(Editor's note: The editorial appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 13, 1984.)
American liberalism has traditionally derived much of its energy from a volatile mixture of emotion and moral superiority. The liberal belief that one's policies would on balance accomplish something indisputably good generally made opposing arguments about shortcomings, costs or unintended consequences unpersuasive. Nonetheless, politics during the presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower was waged mainly as politics and not as a kind of religious political crusade. Somehow that changed during the Kennedy presidency.
Mr. Kennedy used the force of his personality to infuse his supporters with a sense of transcendent mission--the New Frontier. The emotions this movement inspired coincided with the one deeply moral political phenomenon that postwar America has experienced--Martin Luther King's civil-rights movement. The Rev. King's multiracial civil-rights marches and their role in overturning de jure and de facto segregation in the U.S. were a political and moral achievement.
In retrospect, it's clear that the moral clarity of the early civil-rights movement was a political epiphany for many white liberals. Some have since returned to traditional, private lives; others have become neoconservatives. But many active liberals carried along their newly found moral certitude and quasi-religious fervor into nearly every major public-policy issue that has come along in the past 15 years. The result has been liberal fundamentalism.
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