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Liberal Like Me

I have always considered myself a liberal, and while I remain a staunch social liberal, I have become a defense hawk and economic moderate. After the usual heated election rhetoric, including from the New Republic, which painted Bush as a frothing deranged militarist and base incompetent, I am deeply gratified to hear a sensible, clear, consistent, and ideologically sound defense of the war on terror from the left by Peter Beinart. He is me in this regard:

    On January 4, 1947, 130 men and women met at Washington’s Willard Hotel to save American liberalism. A few months earlier, in articles in The New Republic and elsewhere, the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop had warned that “the liberal movement is now engaged in sowing the seeds of its own destruction.” Liberals, they argued, “consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West.” Unless that changed, “In the spasm of terror which will seize this country … it is the right–the very extreme right–which is most likely to gain victory.”

    During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization’s principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, “[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere,” America should support “democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over.” That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology “hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great.”

    ….over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA’s help, Truman crushed Wallace’s third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republic broke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) denounced communism, as did the naacp. 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. As a result, the Democratic Party boasts a fairly hawkish foreign policy establishment and a cadre of politicians and strategists eager to look tough. But, below this small elite sits a Wallacite grassroots that views America’s new struggle as a distraction, if not a mirage. Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.

    ….On national security, Kerry’s nomination was a compromise between a party elite desperate to neutralize the terrorism issue and a liberal base unwilling to redefine itself for the post-September 11 world. In the early days of his candidacy, Kerry seemed destined to run as a hawk. In June 2002, he attacked Bush from the right for not committing American ground troops in the mountains of Tora Bora. Like the other leading candidates in the race, he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. This not only pleased Kerry’s consultants, who hoped to inoculate him against charges that he was soft on terrorism, but it satisfied his foreign policy advisers as well.

    ….Had history taken a different course, this new brand of liberalism might have expanded beyond a narrow foreign policy elite. The war in Afghanistan, while unlike Kosovo a war of self-defense, once again brought the Western democracies together against a deeply illiberal foe. Had that war, rather than the war in Iraq, become the defining event of the post-September 11 era, the “re-education” about U.S. power, and about the new totalitarian threat from the Muslim world that had transformed Kerry’s advisers, might have trickled down to the party’s liberal base, transforming it as well.

    Instead, Bush’s war on terrorism became a partisan affair–defined in the liberal mind not by images of American soldiers walking Afghan girls to school, but by John Ashcroft’s mass detentions and Cheney’s false claims about Iraqi WMD. The left’s post-September 11 enthusiasm for an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda–epitomized by students at liberal campuses signing up for jobs with the CIA–was overwhelmed by horror at the bungled Iraq war. So, when the Democratic presidential candidates began courting their party’s activists in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2003, they found a liberal grassroots that viewed the war on terrorism in negative terms and judged the candidates less on their enthusiasm for defeating Al Qaeda than on their enthusiasm for defeating Bush.

    ….Three months before the Iowa caucuses, facing mass liberal defections to Dean, Kerry voted against Bush’s $87 billion supplemental request for Iraq. With that vote, the Kerry compromise was born. To Kerry’s foreign policy advisers, some of whom supported the supplemental funding, he remained a vehicle for an aggressive war on terrorism. And that may well have been Kerry’s own intention. But, to the liberal voters who would choose the party’s nominee, he became a more electable Dean. Kerry’s opposition to the $87 billion didn’t only change his image on the war in Iraq; it changed his image on the war on terrorism itself. His justification for opposing the $87 billion was essentially isolationist: “We shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in our own communities.” And, by exploiting public antipathy toward foreign aid and nation-building, the natural building blocks of any liberal anti-totalitarian effort in the Muslim world, Kerry signaled that liberalism’s moral energies should be unleashed primarily at home.

    Kerry’s vote against the $87 billion helped him lure back the liberal activists he needed to win Iowa, and Iowa catapulted him toward the nomination. But the vote came back to haunt him in two ways. Most obviously, it helped the Bush campaign paint him as unprincipled. But, more subtly, it made it harder for Kerry to ask Americans to sacrifice in a global campaign for freedom.

    ….Kerry was a flawed candidate, but he was not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem was the party’s liberal base, which would have refused to nominate anyone who proposed redefining the Democratic Party in the way the ADA did in 1947. The challenge for Democrats today is not to find a different kind of presidential candidate. It is to transform the party at its grassroots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge. That means abandoning the unity-at-all-costs ethos that governed American liberalism in 2004. And it requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace. In the party today, two such heirs loom largest: Michael Moore and MoveOn.

