December 2, 2004

WHAT’S WRONG WITH LIBERALISM, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT: Peter Beinart says that liberals need to take a lesson from the 1940s:

By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write in The Vital Center: “Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped … by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism.”

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 George W. 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.

When liberals talk about America’s new era, the discussion is largely negative–against the Iraq war, against restrictions on civil liberties, against America’s worsening reputation in the world. In sharp contrast to the first years of the cold war, post-September 11 liberalism has produced leaders and institutions–most notably Michael Moore and MoveOn–that do not put the struggle against America’s new totalitarian foe at the center of their hopes for a better world.

He’s right, and I think it’s why Kerry lost. This is a problem that Anne Applebaum identified in yesterday’s Washington Post:

At least a part of the Western left — or rather the Western far left — is now so anti-American, or so anti-Bush, that it actually prefers authoritarian or totalitarian leaders to any government that would be friendly to the United States. Many of the same people who found it hard to say anything bad about Saddam Hussein find it equally difficult to say anything nice about pro-democracy demonstrators in Ukraine. Many of the same people who would refuse to condemn a dictator who is anti-American cannot bring themselves to admire democrats who admire, or at least don’t hate, the United States. I certainly don’t believe, as President Bush sometimes simplistically says, that everyone who disagrees with American policies in Iraq or elsewhere “hates freedom.” That’s why it’s so shocking to discover that some of them do.

I used to be shocked by it, but I’m over that. The real question is whether there’s a figure in the Democratic establishment who’s willing to take on the Michael Moore / MoveOn aspects of the party — or whether those aspects have become, in some important ways, the soul of the party today. If the latter, then the Republicans will achieve the kind of decades-long dominance that Karl Rove seeks. And they’ll deserve it. As for the Left elsewhere in the world, well, Theo Van Gogh’s murder is just one of many wakeup calls that have left many still desperately hitting the snooze button.

UPDATE: Reader Chuck Fulner emails:

This particular passage from your blog resonates with my own thinking about the Democratic Party. I live in a Purple community (Louisville KY) in a Red State and run across a lot of elitist Democrats in my daily life. When they ask how I could possibly be a registered Republican, I generally respond by saying that I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me when Scoop Jackson died, Wendell Ford retired, the party dissed Bob Casey and then drove away Zell Miller. If any major Democrat tells Michael Moore, Move On, George Soros and the Holloywood elite that they have no place in the Democratic Party, then I might go back to my political roots.

Joe Lieberman has gone about as far as anyone has in telling the nut-wing elements that Anne Applebaum wrote about to kiss off and all it got him was an early exit in the last presidential primaries. He doesn’t have a loud enough voice.

Here is my nominee: Hillary Clinton. In fact, I think she will do it because it is the best way to become President in 2008. If she tells the coastal cultural elites that they are the ones who are out of step with the country, then tones down her socialistic one payer health insurance scheme from 1993-4 and repeats her husband’s line about abortion (safe, legal and rare) she could win in 2008.

I would not be happy with that outcome, because I wouldn’t believe her if she said those things, but it is a distinct possibility she could say them and win.

UPDATE: Well, some have predicted that she would be “the most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States!” It’s worth reading this column on future elections by Austin Bay, too.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Illustrative post here. Remind me never to get this guy mad at me.

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