Posted: November 2, 2006
ccording to Peter Beinart, American liberalism faces a situation much like the one it faced at the start of the Cold War. In the late 1940s, many liberals denied that Stalin was an enemy and regarded war itself as the gravest threat to America. Centrist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr drove these "doughfaces" out of the American establishment and helped President Harry S. Truman lay the foundation of America's victory in the Cold War, not to mention of the Democratic Party's continued electoral viability.
Unlike many of his friends on today's Left, Beinart, editor-at-large at The New Republic, understands that America's traditional policy in the Middle East no longer works and that the current war might be necessary. For years we were friendly with the region's tyrants because they kept the oil flowing. At the same time, since tyranny provoked discontent, these clever tyrants vented their people's frustration and anger in an Islamist, anti-American direction. The September 11 attacks reaped this whirlwind. The people in the region who had learned to hate us found a means to attack us. America's strategy in the region had to change. Beinart therefore supported the war in Iraq. He agrees with President George W. Bush that since tyranny caused the problem, liberty is the solution: "Bush rightly believes that defeating jihadism requires promoting liberty."
Though Beinart still believes in the cause, he now regrets having supported the war. He thinks that Bush should have tried containment and should have worked more closely with our allies. More importantly, he thinks that Bush's means are unsuited to his ends, that he is a half-hearted social reformer. Although keen on liberty, Bush "is much less sure that defeating jihadism requires promoting equality (or at least equality of opportunity)." Beinart is, in other words, an unreconstructed 20th-century liberal. At least when looking abroad, he forgets the lessons about the limits of government, and the importance of property rights, that some of his neo-liberal colleagues at The New Republic, not to mention almost all conservatives, emphasize. He believes that "equality of opportunity" necessitates ambitious, intrusive government, and that Bush should try to solve the region's problems with the methods that mid-century liberals preferred. The U.S. should secularize the schools and, presumably, create welfare states, government-run health care, and job-training programs in the region. What else would a liberal say?
If Beinart can rally liberals behind the war against terrorism, more power to him. Unfortunately, he isn't up to it. He doesn't grasp the difference between our day and the liberal establishment's heyday, and so overlooks the difference between his own brand of liberalism and theirs. Near the end of the book, Beinart quotes Robert Putnam: "The closing decades of the twentieth century found Americans growing ever less connected with one another and with collective life…. Our 'we' steadily shriveled." By contrast, Beinart notes, "the era that produced cold war liberalism—the period between World War II and Vietnam—has been called the 'golden age of civic engagement.' Americans voted more, contacted their legislators more, volunteered for campaigns more, and believed in their government more than they had during the Gilded Age of the 1920s."
The period in which the liberal establishment dominated was unique. It was the age of three TV networks and one unchallenged national newspaper. It marked a low-tide in immigration, another factor creating an unusual degree of cultural unity. Internationally, America enjoyed unprecedented dominance because Europe and Japan were recovering from the War, and each faced a major totalitarian threat close to home. Perhaps more revealingly, Beinart completely overlooks 19th-century America, the period when civic involvement reached its apogee. By contrast, the rise of the administrative state seems consistently to have reduced civic engagement by making voting and participation in local government less relevant to people's lives. Big government and golden ages of civil participation seldom go together.
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Since Beinart spends so much time on his liberal predecessors, he should consider what they were up to. Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, the founders of Beinart's magazine, believed that social scientists, trained in modern universities, could manage society and the economy justly and efficiently, thus improving on the Constitution, the free market, and, not incidentally, the natural rights philosophy of America's founding. In the 1940s, Niebuhr, Beinart's favorite liberal, made the same point. Beinart doesn't see the connection between such progressivism and New Deal liberalism. "In its modern American context," he writes on the first page of his book, "liberalism—the belief that government should intervene in society to solve problems that individuals cannot solve alone—began with Franklin Roosevelt. Progressivism has older roots and different emphases." His notes, however, betray the truth. Roosevelt said that "the liberal party is a party which believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them." The root of the word Progressive is "progress." The ideas of progress made liberalism, once anti-statist, into something progressive and statist. New Dealers took the Progressive critique of the founding as a point of departure for their enterprise.