    ….Moore is the most prominent soft in the United States today. Most Democrats agree with him about the Iraq war, about Ashcroft, and about Bush. What they do not recognize, or do not acknowledge, is that Moore does not oppose Bush’s policies because he thinks they fail to effectively address the terrorist threat; he does not believe there is a terrorist threat. For Moore, terrorism is an opiate whipped up by corporate bosses. In Dude, Where’s My Country?, he says it plainly: “There is no terrorist threat.” And he wonders, “Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?”

    Moore views totalitarian Islam the way Wallace viewed communism: As a phantom, a ruse employed by the only enemies that matter, those on the right. Saudi extremists may have brought down the Twin Towers, but the real menace is the Carlyle Group.

    ….If Moore is America’s leading individual soft, liberalism’s premier soft organization is MoveOn. MoveOn was formed to oppose Clinton’s impeachment, but, after September 11, it turned to opposing the war in Afghanistan. A MoveOn-sponsored petition warned, “If we retaliate by bombing Kabul and kill people oppressed by the Taliban, we become like the terrorists we oppose.”

    …In October 2002, after 9-11peace.org was incorporated into MoveOn, an organization bulletin suggested that the United States should have “utilize[d] international law and judicial procedures, including due process” against bin Laden and that “it’s possible that a tribunal could even have garnered cooperation from the Taliban.”

    ….In the early days after September 11, MoveOn suggested that foreign aid might prove a better way to defeat terrorism than military action. But, in recent years, it seems to have largely lost interest in any agenda for fighting terrorism at all. Instead, MoveOn’s discussion of the subject seems dominated by two, entirely negative, ideas. First, the war on terrorism crushes civil liberties. On July 18, 2002, in a bulletin titled “Can Democracy Survive an Endless ‘War’?,” MoveOn charged that the Patriot Act had “nullified large portions of the Bill of Rights.” Having grossly inflated the Act’s effect, the bulletin then contrasted it with the–implicitly far smaller–danger from Al Qaeda, asking: “Is the threat to the United States’ existence great enough to justify the evisceration of our most treasured principles?”

    ….Like the softs of the early cold war, MoveOn sees threats to liberalism only on the right. And thus, it makes common cause with the most deeply illiberal elements on the international left. In its campaign against the Iraq war, MoveOn urged its supporters to participate in protests co-sponsored by International answer, a front for the World Workers Party, which has defended Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il. When George Packer, in The New York Times Magazine, asked Pariser about sharing the stage with apologists for dictators, he replied, “I’m personally against defending Slobodan Milosevic and calling North Korea a socialist heaven, but it’s just not relevant right now.”

    ….while in a narrow sense the struggle against totalitarianism may divert resources from domestic causes, it also provides a powerful rationale for a more just society at home. During the early cold war, liberals repeatedly argued that the denial of African American civil rights undermined America’s anti-communist efforts in the Third World. This linkage between freedom at home and freedom abroad was particularly important in the debate over civil liberties. One of the hallmarks of ADA liberals was their refusal to imply–as groups like MoveOn sometimes do today–that civil liberties violations represent a greater threat to liberal values than America’s totalitarian foes. And, whenever possible, they argued that violations of individual freedom were wrong, at least in part, because they hindered the anti-communist effort. Sadly, few liberal indictments of, for instance, the Ashcroft detentions are couched in similar terms today.

    ….Islamist totalitarianism–like Soviet totalitarianism before it–threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism’s north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

    Today, the war on terrorism is partially obscured by the war in Iraq, which has made liberals cynical about the purposes of U.S. power. But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism. Global jihad will be with us long after American troops stop dying in Falluja and Mosul. And thus, liberalism will rise or fall on whether it can become, again, what Schlesinger called “a fighting faith.”

    Of all the things contemporary liberals can learn from their forbearers half a century ago, perhaps the most important is that national security can be a calling. If the struggles for gay marriage and universal health care lay rightful claim to liberal idealism, so does the struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world. It, too, can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn

And that is the kind of liberal I would vote for, that I am, that the Democrats must tranform themselves into if they hope to recapture the center, and be successful morally and politically.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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