October 31, 2005
Tough Liberalism

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 War.

The truth 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.

That's why 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.

In 1946, 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 abroad.

In January 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.

That fight 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 Congress.

But beyond 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.

What can 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 totalitarian, vision.

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.

There are 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.

The fundamental 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.

What would liberal anti-totalitarianism mean today?

The first 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.

Regardless 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 freely.

The American 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.

The second 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 money.

The 9/11 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 Congress.

The third 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.

The looming 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 national security.

The liberals 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.

My fourth 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.

In 1960, 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 world.

That's the tradition that the Democratic Party and liberals need to recapture in this new era in which we face a great new threat.

Peter 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 Magazine.

Peter Beinart

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