October 31, 2005
By Peter Beinart
When John Kerry lost in 2004, I started in my despair reading about
the late 1940s, the first years of the Cold War. That was the last
time America entered a new era in national security. It started
very fast in 1945 and 1946. And it was the last period where the
country trusted liberals and Democrats to defend it.
As Will Marshall
has pointed out, if you look at all presidential elections since
the Vietnam War, the disturbing reality is the Democratic Party
has only won in those moments when the country turned inward.
Carter won in 1976, when the country turned inward after Vietnam.
It was the first election since 1948 when national security was
not the issue that people told pollsters they were most concerned
about. Then Clinton won in 1992, in the aftermath of the Cold
is this: Unless the Democratic Party can change its image on national
security, its only realistic hope of winning the White House is
the hope that the war on terrorism is a passing phenomenon that
will be over in a few years. Unfortunately, most Americans don't
believe that. Most experts don't believe that. Most people see
this as a generational struggle. And yet, you have to go back
pre-Vietnam to find a precedent for how the Democratic Party can
respond in a way that will win the country's trust.
I started reading about the early Cold War. Between 1946 and 1949,
the Democratic Party engaged in a huge internal fight. It was
not a fight against Republicans, but first and foremost a fight
within the Democratic Party. In state after state, the state parties
ripped themselves apart over the issue of anti-communism. The
issue was fundamentally about whether liberal Democrats would
define liberalism only in opposition to the right wing or whether
anti-communism would be placed at the heart of what it meant to
be a liberal.
Henry Wallace was the most popular Democratic politician in America.
His supporters saw the communists as valuable allies in the struggle
for the New Deal, in the struggle against fascism, and in the
struggle for civil rights -- as they had been. The Wallace faction
believed that liberalism's sole enemy was conservatism at home
-- people who opposed the New Deal -- and fascists and imperialists
1947, at the Willard Hotel, Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr,
Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt created Americans for Democratic
Action. Their argument was that, in fact, liberalism was something
very different. They defined liberalism as a fight not only against
the right but also against totalitarianism. In his 1949 book,
The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger's fundamental argument was
that communism, like fascism, was totalitarian. And that liberalism's
enemy had to be not only the conservatives, but also totalitarianism
-- the notion of a single force that would use the state to take
total control over society and the lives of the individual.
ended in 1948 when Harry Truman defeated Henry Wallace's third-party
run for the presidency. And it allowed two things to happen. The
first was that it created a liberal anti-communism. And that enabled
some of the most remarkable things in American history: Truman's
aid to Greece and Turkey that prevented those countries from falling
to the communists; the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe
at a time when France had four communists in its cabinet, including
a communist minister of defense; the formation of NATO to bind
America to Europe. It did great things in the world. And most
of these things were opposed partially or wholly by the Republican
that, liberal anti-communism gave Democrats political credibility.
By 1950, when Joseph McCarthy made his famous speech suggesting
that the Truman administration was filled with communists in Wheeling,
West Virginia, Democrats and liberals sustained an incredibly
fierce attack from the right. What happened to John Kerry with
the "Swift Boat" attacks pales compared to what Republicans
were saying about Democrats during the Cold War -- in the election
of 1950, for instance. And yet, those kinds of attacks were less
successful than they were in the elections of 2002 and 2004. The
reason is that Democrats and liberals in the 1950s had already
held a very fierce debate and clarified their principles about
national security. So the country was never fundamentally sold
on the McCarthy and Republican claim that liberals were soft on
communism. That's because liberals themselves had taken on those
elements within their party that were soft on anti-communism.
That was what allowed Democrats to keep the Congress in the 1950s,
even as Eisenhower was president, and what allowed John F. Kennedy
to defeat Richard Nixon, one of the great Red baiters of all time
-- and to do it in an election at the height of the Cold War.
And this is what allowed the Democrats to then pass civil rights
legislation and open the war on poverty.
we learn from that today? It seems to me there has been a kind
of silent, hidden divide on the left in the Democratic Party since
9/11. It is akin to the divide that existed in the late 1940s.
The fundamental question is again whether the proper prism through
which to view this new world is anti-totalitarianism based on
the idea that we face another totalitarian foe. Osama bin Laden
has said that the Taliban comes closest to the vision of a society
that al Qaeda would like -- a fundamentally, even classically
Why was it
that all hobbies were banned under the Taliban? Why was it that
all sports were banned under the Taliban? Why is it that women's
dress was regulated to such a degree that women couldn't wear
white socks because it might attract the attention of men? Fundamentally,
it was the classically totalitarian effort to use state power
not only to crush every independent force in society, but ultimately
to control the human mind. When the Taliban minister of education
was asked why all hobbies had been banned, he said because it
will free people's minds to think about Islam.
We face a
totalitarian foe. And there is a liberal tradition of anti-totalitarianism
which is radically different than the conservative tradition of
anti-totalitarianism, that you can see running through John Foster
Dulles to Donald Rumsfeld.
important forces on the left today in the Democratic Party. They
are probably stronger than they were in the immediate wake of
9/11, because they have capitalized on the justifiable, deep anger
that exists amongst Democrats over the war in Iraq and the way
its been prosecuted. They do not fundamentally see the post-9/11
world through the prism of anti-totalitarianism. They see it largely
the way that Henry Wallace saw it in the years after the beginning
of the Cold War. They see it through the prism of anti-imperialism.
