Interviews May 2006

Beinart Talks Back

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

A lesser-known but prouder moment in liberal foreign policy that you spend some time on in the book is the influence of a New Democrat congressman named Dave McCurdy on US policy in Nicaragua, which you sort of describe as a “third way” approach to liberal internationalism. Do you see that event as a kind of second wind for Cold War liberalism?

I do. The reason why I spent some time on the Nicaragua/El Salvador debate was that I felt it was the first time since Vietnam that Democrats stumbled back towards some of the principles that stood them in such good stead in the late 1940s. This kind of carried on into Kosovo until it was cut short by Al Gore’s election defeat. It was a return to the belief that America should be involved in helping the Contras and the government of El Salvador in certain ways, even though they were hardly morally perfect actors. One of the very important things about Nicaragua was the fact that the process we supported was led by Oscar Arias in Costa Rica and supported by Nicaragua’s neighbors. So in a way —very unlike Iraq—you had a situation in which America could be acting through, and gaining legitimacy from, Nicaragua’s democratic neighbors. That’s important because it stems from a recognition that’s really absent from conservative thought: that we are not perfect, that we ourselves can be responsible for evil, and that one of the reasons we work through multilateral and international institutions is precisely to stem our own potential for the corruption of power.

The danger in liberals’ self-criticism, as you point out, is that their fears of America’s own potential for evil sometimes overwhelm their fears of America’s enemies. The nuclear freeze movement, for example: you view Democrats’ embrace of it in the 1980s as a mistake? How should liberals have approached the nuclear issue at that time?

I actually think Carter was right to oppose the nuclear freeze and support—as Al Gore did as well—the U.S. deployments of the intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe, recognizing that they had become a key sign of America’s willingness to defend its NATO allies. That doesn’t mean that Democrats needed to support all the other elements of Ronald Reagan’s military build-up—the Strategic Defense Initiative, for instance. But the reason I raised this point in the book is that liberals in the post-Vietnam era had essentially abandoned the Cold War as a framework for seeing international events. And because they had abandoned it, and were seeing things only in the context of the specter of nuclear war, they didn’t recognize that American missile deployment was vital to the health of NATO.

Do you think that the extreme Left poses a greater problem to the Democrats than the right-wing fringe does to the Republicans? Do the Republicans do a better job of containing their radical isolationist, anti-establishment elements than the Democrats do theirs?

I think it depends on the moment and where the country is. There have been periods where the extreme Right had a more deleterious impact than the Left. Think about the impact during the 1992 campaign of Pat Buchanan’s culture war speech at the Republican convention, for instance. That was partly because George H.W. Bush didn’t have an alternative vision that he could distinguish from Buchanan’s, whereas Bill Clinton did have an alternative vision that he could distinguish from that of people on the far Left. So it depends on the moment and on how leaders respond to that fringe. In a period where the country feels threatened—as it did in the 2002 and 2004 elections—a Left fringe is probably more dangerous than a Right fringe, because people who feel under threat will likely cut more slack for a kind of crude, even somewhat brutish Right than they will for what they see as an anti-American or pacifist Left. I don’t want to suggest that pacifism is that strong a force—I don’t think it is, particularly—but I think that in the period after 9/11, people were more worried about Michael Moore than they were about the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world. That’s not always going to be the case.

When you say “dangerous” in that context, you mean dangerous politically rather than dangerous to the country, right?

Yes—that the Left is more politically undermining in that kind of a moment.

Do you think centrist Democrats need to be less timid about renouncing these undermining elements on the far Left? Has a fear of McCarthyism prevented them from doing so?

I think liberals are very right to see McCarthy as a sinister chapter in American history and right to react very strongly against the Bush administration or anybody else who tries to suggest that having an alternative set of positions makes one less fully American. But when one talks of internal disagreements among Democrats or liberals, as long as you are not suggesting that someone is less patriotic or should not have the right to speak freely, I don’t think McCarthyism comes into it. A political party’s intellectual movements need to have a healthy, open debate about what they believe—it makes the party stronger. I think that sometimes there’s a tendency among Democrats to not want to have those debates for fear of playing into the Republicans’ hands. But the kinds of debates the Democrats had, for instance, in the latter half of the 1980s turned out to be very important, and Bill Clinton probably could not have been the kind of candidate he was in 1992 had not some of those issues been worked out, sometimes in an acrimonious fashion.

Part of what you admire about the ADA liberals, though, is that they weren’t afraid to purge communist sympathizers like Henry Wallace from the Democratic Party. Do you not believe that in order to win the war on terror, today’s anti-totalitarian liberals need to do likewise? To reject figures like Michael Moore, for example?

