Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dazzling résumé is well-known: gunnery officer in the US Navy, Harvard professor of government, ambassador to India and the United Nations, assistant secretary of labor, urban policy adviser to President Nixon, and for four terms a Democratic senator from New York. Obviously, Moynihan saw a lot and did a lot. But what did he think?

Before his untimely death in 2003, Moynihan wrote more than a dozen books, published many influential essays for outlets such as Commentary, The American Scholar, and The Public Interest, and delivered hundreds if not thousands of lectures and speeches on an extraordinary range of subjects. The question posed by Greg Weiner in American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan is whether a coherent political philosophy can be gleaned from his abundant intellectual output.

Weiner—a professor of political science at Assumption College and the author of a previous book about James Madison—aims to plumb Moynihan’s public writings to see what fundamental ideas emerge. It is striking that no one before Weiner has made such an attempt. His book is a pioneering effort that tells us important things about one of the most complex and compelling figures of American political life in the second half of the twentieth century. But Weiner does much more than that. By taking seriously the thinking of a scholar-politician who in some ways transcended the contours of our political divide, Weiner illuminates possibilities for American politics that have been lost with Moynihan’s passing.

A Central Paradox

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The title of Weiner’s book points to the central paradox at which he arrives. Moynihan, he contends, is a Burkean liberal. The juxtaposition only appears on the surface to be an oxymoron. From widely separated eras, Burke and Moynihan were significantly different, but they also had much in common. Observes Weiner:

Both stood at the intersection of thought and action, scholarship and statesmanship. Each made his name as an advocate for the disadvantaged and oppressed of the day: Burke for the Catholics of Ireland, the colonists of America, the oppressed of India; Moynihan for the dependent poor in America and the imprisoned millions of the Soviet empire. Both made lonely but stirring rhetorical stands against the totalitarianism of their times: Burke against the French Revolution; Moynihan against Leninist tyranny. Both were conserving transformers who valued traditional systems of authority, most primarily the family and, in the phrase of Burke’s to which Moynihan most often recurred, the little platoons of society—what for Burke were social classes and Moynihan were ethnic groupings. Each interpreted politics in the terms of the observable and concrete rather than the metaphysical and the abstract, defended legislative government against executive encroachment, devoted himself to political party—and more.

That is a remarkable collection of parallels. But Moynihan, unlike Burke, was a self-declared liberal and never shrank from the label. In his own words, Moynihan believed that government is “the instrument of the common purpose of a free people, [one that] can embrace great causes; and do great things.” He regarded our national government as “a superb instrument for redistributing power and wealth in our society.” The New Deal was Moynihan’s lodestar; he believed that the United States was “a vastly stronger, united, and happier nation thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the ideas he stood for.”

In Moynihan’s view, the national government could and should go beyond distributing power and wealth. It could also “change a culture, and save it from itself.” It had done exactly this when it moved in the early 1960s to effect a revolution in civil rights, and it could do so again in contending with other profound national problems. To paraphrase (and reverse) William F. Buckley’s famous definition of conservatism, liberalism for Moynihan meant standing athwart History, yelling “Go!”

Liberalism—But With Limits

But if Moynihan had high ambitions for government, he also had a keen sense of limits—and this is the first place where Weiner locates his Burkean conservatism. Moynihan had attended Michael Oakeshott’s inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics and frequently recurred to it. “Oakeshott,” wrote Moynihan, “preached the art of the possible, and bespoke the fate of those who reject those limitations.”  Chiliastic projects, whether of the New Left or the old, were anathema to Moynihan; the achievements of politicians, in Moynihan’s view, could “never be more than relatively good.”

Similarly Burkean was Moynihan’s appreciation of the complexity of American pluralism and his deep appreciation for “voluntary, private associations—church, family, club, trade union, commercial association,” and so on. Moynihan recognized that government, by attempting to assume their functions, could supplant and destroy such intermediate institutions. Yet, when properly managed, Moynihan firmly believed that “public policy can succor private institutions of every description.”

If Moynihan’s recognition of complexity did not impel him toward laissez-faire policies, it did impel him against concentrations of governmental power and toward subsidiarity. Weiner shows how significant Catholic teachings were to Moynihan in a number of realms, not least the view that political decisions ought to be reached by the lowest and least centralized level of government. The promotion of strong neighborhoods and strong local schools, including inner-city Catholic schools via tuition tax credits, was a lifelong preoccupation. Throughout his career, Moynihan also searched for ways to protect families from dissolution. His famous 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, prescient in its warning about skyrocketing divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates, bears rereading even now, on its fiftieth anniversary.

A Politics of Circumstance

Though Moynihan was often associated with neoconservatism—and counted both of the movement’s intellectual godfathers, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, as close, personal friends—he adamantly rejected the label. Moynihan held various neoconservative positions, such as opposition to totalitarianism and a recognition of the failures of LBJ’s “Great Society” programs. But Weiner concludes that significant fissures separated Moynihan from his neoconservative friends. Neoconservatives accepted the welfare state only grudgingly and in negative terms; at best, it was not incompatible with their vision of a well-functioning society. Moynihan, by contrast, embraced welfare throughout his life with a startling degree of enthusiasm, holding that its principal failings arose from its being insufficiently generous.

