A WAKE-UP CALL TO LIBERALS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- In the aftermath of electoral defeat, the anti-Bush coalition has been in the process of reevaluating its tactics. While most of it comes across as wishful whining, Marc Cooper of the L.A. Weekly and Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, have fired a couple of shots across leftist bows that are generating a flurry of comments.
Beinart's piece may be the deeper, longer lasting contribution, while Cooper's piece was striking in the way it validated my own personal experiences in the electoral aftermath.
Cooper (www.marccooper.com) was not particularly enthralled with the John Kerry candidacy prior to the election. Referring to Kerry as "the incidental candidate," he remarked of Bush: "Nor do I think that [President] Bush is necessarily the worst, or the most dangerous, or the most whatever president in history. Candidates are products of their historical times and circumstances — some more perilous than others."
Reviewing other columns by Cooper, one discovers a well-spoken liberal with strong concerns about health care, the environment, the income gap and the Iraq war. At the same time, one finds him to be more the hard-boiled reporter than wishful thinker. His recent column makes this clear. Here's how it starts:
Whatever slim hope that Democrats might have of extracting something positive from this week's resounding defeat depends entirely on how much authentic introspection they are willing to inflict on themselves. To the degree that they look outward - instead of inward - to identify the causes of the 2004 debacle, the more certainly they are doomed.
It's a pretty strong slap across the face to thousands of grieving Democrats, but it fits closely with my own observations at Democratic electoral postmortems. At two different meetings of Los Angeles area anti-Bush groups I attended in the past couple of weeks, the favorite whine was the call for electoral reform, as if voter intimidation had been newly invented by those bad Republicans, and as if big-city Democratic machines had not stolen countless votes and numerous states in their heyday. Hypocrisy has become a two-way street, apparently.
In response to my remark that the election is over and President Bush is the winner, one high ranking party apparatchik annoyedly replied, "The election isn't over!" Considering that this was well into the third week of November, I wonder what he was trying to say.
But that is where a lot of the discussion has been, in a slightly desperate, slightly pathetic kind of denial that even its practitioners can't really believe in.
The other, worse sort of denial is what I might classify as the "better living through advertising" vein. It can be heard in various iterations, but generally manifests itself in the form, "We need to get our message out better." The idea is clear: If only those frustratingly thickheaded voters could be made to realize the beauty of our thought, they would vote for us in a shot. Apparently several hundred million dollars in political advertising, four debates and the determined work of tens of thousands of volunteers failed to make that wonderful message clear.
Of course, the suggestion that "we get our message out better" and the equally voiced suggestion that we "craft our message better" are really more like admissions that there isn't much of a message to get out. It is easy for Republicans to say, "Lower taxes and a strong defense." The message is clear, whether or not anybody should take it seriously.
As Marc Cooper and many others have stated, it is a lot harder to figure out what the Democratic message may be, or even what the consensus liberal message ought to be.
This is where Peter Beinart's essay comes in. Titled "An Argument for a New Liberalism: A Fighting Faith," it has been cited and discussed by Andrew Sullivan (www.AndrewSullivan.com) and by Kevin Drum on his Washington Monthly web site (www.washingtonmonthly.com). Certainly a switch from the obsessive, reflexive anti-Americanism of much of the antiwar left, without necessarily supporting the Iraq war it calls for a more aggressive liberal foreign policy.
At almost 5800 words it defies brief encapsulation but some of the tone and argument can be summarized by carefully chosen excerpts. The whole essay can be found online (registration required) at http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041213&s=beinart121304
Beinart begins by describing a meeting that took place at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 4, 1947: "The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, "[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology "hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great."
This meant a break with other leftists who either tolerated communists or were themselves communists. Liberalism would survive, but it would be a different movement, one which gave its own strong support to American efforts to resist communism through the policy of containment and via the Cold War.
Beinart is now suggesting an analogous regrouping by present day liberals. After the history lesson, Beinart introduces the current situation:
Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not "been fundamentally reshaped" by the experience. On the right, a "historical re-education" has indeed occurred'replacing the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with [President] Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might. But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s'a collection of domestic interests and concerns. On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda'even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.
Beinart goes on to describe the schism in American liberalism that has bedeviled its practitioners for most of a century:
In 1950, the journal The New Leader divided American liberals into "hards" and "softs." The hards, epitomized by the ADA, believed anti-communism was the fundamental litmus test for a decent left. Non-communism was not enough; opposition to the totalitarian threat was the prerequisite for membership in American liberalism because communism was the defining moral challenge of the age.
It is a distinction that should be familiar to anyone who has participated in traditional liberal activities, this division between those who tolerate or secretly admire the totalitarian hard-left, and the rest of us who don't. Beinart continues by considering an argument developed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.:
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would not have shared MoveOn's fear of an "endless war" on terrorism. In The Vital Center, he wrote, "Free society and totalitarianism today struggle for the minds and hearts of men.... If we believe in free society hard enough to keep on fighting for it, we are pledged to a permanent crisis which will test the moral, political and very possibly the military strength of each side. A 'permanent' crisis? Well, a generation or two anyway, permanent in one's own lifetime."
Beinart makes an interesting distinction between the current antiwar groups and the ADA: "This linkage between freedom at home and freedom abroad was particularly important in the debate over civil liberties. One of the hallmarks of ADA liberals was their refusal to imply'as groups like MoveOn sometimes do today'that civil liberties violations represent a greater threat to liberal values than America's totalitarian foes."
Beinart concludes with a section titled, "Toward an Anti-Totalitarian Liberalism." This is its core position:
But, despite these differences, Islamist totalitarianism - like Soviet totalitarianism before it - threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than [President] Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.
Beinart's essay has been praised by socially liberal, Iraq-war-hawk Andrew Sullivan: "Here's the essay we've been waiting for. What the Democrats need is a new commitment to fighting totalitarianism - of the Jihadist variety. They should keep their commitment to America's minorities, to universal healthcare, gay equality, and abortion rights. But they need to convince Americans that they are serious about this new war. Actually, they need first to convince themselves." Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly Internet site has contributed two essays of his own in reaction to the Beinart piece, and his readers have as of now contributed more than 400 comments.
Clearly this is an important essay, one that will continue to reverberate as the post-election hangover continues. Whether or not its ideas are taken up by the liberal establishment, it at least represents an attempt to do something about one crisis of liberalism rather than to pretend it does not exist. Marc Cooper and Peter Beinart have sent what they undoubtedly intend as a wakeup call to the Democrats and to liberals in general. It will be interesting to see how it is received.