Friday, December 10, 2004

Peter Beinart tries to ask a question about liberalism

Everyone is very exercised by Peter Beinart's piece in the New Republic including John Judis of The New Republic.

First off, not everyone seems to agree what the main point of the piece is about. It seems to say that if liberals cannot get behind anti-terrorism (even anti-Islamic fundamentalism) as the main order of business, and cannot begin to understand that the threat of terrorism and all it stands for is greater than the threat posed by people like John Ashcroft, liberalism will never regain traction with the public at large.

What seems to torque everyone off even more is that not only does he believe this tactically, he believes it anyway.

He frames his article by talking about the post-World War II split between the anti-Communists in the Democratic Party with those he calls non-Communists, that is to say people who were not pro-Communist, but who did not mind being aligned with Communists if it meant increasing their power.

Beinart sees the same split today. He identifies strong-defense, anti-terrorism liberals as a small group which includes people like Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, and yes, all you haters, Senator Clinton (somehow I was not mentioned in the article). On the other side are people like Michael Moore, who tend to see the United States as the problem. Beinart also puts into Michael Moore group, and spends a lot of ink on it. You can't accuse Beinart of picking on small fry.

Beinart says that the first thing to do is to get the Moveon.orgs of the world out of the center of liberal politics.

There is a lot wrong with Beinart's presentation of the problem. First off, he inadvertently (or maybe not) opens a huge can of worms: what is a 2004 liberal anyway? Nevertheless, he is on to something true blue, and he is absolutely right that, post World War II, the United States was not the problem, it was the solution. And post-9/11, all-in-all, the United States will wind up being the solution as well.

I hope to have more to say about the article later, but for now, I would point out that one of the problems is that by framing the argument at the point of the post World War II splits on the left, Beinart forgets a rather large elephant: Liberals in the late '40s who understood that the United States was the solution and not the problem had just spent the last 6 years (the article focusses on 1947) fighting totalitarianism side-by-side with other Americans, and found those Americans to be not so bad.

2004 is not analogous to 1947. We are not at the post World War II stage yet. I have argued elsewhere in this blog that I am not sure we are out of the December, 1941 stage yet. Maybe March, 1942, but the real fighting has not begun yet.

In America today, more and more, we do not have common experience with one another. Of course, if we did, we may still not be drawn closer together. Even though anti-Communist liberals in 1947 did not find conservatives to be such bad people, conservative Americans fighting side-by-side with liberals during World War II did not draw the same conclusion. McCarthyism was just around the corner.