Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, has written an unusually long, provocative, and important essay
for that magazine. Its title, "An Argument For a New Liberalism," is at odds with its thesis, since what Beinart really wants is to revive an old liberalism. But then, its thesis is at odds with the reality of that old liberalism.
Beinart wants, specifically, a revival of the liberalism of 1947, the year the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) was founded. More specifically still, he wants liberalism to stand resolutely against Islamist totalitarianism, as unapologetically as mid-century liberalism stood against Soviet totalitarianism.
Adopting this posture will require expulsions. Even as the ADA insisted that Henry Wallace was not an acceptable member of their movement, Beinart says, modern liberals must insist that Moveon.org and Michael Moore are not welcome within their ranks today. "Moore views totalitarian Islam the way Wallace viewed communism: As a phantom, a ruse employed by the only enemies that matter, those on the right." The excommunication of leftists who think totalitarian Islam is "a distraction if not a mirage" is crucial if liberals are going to "take back their movement."
It is no accident, as the Marxists liked to say, that Beinart's article appears one month after John Kerry's defeat, any more than it was that the ADA was founded in January 1947, two months after Republicans recaptured control of Congress for the first time since 1932. Beinart begins by quoting Joseph and Steward Alsop, who argued that unless liberals confronted "the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West…it is the rightthe very extreme rightwhich is most likely to gain victory." Beinart blames liberalism's failure to confront today's great political reality for the Democrats' defeats in the two elections held since 9/11. He says that "most Americans still see the GOP as the party more concerned with security, at home and abroad." On the evidence, "that perception is exactly right."
Beinart is right to recall fondly the liberalism of long ago. The world and the nation were indeed better, safer places when liberalism was a "fighting faith," convinced that "anti-communism was the fundamental litmus test for a decent left." His desire for similar muscularity in the present crisis is also welcome: "The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left."
Beinart is very sober about the challenge of enforcing this litmus test. He notes that when the ADA was founded, its unbending anti-Communism was a "minority view" among liberals, one which prevailed only after "bitter political combat." Today, the Democratic Party has "a liberal base unwilling to redefine itself for the post-September 11 world," a base that "would have refused to nominate anyone [for president in 2004] who proposed redefining the Democratic Party in the way the ADA did in 1947." Accordingly, the "challenge for Democrats today is…to transform the party at its grassroots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge," a challenge that will require "a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace."
One does not have to be a liberal, just a patriot, to wish Beinart good luck. The fight against Islamist totalitarianism is likely to go on a long time. Democrats will inevitably win some elections before it's through; the nation's security and the lives of many of its citizens depend on both parties seeing this profound challenge through to the finish.
For liberalism to become a fighting faith for a second time, however, is going to be even harder than Beinart imagines. He is clear-eyed about the threat America faces from abroad, but too optimistic about the nature of American liberalism itself. From the perspective of the 21st century, the anti-Communist liberalism that guided the Democratic party for two decades following World War II looks increasingly improbable, almost freakishan achievement that cannot be duplicated. For liberalism to be and stay a fighting faith required a successful organ transplant into a body whose DNA was highly resistant.
Liberal anti-Communism ended many years before the Cold War did. If that contest was, as John Kennedy said, "a long twilight struggle," most liberals checked out shortly after lunch. Beinart is aware of this, and aware that it is an awkward problem for his argument. He praises Arthur Schlesinger's role in founding the ADA and explaining its principles in his book of 1949, The Vital Center. Beinart mentions in passing that, "ironically," Schlesinger "moved toward a softer liberalism later in life." But Schlesinger was not alone in this move. He was, in fact, so not alone that the irony of his transformation is open to question. Perhaps the real anomaly was not that Schlesinger became a dove when he grew older, but that he had ever been a hawk at all.
