Steinbeck's brand of liberalism made political debate a real possibility. After all, conservatives agree that men are neither angels nor devils, and that not everyone will behave with the same honor as an Ayn Rand-ian hero. Steinbeck's solution to the problem of "immorality" was not necessarily more government, but better men in government, and not necessarily more regulation, but more self-regulation. Communal standards were important, but there was no guarantee that government would be the best judge of communal standards. As Steinbeck wrote shortly before his death, "It is our national conviction that politics is a dirty, tricky and dishonest pursuit and that all politicians are crooks. The reason for this attitude is fairly obvious -- we have had cynical and dishonest officials on all levels of our government."
Steinbeck was embraced by the 1930s New Deal liberals because he wrongly saw FDR's collectivist efforts as a corrective to the moral problem posed by supposed individual exploitation of the system. But Steinbeck's brand of liberalism was rejected wholesale by the left in the 1960s. Suggestions that Americans embrace traditional morality were no longer enough for the left -- a broader transformation of American values was necessary.
Critics labeled Steinbeck a relic of the past, his morality was too old-fashioned. Time magazine said that he had entered "late-middle-aged petulance." Detractors on his left claimed that he was too wedded to capitalism, that he was archaically clinging to nationalistic feelings regarding the military (especially after his reports from Vietnam, which accurately described the Viet Cong as barbaric), and that he was not sufficiently utopian.
And so Steinbeck's philosophy was jettisoned. The American people no longer had the potential for good -- now they were all rapacious individuals dedicated to plundering their fellows. Government was no longer susceptible to corruption; it was now the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, and the best embodiment of the collective. Liberalism, which was once a philosophy of doubt -- doubt about both the individual and the government -- became a philosophy of certainty.
Modern liberalism is now impoverished by its own simplicity. Government is always the solution, and individualism is always the problem. As President Obama so succinctly put it in 2008, "our individual salvation depends on collective salvation." Steinbeck's liberalism put it differently: "It believe that man is a double thing -- a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first." The founders would have agreed with Steinbeck. Today's liberals agree with Frank and Obama. The day authentic liberalism died, so did the possibility of bridging the gap between modern liberalism and the founding principles of our country.
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