First of all, it’s important to say that there’s not a perfect analogy—I try to be careful about that in the book. Many people around Henry Wallace were communist sympathizers. Michael Moore is certainly not a jihadist sympathizer in any sense. I don’t think the ideology holds any appeal for him whatsoever. So his relationship to jihadism is very different from the relationship of the fellow-traveling Left to communism. But his relationship to the United States is, in many ways, similar. That’s the point I’m trying to make, that Michael Moore, while he certainly has no sympathy for America’s enemies, is not willing to recognize that those enemies are autonomous and need to be fought. He’s not willing to see outside of his prism of blowback, which suggests basically that every time there’s something evil happening in the world, you can follow the strain back to America’s own misdeeds, or American evil. That puts him in a position of basically wanting the United States not to act in the world at all. It’s a very naïve idea that somehow, in a world without American power, things would be far more benign. Because that has absolutely not been the case. It’s a strain that has waxed and waned on the left since the beginning of the Cold War, and there has been some resurgence of it because of the deep alienation produced by George W. Bush and his version of the “war on terror.” But I think it needs to be resisted and criticized because it’s always been the wrong model of liberalism.

How significant were the popularity of MoveOn and MoveOnPeace in the years leading up to the 2004 election, and what lesson is there in that for the kind of liberalism that you want to see mobilized?

A lot of the things that MoveOn would like to do in our society and in our government are things that I emphatically agree with. It’s important to say that to begin with— just as there were a lot of good things that Henry Wallace wanted to do, on civil rights, for example. George McGovern also stood for many valuable things on domestic policy. But what I think is very unfortunate about MoveOn is its kind of doughface tendency in foreign policy, to use Schlesinger’s term—this idea that America must be morally pure, which renders it very difficult for America to take any meaningful action around the world. As I tried to show in the book, if you look at their statements about Afghanistan, that’s what you find—a suggestion that, well, we can go after the terrorists in Afghanistan, but only if we take no innocent civilian lives and we don’t perpetuate the cycle of violence. This is really a classic doughface formulation, which is where MoveOn has gone wrong. And although I don’t doubt their good intentions, I think that to the degree that their foreign policy thinking has an influence among liberals, it’s an unfortunate one. It’s bad electorally, but more importantly, it’s not true to liberal principles. At the heart of liberal anti-totalitarianism is the understanding that liberal principles can be threatened at least as much, if not more, by forces other than the American Right.

If you were to organize an equivalent of the Willard Hotel meeting today, who would you want to see there?

What made the meeting at the Willard Hotel so important were two things. The first was the power of the ideas, and there are freelance intellectuals out there today saying important things about what liberalism should be. But I think that the other critical thing about the Willard Hotel was that it brought together key elements of what you might call the liberal constituency in America. I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of having Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky from the Auto Workers and the International Labor Garment Workers union there. That’s was really what gave people like Schlesinger and Niebuhr a connection to the grass roots. So I think that any such effort today would have to include labor, which, though it’s not as powerful as it was, is still very important to liberal hopes for a better world. It would also have to include the movements that have since become so essential to liberalism—the African-American community, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the Latino and other immigrant communities—because liberalism has to be about connecting social justice and economic security and opportunity at home to anti-totalitarianism abroad, and you can’t do that unless those groups are there at the table.

But haven’t the proliferation of these interest groups and the rise of identity politics been partly responsible for the decline of the Cold War liberalism you admire?

What went wrong with the Democratic Party in the 1970s was not that there were lots of African Americans, Hispanics, women, gays and lesbians at the table. That was a triumph. The problem was that the Party was articulating no larger vision that spoke to people as Americans: It was speaking to people simply as members of groups. The Democratic Party should be a multicultural party—it certainly was in 1992 under Bill Clinton. But what Bill Clinton managed to do was to find the language that spoke to people, where he could say the same thing in a black church in the City of Detroit and in a white, working class community in suburban McComb County, rather than having to pander to each group.

One of the defining characteristics of liberalism is supposed to be faith in progress. But it seems that over the last few decades, faced with problems ranging from the effects of outsourcing on wages to global warming to blowback from our foreign policy, the liberal response has been to call for an overall rollback of American economic activity and foreign entanglements. If liberals are going to win the war on terror, do they need to regain their faith in American economic growth and power as forces for good?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that liberals have lost their faith in progress. In fact, American conservatives tend to believe pretty strongly in progress as well; they come, more than European conservatives, from a classical liberal tradition. So faith in progress is something that most liberals and conservatives today share. The kind of conservative who, in William F. Buckley’s famous phrase, “stands athwart history yelling STOP!” is relatively rare. But if you look at something like global warming, you have an instance where the liberals see a grave threat that can only be solved by some form of dramatic international action—led by the United States, hopefully. So I don’t think it’s right to say that liberals have lost their belief in progress. But it is true that there’s pessimism more generally in the country today. We’re in a somewhat dark and dispirited moment in a way that we probably haven’t been since the mid-’70s. A grand American effort overseas has gone really awry, and there’s a fair amount of anxiety about the whether the United States will be able to meet the economic challenges of a rising India and China. That doesn’t just affect liberals, though, and I think the pessimism is probably temporary. Americans have gotten a second wind in the past, partly through inspired political leadership. While I disagree with most of what he did, Ronald Reagan was, in a way, a vehicle for America getting a second wind, as was John F. Kennedy in 1960, following the malaise caused by Sputnik. So I think the right leader could do that again for Americans.

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Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in New York.

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