Editor seeks to reinvent liberalism
Washington ? Some liberals simply cannot control their insuppressible reflex to look down their upturned noses at the American electorate. Writing in The American Prospect, a liberal monthly of which he is co-editor, Robert Kuttner, in a thoughtful analysis of Democrats’ difficulties developing a distinctive values vocabulary, argues that “when Democrats fail to articulate pocketbook issues as values, class resentments become cultural ones,” and Republicans prosper. Then, in his penultimate paragraph, his own cultural resentments against the American majority, as he imagines it, drive him into a ditch:
“Bill Clinton won election by declaring, as a matter of values, that people who work hard and play by the rules should not be poor. Middle America forgave him for treating gays as people.”
Ponder that second sentence. Kuttner could not resist a spasm of moral vanity. He had to disparage “middle America,” which means most of America, as so bigoted it denies the humanity of gays. If liberals like Kuttner keep thinking like that — they have been doing it for so long, they cannot easily stop — in December 2008 they will be analyzing their eighth loss in 11 elections at the hands of voters weary of liberal disdain.
A better analysis of the Democrats’ difficulties comes from Peter Beinart, writing in The New Republic, which he edits. His “An Argument for a New Liberalism” actually argues for an old liberalism, that of 1947. Beinart focuses on foreign policy, to which Kuttnerism — the belief that most Americans are viciously ignorant — is pertinent.
In 1947, Americans for Democratic Action was founded by anticommunist liberals who, galvanized by the onset of the Cold War, were contesting with anti-anticommunists for control of the Democratic Party. The ADA, said one of its founders, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., believed that liberalism had been “fundamentally reshaped” by a “historical re-education” about the threat of Soviet totalitarianism.
Beinart is dismayed that more than three years after 9-11, liberalism has not been “fundamentally reshaped.” It “remains largely what it was in the 1990s — a collection of domestic interests and concerns.” But Beinart may not be sufficiently dismayed, because he may not recognize how Kuttnerism complicates the recovery of anything like 1947 liberalism’s robust patriotism and confidence in America’s capacity to do good abroad.
There is, Beinart says, “little liberal passion” to win the struggle against Islamic totalitarianism. Responsible Democrats believe that, as Sen. Joe Biden says, there is an “overwhelming obligation” to use “the full measure of our power” against radical Islam. But how can there be passionate support for U.S. power from a Democratic Party whose 2004 presidential nominee felt compelled to pander to the party’s base with isolationist rhetoric: “We shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in our own communities.” John Kerry’s unstable straddle between the passions of that base and the need to seem serious about terrorism produced his vow that he would enlarge the military — but would not send more troops to Iraq.
Beinart aspires to change the Democratic base so that it will accept a presidential candidate who espouses 1947 liberalism — someone for whom antitotalitarianism is the organizing imperative of politics. But how do you begin reforming a base polluted by the Michael Moore/MoveOn faction?
Moore says “there is no terrorist threat” — that terrorism is a threat no greater than automobile accidents. MoveOn says “large portions of the Bill of Rights” have been “nullified” — presumably, then, the federal judiciary also has been nullified.
When Moore sat in Jimmy Carter’s box at the 2004 Democratic convention, voters drew conclusions about the party’s sobriety. Liberalism’s problem with the Moore/MoveOn faction is similar to conservatism’s 1960s embarrassment from the claimed kinship of the John Birch Society, whose leader called President Eisenhower a Kremlin agent.
The reason Moore is hostile to U.S. power is that he despises the American people from which the power arises. Moore’s assertion that America “is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe” is a corollary of Kuttnerism, the doctrine that “middle America” is viciously ignorant.
Beinart is bravely trying to do for liberalism what another magazine editor — National Review’s William Buckley — did for conservatism by excommunicating the Birchers from the conservative movement. But Buckley’s task was easier than Beinart’s will be because the Birchers were never remotely as central to the Republican base as the Moore/MoveOn faction is to the Democratic base.
The nation needs a 1947 liberalism — antitotalitarian, but without what Beinart calls the Bush administration’s “near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might.” Wish Beinart well.
— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.