WHY AMERICAN LIBERALISM IS IMPOSSIBLE
I heard an interview the other day with Peter Beinart who has a new book called The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. Apart from a slight nausea induced by a toothy Richard Beymer smile offering reassuring platitudes, there was a sense of both déjà vu and ennui, and the interview only succeeded in reinforcing my gloomy conviction that there are virtually no liberals left in America.
You cannot be a liberal in any meaningful sense of the word and talk about winning a war on terror. It is a ridiculous inconsistency and a revealing one. When someone representing himself as a liberal feels he must appeal to Americans in these terms, it tells us a lot about the state of that nation’s values, just as it did when Michael Moore announced he supported that arrogant, perfumed generalissimo, Wesley Clark, for president.
How can you have a war against a technique? Terror is not an army, not an idea, not a philosophy. It is what people with serious grievances of many kinds resort to when they have no other means of redress. The rational approach would be sorting out the grievances, but the rational approach doesn’t achieve the true objectives of a War on Terror.
If you define the noun liberal carefully, I think you come up with something along the lines of one who supports the little guy or the underdog while embracing the values of democracy, human rights, and a relatively free economy. A true liberal also has an open mind to new ways of doing things.
Liberalism is impossible in America because most of the elements of this definition are missing.
First, there’s the elephant in the living room nobody wants to discuss: the simple fact is that the current President of the United States was not elected to either of his two terms. He was court-appointed to his first term with a minority of the popular vote, and the evidence is now striking that vote fraud in several major states purchased his second term.
Of course, that is only part of the story. George Bush entered the arena for his party’s nomination in 2000, his pockets stuffed with $77 million. He had no national stature, he had no business or professional success behind him, and the record of his tenure as Governor of Texas was undistinguished. He went through the first bundles of cash quickly, but they were replaced again and again. The donations would prove astute investments since Bush’s literally society-distorting tax cuts plus malignant war profits would pay record returns to investors within a few years.
The implications of these circumstances go far beyond American blog-stuff about “when Bush goes, we’ll have our democracy back.” The fraud and legal manipulation involved in both the 2000 and 2004 elections do not magically disappear when the current office-holder retires. Neither will the horribly corrupting role of private money in American elections. American democracy is a sick old man, and the country is simply missing the sine qua non condition for liberalism.
Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, morally right as it was after centuries of repression, itself contributed to a fundamental realignment in American politics during the 1970s. An entire chunk of the Democratic Party, the Southern Democrats, simply left the party as southerners moved to suburbs and started new private schools to avoid integration. While Southern Democrats never were truly liberal, they nevertheless created the critical mass required for political compromises which sometimes made real progress, the Civil Rights Acts itself being perhaps the greatest example.
Another fundamental change affecting American national politics has been the shift for decades of American population away from old centers like New York or Illinois – places where unionism and political machines gave the Democratic Party its spine – to sun-belt, high-growth places like Arizona or Texas – places were the prevailing values might be described as super-suburban.
Suburban values are in many respects inherently anti-liberal. It’s as though American society were being run through a centrifuge with the cream of income and potential floating to the top and the rest sinking to the bottom. With the de-centralized nature of much of American government, interaction between various groups becomes almost non-existent. An acre of land, five bedrooms, two SUVs, no sidewalks, no meaningful town center beyond a private mall, and schools supported by per capita grants unimaginable in most cities assure the permanence of the arrangement. More than a few such places are gated just to make sure.
The Democrats have responded to this changing environment with their own strong shift to the Right, so much so that many Democrats even in the North are sometimes indistinguishable from Republicans. Al Gore started his 2000 campaign with a pathetic speech on family values. John Kerry started his campaign at a time of illegal war posed in front of an aircraft carrier. Joe Lieberman cannot be distinguished – either by attitudes or effective intelligence – from George Bush. Poor Bill Clinton achieved almost nothing of significance to liberals during eight years in office.
