Interviews May 2006

Beinart Talks Back

The author of The Good Fight defends his vision of the American Left
book cover

The Good Fight [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Peter Beinart
272 pages

In October 2005, when Pew Research Center pollsters asked Americans whether “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally,” more than 50% of Democrats said yes. Among Republicans the figure was just over a quarter. Since 9/11, the single strongest division between the two parties has been on foreign policy. While right-of-center Americans currently rank issues such as capturing terrorists and preventing hostile nations from acquiring nukes as their top priorities, liberals are more concerned about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq and combating the spread of AIDS. The swing voters who carried Bush to his second term were white, blue-collar workers put off, it seems, by the Democrats’ limp-wristed approach to America’s enemies.

It wasn’t always thus. In The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, Peter Beinart takes us back to the beginning of the Cold War to remind us that the campaign to confront totalitarianism and promote democracy in troubled parts of the world—by force if necessary—is a liberal, not a conservative, invention. His account begins with a legendary meeting of minds and political bodies at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1947. The meeting was organized by the Union for Democratic Action (UDA) in response to the Democrats’ rout in the 1946 midterm elections—largely the result of a perceived (and partly real) Communist infiltration of the Democratic Party. Intellectual heavyweights Arthur Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr were present, along with political icons Eleanor Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey; Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union provided the heft of Labor. The UDA renamed itself Americans for Democratic Action and made an official break with the fellow-traveling wing of their party, declaring their opposition to Communism, both Soviet and homegrown. They spurned Henry Wallace—1948 presidential hopeful and known Communist sympathizer—forcing him to start his own “progressive” party. And despite Wallace’s challenge from the Left and resistance from Southern Democrats over civil rights, it was Harry Truman, the ADA’s man, who prevailed.

The golden age of ADA liberalism, in Beinart’s account, lasted a little over a decade, and found its most perfect expression in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. The movement was thrown off course by John F. Kennedy’s first missteps into Indochina, and died along with Kennedy in 1963. Over the course of the 1960s, crushed by the war in Vietnam and hijacked by the politics of disaffected, anti-establishment youth, American liberalism suffered a kind of nervous breakdown. Liberal humanitarianism gave way to identity politics; Beinart describes the 1968 Democratic convention as “a festival of balkanization.” Truman and JFK were replaced by George McGovern, darling of the students, and Eugene McCarthy, darling of the professoriat—representatives of the intellectual elite who scored political points by denying their country’s moral superiority and calling for America, in McGovern’s words, to “come home.” The Democratic Party lost its footing on the high beam of self-restraint and internationalism and toppled leftward into radical self-doubt and moral perfectionism. In the 1980s, the Left responded to Ronald Reagan’s Mutual Assured Destruction with a call for “No Nukes,” and Democratic candidates took up the cause of nuclear freeze—a mistake, as Beinart sees it, that relegated the party to the sidelines in the final quarter of the Cold War. The liberals’ loss was a victory for the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, composed partly of ex-leftists- turned-fierce- anti-Communists who regarded Reagan as the greatest leader of the twentieth century.

Beinart sees hope, however, for a renaissance of the anti-totalitarian liberalism of 1948-63. The birth of the more muscular, pragmatic New Democrats in the 1980s, he suggests, produced a few bright moments, including the Democrats’ role in the resolution of the war in Nicaragua in 1986 and the overdue but important intervention in Kosovo under Clinton’s leadership in 1999. Like many Democrats of his ilk, Beinart initially supported the intervention in Iraq, believing that bringing down a WMD-wielding, genocidal dictator was in the tradition of liberal interventionism. He has since changed his mind, however. “I was too quick to give up on containment,” he writes, “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.” He now views the Republican (and largely neoconservative) mission in Iraq as a symptom of the Party's hang-up on the old Cold War paradigm of state vs. state. Moreover, he believes that its insistence on cutting taxes while simultaneously executing military interventions and nation-building projects is a recipe for fiscal disaster. To Beinart, the Republicans’ failure to grasp the meaning and the requirements of the “war on terror” represents more than an opportunity for liberals—it is now liberals’ duty, he contends, to take the lead.

Read Hitchens' review:

"Blood for No Oil!" (May 2006)
A new manifesto finds a model in the Truman era for returning liberals to political centrality in America. But the comparison is hopelessly inexact.

