ImageA century ago, liberalism represented the best humanitarian impulses for self-improvement, equal opportunity and compassion in America. Liberals wanted disadvantaged people to have a better life. They helped children learn to read and get educated. They helped enact laws that ended child labor, and they helped get decent pay and working conditions for working people. Liberals helped women to control the number of children they produced thereby mitigating the crushing financial burden and health risks of large families. These are features of American life that we take for granted today. Liberalism was a positive force in the nation.

Originally, liberalism was not aligned with one political party. Both Democrats and Republicans were often social liberals, but Democrats were not yet minority-centric. Republicans were still considered the party of Lincoln - very sympathetic to the concerns of colored people.

Many Democrats were southern segregationists, and some were racists who considered blacks inferior and incapable of learning at the level of white people. (Democratic icon Woodrow Wilson was a eugenics-devotee [1] who segregated the federal civil service, consigning minorities to menial jobs only.) Even Franklin Roosevelt never advocated genuine integration - a line of thinking then far outside the political and cultural mainstream. Integration did not become a societal (and very controversial) reality until the 1950s, during the Eisenhower administration.

All this has been conveniently forgotten in the glorious post-1960 transmogrification of the Democratic Party to minorities "champion". Except for a few superannuated segregationists like Robert Byrd - a former Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan whose past goes largely unmentioned by the mainstream media - one would hardly know that Democrats were once known as the "3-S" party (slavery, secession and segregation). FDR built a powerful political coalition whose dependable base was the Solid South of mostly segregationist whites. Democrats kept southern blacks from voting - as Condoleeza Rice has often noted in recalling her childhood in segregated Alabama. It's one reason Democrats dislike her. (A black female colleague of mine called Dr. Rice "uppity" - an old southern pejorative meaning that she didn't know her "place" as a black person.)

Their solid-south base began to crumble when Democrats switched to minority-advocacy in the 1960s. Opportunistic Republicans filled the political vacuum left by Democrats' abandonment of southern whites. This was Richard Nixon's "southern strategy". Republicans did not adopt Democrats' old segregationist and racist attitudes. But the GOP's more even-handed posture toward aggrieved whites made them dominant in the south. The GOP became nationally competitive and Democrats' national clout declined. From 1933-1969 Democrats held the presidency for 28 of 36 years, but since 1968, for only 12 of 40 years. The Congress went Republican from 1995-2007, after nearly 60 years of solid Democratic dominance. (Democrats hold the Congress by a thread, now, but the old days of donkey-dominance are gone.)

During the past century of political consolidation, realignment and re-consolidation, "liberalism" has undergone a subtle attitudinal shift. Last week I saw an article written by David Nicholson, a former assistant editor of the The Post's Book World, about Washington DC's public school system. ("I Just Couldn't Sacrifice My Son") Mr. Nicholson's article was excellent; I recommend it to my readers. [2] To me it seemed an almost perfect synopsis of what has happened to "liberalism" in the modern era.

Mr. Nicholson cites his personal history with the District of Columbia, his belief in and support of the city, and his inclination to stick it out until enlightened management could correct troubled institutions, like the public schools. He relates how he twitted friends and neighbors who left the District when their children reached school age for "abandoning" the city.

Eventually, the Nicholsons' own son reached school age, and they learned the sordid reality - as differentiated from the romantic dream - of the District of Columbia's public schools. The author chronicles a dreary tale of the incompetence, indifference and outright hostility he found in school officials and faculty. Getting an "audience" with the local elementary school's principal was harder than getting in to see the Pope. Test scores were unimpressive. Staff were hostile.

Later, the Nicholsons enrolled their child in a charter school whose administrators lacked either the experience or skill to run a school efficiently. Getting electricity connected to the school building resembled a Marx-brothers skit. Teachers gave no letter grades, but simply marked each child with "presented" - meaning that particular material had been presented to him. No notice was taken that the Nicholsons' first-grader was already reading at a sixth-grade level.

Finally, the Nicholsons had enough. They moved to Fairfax County where their child benefited from the county's excellent public schools - many of whose students are children of federal officials, attorneys, businessmen and other professionals.