They believe that the fundamentally right way of understanding
what has happened in the world since 9/11 is that America has
an empire, and that empire is blowing back upon us, because we
are producing the hatred that is now spilling back into our shores.
divide is whether you believe that jihadist totalitarianism is
produced by a lack of freedom and opportunity, or whether you
believe that jihadist totalitarianism is created by American and
Western imperialism. The Democratic Party has not fundamentally,
internally decided about which of those it believes. Much of the
Kerry campaign's inability to be totally coherent on these issues
was, I believe, an attempt to straddle rifts in the party that
had not yet come to an honest debate on this basic question.
liberal anti-totalitarianism mean today?
thing it means is a comfort with military power. The Democratic
Party in the 1950s was the party that favored a larger military.
That made a lot of sense because the Republican version of containment
was, essentially, nuclear weapons on aircraft carriers -- essentially
an isolationist understanding of containment. It was the Democrats,
from Truman through Kennedy, who understood that America needs
to have an Army large enough that we can put troops on the ground
to protect democratic societies so they can flourish and be protected
from communist attack. The Democratic Party remains the party
of nation building. Nation building takes troops. One of the reasons
we have had such enormous troubles in Iraq is that the Republican
Party remains fundamentally hostile to nation building. They thought
they could overthrow Saddam Hussein and it wouldn't turn into
a nation-building exercise.
of what you think about the war in Iraq, and anti-totalitarian
liberals can certainly disagree, there are very likely to be places
in the world in the coming years -- failed states like Taliban
Afghanistan -- where pockets of jihadists take over that society.
Or, at least, places where independent, autonomous cells can operate
military must have the ability, in concert with its allies, to
go in and destroy them. Not only that, but to stay long enough
to nurse those societies back to health so they don't produce
a new group of jihadists. Donald Rumsfeld was perfectly happy
to go in, knock over Saddam Hussein, leave, and then come back
20 years later if we needed to do the job again. But, the liberal
anti-totalitarian tradition says you not only destroy the bad
guy, but you build a society, as Bill Clinton did in the Balkans.
But you can't
do that if you are fundamentally hostile to the military. And
you can't do that with the size of the military we have today,
which is stretched to the breaking point.
point is that American power is far more than military power.
Literacy in Pakistan is only 40 percent. Many schools in rural
Pakistan don't even exist in reality -- they are simply line items
in a budget. If you went to actually visit a building, it wouldn't
be there. Madrassahs, by comparison, provide kids with food, clothing,
and a roof over their heads. So, you can see how the Taliban was
produced almost entirely by one extreme madrassah itself. That's
why Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf came to the Bush administration
and requested more aid for education. He wanted some of the aid
the United States gives to the Pakistani military to become aid
to education, so Pakistan could build public educational facilities
to give kids an alternative to religious schools where they are
taught to hate. But the Bush administration never provided the
Commission and the United Nations Arab Human Development Report
both recommended massive international efforts for women's literacy
and education in the Muslim world, so we have an opportunity to
compete with these radical ideologies. But the Bush administration,
and conservatives in general, have shown themselves fundamentally
uninterested. Harry Truman didn't only create NATO and give military
aid to Greece and Turkey. He did what he called the other half
of the walnut, which was the Marshall Plan. That is, in fact,
what prevented America from needing to go and fight in Western
Europe; we nursed those societies back to health. Truman wanted
to dramatically expand this approach to the Third World in what
he called Point Four. But that was largely defeated by the Republican
point is that you can't fight a global war against totalitarian
ideology if you're weak at home. The conservative economic ideology
has been, since the Reagan administration, large upper-income
tax cuts, designed to create a fiscal crisis, so that, through
the back door, you can cut the size of government.
baby boom retirement is terrific for them in this regard. They
have now passed tax cuts that start to kick in just when the baby
boomers retire, guaranteeing the fiscal crisis they have been
trying to create since the 1980s. That is bad enough, but it can
take time. But in the current environment -- where we need dramatic
increases in homeland security funding, a larger military, and
a new kind of Marshall Plan so that you give kids an alternative
to the madrassahs -- it is fundamentally dangerous to American
who I'm talking about in the 1950s were continually attacking
the Republicans, saying they are placing tax cuts and a balanced
budget ahead of the need to fight communism (that's when Republicans
still believed in a balanced budget). Liberals said that conservative
economic ideology made it impossible for them to win the struggle
against the totalitarian threat. That's exactly the argument the
Democrats have available to them today.
point has to do with how you talk about democracy and freedom
-- essentially the idea that democracy begins at home. The liberal
anti-totalitarian tradition says that what will inspire the world
in America is not where America is today but America's struggle
to become more democratic and more free. We have a long way to
go in that regard. Yet it is our efforts to improve our own society
that will make us a model for the rest of the world.
the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was
about domestic policy. Kennedy got the first question and he said,
I know this is a debate about domestic policy, but I want to start
by saying that Nikita Khrushchev is in New York tonight and everything
I'm going to say bears on our ability to win the struggle against
totalitarianism in the world. He went on to talk about education,
health care, and the economy -- and the fact that an African American
child had only one-half the chance of graduating from high school
that a white child had. The theme was America's ability to become
a better society that would ultimately lead us to prevail in the
tradition that the Democratic Party and liberals need to recapture
in this new era in which we face a great new threat.
Beinart is editor of The New Republic. He is currently on leave
to write a book on national security and a new liberalism.
This piece originally appeared in Blueprint