Vietnam, of course, was the Rubicon. In February of this year, George Packer wrote in the New Yorker that since Vietnam, "the Democratic Party has had no foreign policy," because its "base remains instinctively uncomfortable with activism and armed force." In 1967 the ADA called for throwing Lyndon Johnson out of office because of Vietnam. But liberal politicians, activists, and publications had begun harsh attacks on Johnson's policy in 1965.
Even earlier, however, before Vietnam became an issue, liberals began to distance themselves from the posture they had adopted in the late 1940s. Allen Matusow has argued that LBJ prosecuted the war in Vietnam exactly in accordance with the paradigm embraced by the ADA after World War II: unyielding resistance to Communist aggression. But for growing numbers of liberals, even before LBJ became president, that framework was passé"the old obsession [began] to bore." The Sino-Soviet split and Marshall Tito's defiance of the USSR showed that, according to Schlesinger, "Communism is no longer a unified, coordinated, centralized conspiracy." (Of course, a close reading of The Vital Center would not have left the impression that liberal anti-Communism was predicated on Communism being such a conspiracy, as opposed to its being morally abhorrent. Yet another irony.)
It is also the case that the crushing Democratic victory in the 1964 election was widely understood at the time as the last gasp for conservatism in America, particularly for its strenuous anti-Communism. According to that interpretation, the Alsops' fears of 1946 were now moot: liberals no longer had to regard the threat of a victory by the extreme right wing as a reason to confront the Soviet challenge. By 1972 the ADA, and its most prominent leaders, such as Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, were avidly committed to the presidential campaign of Senator George McGovernwho did not hide or apologize for the fact that his earliest political involvement had been as a supporter of the candidacy of Henry Wallace against President Truman in 1948.
We are much further removed from the Vietnam era than the liberals attacking LBJ were removed from the founding of the ADA. Yet while liberal anti-Communism had played out within twenty years, the liberal opposition to "activism and armed force" brought to the fore by Vietnam is, as Packer noted, still powerful after forty years. Beinart tries to account for, though not excuse, liberalism's retreat from the responsibilities of national self-defense. "Today, the war on terrorism is partially obscured by the war in Iraq," he writes, "which has made liberals cynical about the purposes of U.S. power. But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism."
Try telling that to the ADA, whichafter the 1967 break with LBJnever returned to the 1947 posture of firm anti-Communism or support for the vigorous prosecution of America's national security.* Try telling Jimmy Carter that Vietnam did not obviate the battle against Communism. The first Democratic president elected after the war in Vietnam devoted his first major address on foreign policy, two years after the fall of Saigon, to expressing his approval that "we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear."
There are two alternative ways to understand the relationship between Vietnam and liberalism's willingness to make anti-totalitarianism the fundamental litmus test for a decent Left. The first, which is congenial to Beinart's project of making liberalism a fighting faith again, is that Vietnam led many liberals to shirk America's global duties, but this departure from the spirit of '47 was a mere episode, whose effects subsided as the memory of Vietnam faded. The second is that the vehement denunciation of the war in Vietnam, and the resolute opposition to any subsequent ventures like it, revealed an essential attribute of modern liberalism, not something accidental and transitory. To ask the question of which explanation better fits with the political facts of the last forty years is to answer it. If vigorous support for America's right to self-defense was a natural expression of liberalism, rather than a fight against the gravitational pull of liberalism's premises, one would expect it to have reasserted itself by now. One would expect, indeed, that a plea like Beinart's for liberals to disassociate themselves from the likes of Michael Moore would be unnecessary, that such a buffoon would have been banished to the periphery, rather than seated next to former President Carter at the 2004 Democratic convention.
Beinart makes a half-hearted effort to argue that hawkish advisors gained increasing sway during the Clinton Administration, establishing the foundation for "a new post-Vietnam liberalism that embraced U.S. power." But as Clinton himself was fond of saying, that dog won't hunt. A 1999 Charles Krauthammer essay published, ironically, in The New Republic, explained that the scars of Vietnam had given liberalism "an abiding…antipathy to any notion of national interest." Indeed, national interest "is not just a dispensable criterion for action but a disqualifying one." Thus, "In 1991, in the Persian Gulf, where American interests were seriously engaged, the Democratic Party voted overwhelmingly against going to war to defend those interests. In Haiti, where American interests were at most tangentially engaged, they mounted a 20,000-man intervention."