Weiner does a masterful job of sketching Moynihan’s political thinking, a challenging endeavor given Moynihan’s remarkable range, the shifts in his positions over time, and the inconsistencies that follow inevitably from sheer richness. Still, one puts the book down asking: How well does it all hang together? Can there really be a coherent synthesis between the thought of Edmund Burke and Moynihan’s brand of liberalism?

Weiner defines the Burkean-liberal combination as essentially “concerned with consequences as they emerge through the medium of experience.” Thus, Moynihan’s was a politics of circumstance, in which political actions are to be judged by their results in sustaining or undermining widely shared moral norms. One trouble here, of course, is that the results of political programs are inherently unpredictable. Social science, on which Moynihan tried to lean heavily, is seldom a sturdy cane.

The Battle Against Poverty

A case in point is the battle against poverty. A Burkean approach would seem to counsel caution and favor incremental improvement. In the mid-1960s, Moynihan concurred, warning that “radical change” to welfare was a “danger” with multiple unknown ramifications. Yet upon joining the Nixon administration in 1969, Moynihan championed a guaranteed income program, the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), that would have swept away all existing welfare arrangements and instead provided Social Security-like benefits to families with children. Drawing on the social science presented in the Coleman report, Moynihan put forward the extraordinarily far-reaching claim that an income maintenance program, as he wrote in a memo to Nixon, “would abolish poverty for dependent children and the working poor.”

FAP was ultimately defeated in Congress. By the time Moynihan joined the Senate in 1977, a new body of social science findings demonstrated that income transfers actually accelerated family breakup. To his credit, Moynihan immediately abandoned the idea. “Were we wrong about guaranteed income?” he asked. “Seemingly it is calamitous. It increases family dissolution by 70 percent, decreases work, etc. Such is now the state of science, and we are honor bound to abide by it at the moment.”

Weiner acknowledges that the sweeping nature of FAP “appears un-Burkean.” The liberal side of Moynihan was ready to turn a “vast array” of social arrangements upside down and give the government an enormous role in the redistribution of private wealth, unwittingly inviting potentially “calamitous” consequences. Clearly, the tension between Moynihan’s belief in the limits of government and his aspirations for what government could achieve was unresolved.

Two decades later, the Clinton administration signed on to Republicans’ proposal of another extensive overhaul of the welfare system. The proposed reform had objectives seemingly in accord with Moynihan’s Burkeanism: it aimed to end a crippling culture of dependence and thereby strengthen civil society, and it also employed means that were in line with the principle of subsidiarity, returning decision-making to the states. Yet on this occasion, Moynihan vociferously opposed the reform. The overhaul would have dire consequences, he warned; it was a radical gamble whose real objective, masked by the language of decentralization, was simply to cut welfare to the bone. Moynihan’s larger caution was explicitly Burkean: “If conservative means anything, it means be careful, be thoughtful, and anticipate the unanticipated or understand the things that will happen that you do not expect.” Ironically, the Clinton welfare reform turned out to be largely successful in reducing dependence and promoting self-reliance through work, as Moynihan (once again to his credit) duly acknowledged.

Moynihan may have been consistently Burkean in his resistance to the Clinton welfare reform, as Weiner contends. But that is only because Burke offers not a theory or a set of principles that can be applied to a given political choice, but a disposition itself composed of disparate strands that are in tension with one another. Moynihan had the Burkean disposition in spades. But if one drops that conservative disposition into the mixing bowl with liberalism’s expansive view of what government can accomplish, an unappetizing porridge can result, and that appears to be what often happened in Moynihan’s kitchen.

Not a Balance—A Deep and Simultaneous Commitment

Weiner valiantly strives to reconcile the contradictory elements of Moynihan’s thought. His claim is “not that Moynihan found a balance between the values of possibility and limitation—a sort of centrism of accommodation—but rather that he maintained, and it is both possible and admirable to maintain, a deep and simultaneous commitment to both.” That is almost certainly true of Moynihan’s public writings. On the other hand, it is almost certainly false when one considers Moynihan’s voting record in the Senate, which, in its almost perfect congruence with the lines set by the Democratic party platform and the New York Times editorial page, reveals a rather lopsided tilt toward possibility and against limitation.

Yet Weiner is certainly on to something in his deeply discerning book. Moynihan’s liberalism, whatever inconsistencies and internal conflicts it contains, whatever compromises it entailed with the exigencies of holding and keeping elected office, is unquestionably distinct from mainstream American liberalism. Contemporary liberalism—more properly called Progressivism, a malevolent merger of the thought and practice of Woodrow Wilson and Henry Wallace—operates under the presumption that society, being a man-made institution, can and should be continually remolded by man until it reaches perfection, and woe unto those who would stand in the way. Moynihan rejected this root and branch as a formula for tyranny adumbrated by power-seeking elites determined to impose their superior vision on society.

Unlike today’s progressives, Moynihan approached governance with a measure of humility. He tried to see the world as it is, rather than as he wished it to be. He attempted to ground governance in observable facts rather than lofty aspirations. He sought to be protective of civil society and intact families. With the exception of FAP, he resisted radical schemes. And he was both fiercely intelligent and intellectually honest enough to acknowledge when he was wrong. Regarding Moynihan as a political thinker, one can aptly paraphrase Walt Whitman. Did he contradict himself? Very well, then he contradicted himself, he was large, he contained multitudes.