Beinart's blindness to the connection between New Deal liberalism and Progressivism tells us something important about his thought. According to Beinart, "liberals pride themselves on their empiricism," that is, their skill at assembling and analyzing facts. The trouble is that empiricism finds its limit when one has to decide what constitutes a fact. Empirical thinkers are always tempted to simplify their data in order to make scientific tests possible. More tellingly, although empiricism can suggest what input will likely yield a given output, it cannot say what is a good output. It can discuss facts, not "values." Among mid-century liberals, history answered the riddle that their empiricism posed. They could not ascertain, strictly speaking, what was right or what was good. By tracing developments over time, however, they could say which way the country had to move next. This view of history predisposed liberals like Croly and Niebuhr to think that change, fundamentally, was necessary and good; that change was always, or almost always, progress. Schlesinger was predisposed to view the Depression as a "crisis of the old order," rather than an economic downturn, worsened by the decisions of policy-makers, because he had internalized the progressive understanding of history. Richard Epstein points out that, in the realm of law, "the older conceptual scheme did not collapse of its own weight. All that really happened was that several justices lost faith in it, without being able to show where it broke down." Liberals had to assume that the pre-liberal order was failing. The day they stopped assuming (forget about proving) that, they gave up their reason for being.
History made it both possible and necessary to be in the progressive sense a man of the Left. The best definition of a man of the Left is someone who thinks that the future will be decisively different from the past. For if human nature is changeable, then men can behave very differently, and better, than they ever have before. War may be the way of the past; peace can become the way of the future.
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A 1993 Yale graduate, Beinart is in the first generation of post-Cold War liberals. Perhaps as a result, he never learned to take the idea of history seriously. A moderate by inclination and a patriot by sentiment, he instinctively turns away from today's anarchic, anti-American Left. Indeed, his stated goal is to save the Left from irrelevance by making it more responsible. But can the Left survive without faith in history?
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union were history-shattering events. History was not inevitably tending toward socialism, or even toward the "middle way" that liberals touted. In America, the success of conservative politics also mocked the progressive faith. History told liberals that conservatives were "the stupid party," who made themselves irrelevant by clinging to old ways. The continued presence of conservatives in America, not to mention their unprecedented success, made a hash of that idea. To say that the most vital force in American politics in the 1980s and '90s was an anachronism is to render the term anachronism meaningless.
What becomes of American liberalism when it turns away from history? In Beinart's hands, it becomes religion. He litters his book with religious language. Hubert Humphrey "worshiped the New Deal." Beinart's heroes shared "beliefs in anti-Communism, racial integration, and America's capacity for redemption." Together these made American liberalism "a fighting faith." It is not a coincidence that Beinart's favorite thinker is not a political philosopher but a theologian. "Niebuhr," he writes, "provided the theoretical heft" for mid-century liberalism. Actually, he provided its theological heft. In the late 1940s, Niebuhr said that the task liberals faced was to "make our political and economic life more worthy of our faith." An empirical thinker, Beinart thinks that ends are matters of faith, not reason.
Beinart might be a realist when it comes to policy, but he is a Romantic when it comes to questions of justice, and he instinctively looks left to find his moral bearings. In the book's penultimate paragraph he writes,
citizenship can be as powerful a force for moral revival as religion. And democracy is not America's gift to the world. It is the goal for which we struggle, against the injustice in our society, in solidarity with those people struggling against the injustice in theirs.
Beinart seeks redemption through politics, and he does so in the name of "democracy," which for him is not a form of government but a way of life in which all citizens feel a communal bond, and are equal in more than merely their rights. That is why he takes the loss of "our 'we'" so personally. In democracy, he seeks a communal home.
Unlike so many on today's Left, Niebuhr and Schlesinger knew that they were standing up for Western civilization against barbarism. Having beaten the Nazis, their liberalism had a seriousness that echoed the older liberalism of the American Founders. Schlesinger called his opponents on the Left "doughfaces"—moral purists who refused to face the decisions that policy required. Niebuhr preached a certain kind of moral realism: war is sometimes necessary. "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization," he wrote. From both, Beinart learns something about the limits of what can be done in politics. Here we find an echo of the classical idea of statesmanship—trying to reconcile what is desirable with what is possible.
Yet he misunderstands the nature of those limits, and their connection to liberal democracy. He complains repeatedly that conservatives see the world in Manichaean terms. But what looks like simplified, Manichaean rhetoric to a liberal is, in fact, a different way of talking about the world in light of man's limitations. To be a liberal in the best sense of the term is to believe that the world cannot be redeemed through politics, and to understand that this stubbornness might itself be good. Liberal tolerance grows from an understanding of man's inherent weaknesses, in addition to his capacity for greatness. Beinart seems to understand that, but he hasn't thought it through. If he had, he wouldn't turn to politics in search of brotherhood, which is something politics cannot deliver without resorting to tyranny.