There are other developments reinforcing American conservatism. First, is militarism. Eisenhower was right when he warned of the military-industrial complex, but the subject of his warning is no longer a fear or a possibility, it is reality.
America has actually spent the last half century fighting liberalism through war. War sets up a powerful divide in any society: you are, in Bush’s remarkably articulate words, either “with or against us,” you support “the boyz” or you don’t, and you either give “the enemy” comfort or you don’t. War reduces things to absolutes, erasing all the complexities of reality. The real enemy through the Cold War was liberalism inside America. The War on Terror is more of the same.
War and militarism create many mechanisms to reinforce conservatism. First, there’s the training of millions of young men (and now women) receive. The values of this training are opposed to liberalism: they are about authority, obedience, flags and drums, and heavily colored with contempt for those with differing points of view. Dissidence and democracy are impossible by definition within the military, and the greater the number of young people immersed in this culture, the weaker the liberal values of any society. Because of the secular religious overtones of military service and extreme patriotism, the values imbued in the young are highly charged and quite powerful.
War and militarism richly reward those who make them possible, and this is true for all the talented individuals making careers as it is for the great corporations who hire them. In America, such companies are associated with much above-average incomes but also advantages such as good health insurance and suitably suburban locations. There is no prospect for a decline in military spending and all the loyalties engendered by it.
Another important conservative influence on America is the country’s uncritical support for Israel. Uncritical support by a great power of any state can be dangerous because it extends a form of absolute power inviting a form of absolute corruption. Israel in the early twenty-first century has become a center of pure power representing no ethical, statesmanship, or human rights principle.
Yes, Israel is nominally a democracy, but it is one with no written rights, it is one which defines itself in narrow theocratic terms, and it is one with many parallels to the apartheid government of South Africa. More importantly, it is a country like 1984’s Oceania engaged in a perpetual state of war. No matter what the original motives for this were, the ultimate effect after many decades is morally debilitating. The great values of historic Judaism are nowhere apparent in Israel’s behavior today.
Israel’s influence strongly reinforces conservative values in many parts of American society, from its cozy relationship with America’s Religious Right to its ceaseless advocacy of new wars to its own benefit. Dreams of Greater Israel linger still, and war and the threat of war serve the same purpose in Israel they do in the United States, even more intensely so because Israel’s armed forces are its greatest national industry and the country is virtually a garrison state.
America has become a very conservative country since the era of the New Deal, but that is only what was to be expected. Except for a brief time during the New Deal, liberalism has almost no place in America’s history. That history is one of ruthless expansion and conquest. America is an inherently conservative country, and I don’t mean the kind of reflective conservative we sometimes get in Canada or the British produce in a man like Edward Heath, the kind of people that are sometimes called Red Tories because of their generous social views.
Just consider that America uses as its constitution a document from the 18th century, a document that is strongly anti-democratic in a number of its provisions and many of whose assumptions are simply out-dated. You can’t demonstrate the fundamental embrace of conservatism more clearly than that.
Mr. Beinart refers to Harry Truman and John Kennedy as liberal figures, but that is simply a misinterpretation of history. Truman was a hack local politician elevated to high office through America’s bizarre office of Vice-president, a narrow man who used the word “nigger” to his dying day. He decided to use the atomic bomb on two cities full of civilians, the most savage decision in American history, claiming he never lost a night’s sleep for making it. John Kennedy had grace and style, but he was a jingo, secretly trying to murder Castro, sending more advisors to Vietnam, and creating the night-crawler Green Berets who distinguished themselves not long after their creation by cutting thousands of villagers’ throats. Kennedy took money from the Mafia for his election, and he was only elected through vote fraud in Illinois and Texas.
I don’t believe Beinart’s words have any more validity than some of the blowhard speeches of Bill Clinton. Or perhaps I should say Zell Miller who not many years ago gave one of the most moving speeches ever given at a Democratic convention but went on to support George Bush and become a contributor to Fox News.