Krauthammer sees more clearly than Beinart that the vigorous anti-Communism of the early ADA was at variance with modern liberalism's nature, while the vigorous opposition to America asserting or even defending herself is consistent with it. Liberalism does not suffer from "disparate woolly-headed instincts" Krauthammer argues, or from "weakness, sentimentality [or] anti-war residue," but from a coherent and overarching, though foolish, idea: "to remake the international system in the image of domestic civil society." According to Krauthammer, "The liberal internationalist idea had always been to transcend power politics, to transcend narrow national interest, and ideally to transcend the nation-state itself as it is now understood. The nation-state is seen as some kind of archaic residue of a primitive past…."
Beinart tries to argue that the opposition to totalitarianism can advance liberalism's domestic agenda. John Kerry, however, was surely making a more direct appeal to liberals' sensibilities when he complained, "We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in our own communities." If, as Krauthammer says, liberalism wants to remake the world in the image of domestic civil society, it follows that not just any domestic civil society will do for a model, but only one that has been reformed, enlightened, and uplifted by liberalism.
We should expect, then, that the same qualities will animate liberalism's domestic and foreign policies. Whether dealing with terrorists abroad or delinquents at home, the first impulse will be the same. As Joseph Cropsey wrote forty years ago, "The liberal view is consistent with itself in applying to domestic as well as to foreign affairs the dictum that trust edifies and absolute trust edifies absolutely." Accordingly, liberalism's faith in forebearance and mediation is as strong in the international arena as in the domestic: "Among nations, [liberals believe], there are no genuine issues but only attitudes or states of mind which, if they are inconducive to peace, can be removed by the methods of conflict resolution, or exorcism of mass delusion and neurosis."
The root to which both the domestic and foreign policy instincts of liberalism can be traced is, Cropsey explained, the belief in humans' "natural brotherhood under the skin." That natural fraternity is thwarted, in the domestic arena, by individual selfishness made possible by an excessive respect for the prerogatives of private property, and in the global arena by collective selfishness, made possible by an excessive respect for the prerogatives of the nation-state. If anything, liberalism is even more opposed to patriotism than to property: "the dividedness of men grouped according to their nations…seems to be an arbitrary division very much to the detriment of peace."
Beinart clearly means for his essay to be primarily a manifesto, not an analysis. It is three years and two elections after 9/11 without liberals having taken the new totalitarianism seriously and, he writes, "the hour is getting late." He wants to teach, and hopes that "contemporary liberals can learn…that national security can be a calling…. [T]he moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn." Since Beinart wants his argument to have consequences in the world of events rather than just the world of ideas, its reception will depend not only on the strength of his evidence and logic, but on the attitudes and assumptions of the liberals to whom it is addressed. Beinart will need all the luck he can getevery component of his argument will require his audience to conclude that a belief they have treated as too obviously true to be debated is, in fact, false. That is the hardest kind of persuading. As Jonathan Swift said, it is impossible to argue someone out of a position that no one ever argued him into.
* The ADA website today does not celebrate the group's anti-Communist origins as Beinart does. Quite the contrary: Its account of the founding of the organization says, "In January 1947, when...200...activists gathered together to form Americans for Democratic Action, they faced challenging times. The gains of the New Deal were threatened and a rampant anti-Communist vitriol was emerging that would climax under Wisconsin's Senator Joe McCarthy leadership in the coming years." The ADA reaction to the praise given to it by Beinart has been an explicit disavowal: "While we acknowledge his accurate depiction of ADA's history, we also must point out his inaccurate contextual use of that history in this piece."