Those Who Forget the Past


This is an article about American liberalism, a political tradition so reviled that its adherents dare not speak its name. Sometime in the 1960s, conservatives began using ‘liberal’ as an epithet, and after a while, liberals gave up trying to defend its honour. When pressed for a self-description today, many prominent liberals choose ‘progressive’. And then they explain that they don’t like labels.

There’s no shame in ideological change. In its modern American context, liberalism the belief that government should intervene in society to solve problems that individuals cannot solve alone began with Franklin Roosevelt. Progressivism has older roots and different emphases. But yesterday’s liberals haven’t become today’s progressives to evoke a different intellectual tradition; they have become progressives to escape intellectual tradition. With the flip of a label, they have cast off decades of disappointment and failure. Unburdened by the past, they can now define themselves on their own terms.


Except that they cannot define themselves, precisely because they are unburdened by the past. Progressives want to tell a story about what they believe something large and unifying, something that explains their creed to the nation and to themselves. But such stories are not born in test tubes; they are less invented than inherited. Before today’s progressives can conquer their ideological weakness, they must first conquer their ideological amnesia.

What they need to remember, above all, is the Cold War. Bill Clinton by defusing racially saturated issues like welfare and crime, and wisely managing the economy restored public faith in government action. But he did so at a time when the United States had turned in on itself, when international threats no longer shaped national identity.

Today’s political environment is more like the one that stretched from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, when debates about America were interwoven with debates about America’s role in the world. And in this environment, conservatives have a crucial advantage: they have a usable past. Ask any junior-level conservative activist about the Cold War, and she can recite the catechism: how liberals lost their nerve in Vietnam and America sank into self-doubt until Ronald Reagan restored America’s confidence and overthrew the evil empire.

Since September 11, conservatives have turned that storyline into a grand analogy: the Middle East is Eastern Europe, George W Bush is Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher, the appeasing French are the appeasing French. And running through this updated narrative is the same core principle that animated conservative foreign policy throughout the cold war: other countries are cynical and selfish, but the United States is inherently good. The more Americans believe in their own virtue, the stronger they will be.

Liberals have mocked the simplicity of this vision. They have derided the Bush Administration’s foreign policy by analogy, and its often tenuous grasp and promiscuous rearranging of the facts at hand. But while liberals pride themselves on their empiricism, that empiricism is no match for a narrative of the present based upon a memory of the past. When liberals finally got their shot at Bush in 2004, it turned out that Americans didn’t much care which candidate could recite his six-point plan for safeguarding loose nuclear material. They gravitated to the man with a vision of national greatness in a threatening world something liberals have not had in a very long time.

However, there is such a liberal vision, and today’s progressives can find it in the heritage they have tried to escape. Its roots lie in an antique landscape, at the dawn of America’s struggle against a totalitarian foe. And it begins not with America’s need to believe in its own virtue, but with its need to make itself worthy of such belief. Around the world, the United States does that by accepting international constraints on its power.

For conservatives from John Foster Dulles to Dick Cheney American exceptionalism means that we do not need such constraints. Our heart is pure.

In the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional. Because we recognise that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse. That is why the Truman Administration self-consciously shared power with America’s democratic allies, although we comprised one-half of the world’s GDP and they were on their knees. Moral humility breeds international restraint. That restraint ensures that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures. It makes us a great nation, not a predatory one.

At home, because America realises that it does not embody goodness, it does not grow complacent. Rather than viewing American democracy as a settled accomplishment to which others aspire, we see ourselves as engaged in our own democratic struggle, which parallels the one we support abroad. It was not the celebration of American democracy that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but America’s wrenching efforts against McCarthyism and segregation to give our democracy new meaning. Then, as now, the threat to national greatness stems not from self-doubt, but from self-satisfaction.

At home and abroad, the struggle for democracy is also a struggle for equal opportunity. For many conservatives, liberty alone is the goal, and government action to promote social justice imperils it.