Mr. Nicholson regrets leaving the city where his family had lived for 80 years. He wishes it could have worked out differently, but he notes that even the District's mayor, Adrian Fenty, sends his children to private school. In the end, the Nicholsons simply could not wait for the DC schools to pull themselves up. They were out of time, and they refused to sacrifice their son to an "idea".

Mr. Nicholson's article was splendid, and I'm sure the Post's editors congratulated themselves for publishing it - perhaps imagining that they might earn some "conservative" points. I doubt if they realized how it showed modern liberalism's "underwear", as a strong light behind a woman not wearing a slip shows more than she realizes. For modern liberalism's dirty secret is that it is no longer about helping people to better themselves. Some individual liberals might still believe in that, but only subject to rigid, unchangeable dogma.

Liberals' true objective today is consolidation of political power on the backs of "unfortunates" who need government's help precisely because liberalism has injured them or kept them from improving. The train-wreck of public education is Exhibit A. In education and elsewhere, liberals make policies that they expect to apply to others, but never to themselves. When those policies get too close to them and their families, they bail out. That's what the Nicholsons did.

Undoubtedly good, liberal people with the best of intentions, the Nicholsons and others like them basically stood by as several generations of District of Columbia children were hurt by terrible public schools. So long as nothing touched them, personally, they were wonderfully patient about the system's poor management and the string of high-priced, highly touted (but ineffective) new superintendents brought in to try to turn the unturnable "Titanic" that DC public education is.

The Nicholsons evidently believed the schools would eventually be fixed. But their patience ended with their own son. What they were willing to risk for thousands of faceless children they would not risk for their own child. It is a telling, if pathetic case of liberal degeneration.

Not to single out the Nicholsons unfairly, this attitude is tres common among dedicated liberals. In a 2004 article ("Where Do Public School Teachers Send Their Kids to School?"), Dr. Alan Bonsteel (MD) cites national and local statistics on how many public school teachers put their children in private schools. Nationally, public school teachers are almost twice as likely (21.5%) to send their children to private school as the general public (12.2%). In Chicago, 38.7% of teachers send their kids to private schools vs. 22.6% of the general public. In Washington, DC, the figures are 26.8% of teachers vs. 19.8% of the general public.

Being better informed than the general public about the real situation in public schools, teachers send their children to private schools in disproportionate numbers. The authors of the study that produced these data call this a form of insider trading, with a strong "sell" disposition. Public school teachers are outspoken advocates of public education and are overwhelmingly liberal. But their private attitudes are less bullish on their own product.

Politicians are even more hypocritical about public education, as shown during the political battle-royal over publicly funded "vouchers" to let poorer DC students attend private schools. Writes Mr. Bonsteel: "One of the revelations that helped pass the DC voucher legislation was the disclosure in the news media that the politicians opposing school choice in that city did not enroll their own children in District of Columbia public schools." (Bailing out again.)

Another recent demonstration of liberal hypocrisy was the conversion of super-green Senator Edward Kennedy to temporary environmental "conservative" when a proposal arose to install a large field of power-generating windmills in Nantucket Sound - within sight of the Kennedy digs at Hyannis Port. Mr. Kennedy, who hardly ever met a "green" proposal he didn't like, found "safety concerns" regarding shipping channels in the sound to be a compelling reason to oppose the Nantucket proposal. (Nary a word about the Kennedys' ocean view.)

I take no real pleasure in these disclosures about "bail-out" liberalism. I would be glad, however, to hear less horse-hockey about how "concerned" and "compassionate" liberals are. What a snow-job we have been getting for the last forty years.

*****

[1] Eugenics: the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding. (Early eugenicist Margaret Sanger wanted to purge "undesirable elements" like Jews and Negroes out of the country's population. Her advocacy of abortion was intensely racist.)

[2] "I Just Couldn't Sacrifice My Son", by David Nicholson; Washington Post; October 21, 2007.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/19/AR2007101901546.html?referrer=emailarticle