Beinart has had the honor and the misfortune of seeing his book's first-ever review in this month’s Atlantic, from none other than Christopher Hitchens. When Hitchens, a former champ of the far left turned ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, reviews a book reaffirming the virtues of Cold War liberal centrism and decrying Iraq as a tragic mistake that will “haunt American politics for years to come,” disagreement is inevitable. And indeed, Hitchens takes issue with the book’s very premise that the ADA model of liberal interventionism can serve today’s Democrats well in confronting terrorism. Hitchens raises Schlesinger-disciple Kennedy’s foray into Vietnam as an example of Cold War liberalism run amok. And he argues that in contrast to the 1940s, when “progressives” like Wallace had morally consistent (if deluded) vision of “the good society,” today’s left-wingers “express ambivalence about a foe that does not even pretend to share the values of the Enlightenment, and that is furthermore immune to the cruder rationality of MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction].” Unlike political defector Wallace, Hitchens points out, today it is these ambivalent leftists who are steering the Democratic Party. Beinart’s “retrospective optimism,” he writes, “is in many ways too neat.”

I asked Beinart to address some of these issues when we spoke by phone on March 28. The former editor in chief and current editor-at-large of The New Republic, Beinart lives in Washington, D.C. The Good Fight is his first book.

—Elizabeth Wasserman

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
(Photo by Blake Newman)

What is a liberal?

In the contemporary American context, the term really originates with Franklin Roosevelt. The idea behind modern liberalism is basically that there are problems in society too large for individuals to solve themselves and, in that case, the government must step in. Conservatives, in the contemporary American understanding, would be more likely to believe that most social problems could be solved by individuals—or by communities—but without the help of the state. That idea has to do primarily with government intervention in the economy. But there are principles there about the government’s role in promoting justice in society that then expand into the cultural realm and into the international realm as well, which is particularly what I write about.

The neoconservatives now pretty much argue that they’re the new anti-totalitarian liberals. They more or less accepted the principles of the New Deal in the ’50s and ’60s, and largely feel that they’ve carried on the tradition of liberal interventionism. What I’d like to know from you is this: what part of Schlesinger, Truman, and Scoop Jackson’s lunch have the neocons not eaten?

That’s an important purpose of the book, to argue against that idea, and I would say a couple of things. The first is that the recognition of American fallibility is a very critical element of the liberal tradition, very central to Niebuhr’s thinking, which then became an important element in the Truman administration. That idea manifests itself internationally in a sympathy for international institutions, a belief that while it’s possible that the United States can be a force for good—indeed, that America must be a force for good in the world, which is certainly what neocons believe—that America can also be a force for evil. That since America can be corrupted by unrestrained power, America should take certain steps to limit its power and to express it through international institutions. That, I think, is the first element of the liberal tradition that has been lost in neocon thinking.

The second element that’s been lost, I think, is the recognition that America’s ability to be a force for good in the world rests on the economic security of average Americans. The early neocons had a certain sympathy for the labor movement, and the labor movement was a very important part of Cold War liberalism, because the ability of the United States to be generous around the world really depended on the government’s willingness to take responsibility for the economic security of its own people. Of course, that would have to mean something different today than it did in the 1950s. But widespread economic security remains a very important basis upon which the United States can act in the world, because it maintains the support of the American people for that action. I think that has been lost in neocon thinking since they adopted the—as I see it— quite radical economic ideology of the American Right.

Do you see the difference between conservative and liberal economic ideologies as a disagreement on how to promote the well-being of Americans? Or do you think it goes deeper than that, to an actual lack of concern on the Right for widespread economic well-being?

Well, I think that for different people it’s probably different things, but one of the things you find, particularly among what you might call second-generation neoconservatives or contemporary neoconservatives, is a lack of great interest in economic policy. There’s much more interest in foreign policy and cultural policy, and a willingness to buy into a coalition in which they have some influence over foreign policy and cultural policy. That’s one of the things I admire about Scoop Jackson—that he was not willing to let domestic policy fall out of the equation. It’s why he wasn’t willing to endorse Reagan in 1980; because for him, the adherence to the principles of the New Deal really mattered, whereas now you have a conservative movement that is really, since the 1990s, trying to undo the New Deal. That move is explicable in political terms, but it has implications that neocons haven’t fully reckoned with for the ability of America to prosecute its foreign policy. I think that’s going to be a very, very serious issue for the United States in the years to come. In a very important and dangerous sense, neoconservative foreign policy and right-wing economic policy do not speak to one another.

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Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in New York.

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