But for modern liberals, championing freedom around the world requires championing development, because as the architects of the Marshall Plan understood, liberty is unlikely to survive in the midst of economic despair. And liberty also relies on equal opportunity at home. Vast economic inequality and deep economic insecurity alienate Americans from their government and leave it easy prey for the forces of private interest and concentrated wealth. That undermines American democracy, and with it, American security, because it is democracy’s galvanising power that gives America its critical advantage in long standoffs against dictatorial foes.

This vision has sometimes divided liberals themselves. Recognising American fallibility means recognising that the United States cannot wield power while remaining pure. From Henry Wallace in the late 1940s to Michael Moore after September 11, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world. If the cold war liberal tradition parts company with the Right in insisting that American power cannot be good unless we recognise that it can also be evil, it parts company with the purist Left in insisting that if we demand that American power be perfect, it cannot be good.

Applying that tradition today is not easy. Cold War liberals developed their narrative of national greatness in the shadow of a totalitarian superpower. Today, the United States faces no such unified threat. Rather, it faces a web of dangers from disease to environmental degradation to weapons of mass destruction all fueled by globalisation, which leaves America increasingly vulnerable to pathologies bred in distant corners of the world. And at the centre of this nexis sits jihadist terrorism, a new totalitarian movement that lacks State power but harnesses the power of globalisation instead.

Recognising that the United States again faces a totalitarian foe does not provide simple policy prescriptions, because today’s totalitarianism takes such radically different form. But it reminds us of something more basic, that liberalism does not find its enemies only on the Right a lesson sometimes forgotten in the age of George W Bush.

Indeed, it is because liberals so despise this President that they increasingly reject his trademark phrase, the ‘war on terror.’ The rejection signifies a turn away from the very idea that anti-totalitarianism should sit at the heart of the liberal project. For too many liberals today, Bush’s war on terror is the only one they can imagine.

Author Peter Beinart

This alienation may be understandable, but that does not make it any less disastrous, for it is liberalism’s principles even more than Bush’s that jihadism threatens. If today’s liberals cannot rouse as much passion for fighting a movement that flings acid at unveiled women as they do for taking back the Senate in 2006, they have strayed far from liberalism’s best traditions. And if they believe it is only George W Bush who threatens America’s freedoms, they should ponder what will happen if the United States is hit with a nuclear or contagious biological attack. No matter who is president, Republican or Democrat, the reaction will make John Ashcroft look like the head of the ACLU.

Of course, liberal alienation from the anti-jihadist struggle does not spring merely from alienation from George W Bush. It also springs from deep anger over the war in Iraq.

I supported the war because I considered it the only remaining way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb. I also believed it could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime, which might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East between secular autocrats and their theocratic opponents a third way that offered the best long-term hope for protecting the United States.

On both counts, I was wrong. Partly, I was wrong on the facts. I could not imagine that Saddam Hussein, given his record, had abandoned his nuclear program, even as the evidence trickled out in the months before the war. And I could not imagine that the Bush Administration would so utterly fail to plan for the war’s aftermath, given that they had so much riding on its success.

But even more important than the facts, I was wrong on the theory. I was too quick to give up on containment, too quick to think time was on Saddam’s side. And I did not grasp the critical link between the invasion’s credibility in the world and its credibility in Iraq.

I not only overestimated America’s capacities, I overestimated America’s legitimacy. As someone who had seen US might deployed effectively, and on the whole benignly, in the Gulf War, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, I could not see that the morality of American power relies on the limits to American power.

Iraq will haunt American politics for years to come. But the war on terror will likely last even longer than that. How the United States fights it will help shape the kind of country it becomes in this young century. And how liberals fight it will help determine whether liberal again becomes a label Americans wear with pride. Winning the war on terror and reviving liberalism, in other words, are two sides of the same fight.

The liberal tradition provides the intellectual and moral resources necessary for victory. By rediscovering it, a new generation of American liberals can also discover ourselves.

This is an edited extract from The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror ($34.95, Melbourne University Press)

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