New Dealer. He liked to quip that he was born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic – a comment whose clear implication is that his party affiliation served as an innate part of his very being. Despite this, Moynihan began to have serious misgivings about Democratic policy as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society came of age in the early 1970s. He feared that the governing ideology of the party was fast becoming “little more than a reflexive defense of statism – a demand for the expansion of the state and coddling of its subjects.” In short, the average American liberal was abandoning the pluralist foundations of their own ideology.

Moynihan thought the origins of the Democratic Party’s statism emerged from a misguided application of liberal thought. As a rule, liberals aim to guarantee human freedom. For most of human history, the primary threat to this liberty lay in the state – whether in the form of a tyrannical king or a democratic despotism. However, the technological revolutions of the mid-18th  century saw the rise of mammoth private economic entities that began to effortlessly rob citizens of their rights. As a result, many well-meaning liberals began to think that “industrial democracies could endure and progress only through a massive expansion of government involvement in their institutional arrangement.” Their explanation was a simple one: only the force of the state could withstand the new commercial tyranny. Moynihan understood this impulse but thought that it completely misunderstood the situation – to replace the tyranny of private corporations with the entity that has most threatened liberty throughout human history, simply matches despotism against despotism. In his view, maintaining liberalism’s pluralist roots against both the state and private industry is the only way to seriously provide space for human flourishing.

UN Ambassador Daniel P. Moynihan and President Gerald Ford (1976).

A second source of the 20th century’s statist tendencies lay in what Moynihan called the “exhaustion of political ideas.” In a speech before the New York Academy of Sciences, he argued that the growing complexity of modern society had created an obsession with scientific explanations. Though Moynihan made clear that science has an important role, he feared that in our rush to empirically analyze every facet of society, we were starting to forget the chief insight of political science as it was practiced by the American founders: “When, in the light of natural science, one reflected on the religious verities, one realized that it was against God’s nature that He should give one man complete spiritual or temporal power over his fellows.” It was with this insight that the first liberals saw the simple “untruth of those systems of government which postulated a fundamental human hierarchy.” However, the form of science that once made such perceptions unbreakable is no longer the sort of science that serves as the lodestone of society – we no longer deduce principles, we skeptically tear apart foundations. This skepticism is not a uniform evil and has allowed us to realize that Marxism and Fascism, which once seemed so bold and fresh, are in truth “uninspired, monstrous, and just plain wrong.” However, modern scientific skepticism also makes it hard for us to believe in such noble ideals as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The problem, as Moynihan summarized, is that “Freedom, which is our highest political value, is a scientific principle but not … a scientific truth.” If skepticism, rather than freedom, becomes the foundation of government then a powerful state becomes unproblematic – the vacuum of liberty can be satisfactorily filled “with a technocratic perspective on society that seeks to solve problems by treating individuals as mere subjects of science” at the total whim of experts.

“Today we are beginning to see evidence of overreliance upon the state as an instrument for improving the commonweal.

Through his academic scholarship, Moynihan felt that he could already pinpoint the effects of America’s drift toward statism. He forcefully made this point in 1979: “Today we are beginning to see evidence of overreliance upon the state as an instrument for improving the commonweal. We see it in the unsteady condition of the family, we see it in the erosion of private education, we see it in the bureaucratic chill that pervades so many of our government agencies, we see it in the faltering sense of neighborhood in our urban centers, we see it even, some might argue, in the awesome decline of citizen participation in our elections.” In short, statism was gradually destroying the communities that formed the heart of a liberal society – replacing such entities with often incompetent bureaucrats.

Though he studied these issues in detail as a professor, Moynihan was himself an active participant in the shaping of American public policy. It was in this realm that he most often mentioned the new reflexive statism of the American government. Perhaps worse than the false premise that the state can solve all problems, Moynihan argued that now “anyone espousing ideas or advocating measures that are seen to enhance the private sector will therefore be suspected of illiberalism.”

In no area was this clearer than education. Soon after his election to the Senate, Moynihan joined forces with Oregon Republican Bob Packwood to pass a national school voucher program that would have permitted parents to send their children to private Catholic schools using the money that would have been spent on their child in public school. The Democratic Party did not share Moynihan’s view and President Carter firmly opposed all attempts to provide one iota of public money to private schools. It was clear that in the eyes of many of his Democratic colleagues, public education was the only form of instruction worth having. Moynihan argued that this displayed, once again, the reflexive statism of the modern American left – first they thought it was only the state that could resolve the nation’s problems and second, they saw any attempt to support civil society as dangerously illiberal.   


Moynihan’s unique appreciation for the limits of the state and the necessity of intermediary institutions has largely been lost in the Democratic Party. The scarcity of Moynihan Democrats is particularly tragic because they brought a unique and often forgotten perspective to the question of federalism. Conservative advocates of localism tend to decry the power of the national government and offer a myriad of solutions to undo federal overreach. However, Moynihan’s understanding of statism reveals something much more pernicious than a mere over extension of federal power – statism is an ideological problem. One that first seized control of the political left and has now worked its way to the American right.

Perhaps even more terrifyingly, Moynihan makes clear that the state has done more than rob local democracy of its power – statism has gradually eroded the existence of intermediary institutions. Once vibrant little platoons such as the family, church, and the liberal arts university cannot withstand forever the complete and utter annihilation of their unique responsibilities. This insight led Moynihan to paradoxically believe any attempt to rejuvenate local institutions would require some amount of government aid. It is in this respect that Moynihan always most decisively disagreed with his more conservative colleagues. He argued that the national government must stop regulating communities to death, but the government must also provide those same communities enough money to return from the grave. His proposed school voucher program is an example of one such endeavor.  

In the end, one need not be a Democrat to appreciate Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s unique political position. Twenty years after his death we can see all too well the damage of the statism he so consistently warned us against – civil society is drying up and America is plunging headfirst into an ocean of cold social isolation. Instead of relying even further on the regulatory power of the state we should listen to Moynihan’s sage political advice and do what we can to resuscitate the local institutions that are the true source of American liberty.

Jeffery Tyler Syck is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pikeville in his native Kentucky.

Authored by:Jeffery Tyler Syck


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