Skip to comments.Left Behind (liberals discuss the current state of liberalism)
Posted on 03/05/2005 2:36:01 PM PST by neverdem
Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic; Michael Tomasky, the executive editor of The American Prospect; and Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, are three leading voices for liberalism today. Now, following the re-election of George W. Bush, and with the continuing dominance of Republicans in Congress, the politics they stand for is arguably more embattled than at any time since 1933 and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Barry Gewen, an editor at the Book Review, asked the three editors to discuss and debate the present state of liberalism in America, and its future.
Why has ''liberal'' become a dirty word for so many Americans today?
VANDEN HEUVEL. I would begin with the unrelenting assault on the term liberalism by the right wing. It has been a project over the last few decades. And by failing to take their own side in the argument liberals have conceded -- to the point where John Kerry was wary of being associated with liberalism in one of the debates. Liberals have also paid a heavy price by allowing liberalism to be defined almost exclusively as social liberalism. So that you lost sight of economic rights, economic justice.
TOMASKY. I essentially agree with that. But liberal concepts still have more resonance than you might think. Polls continually show that people are rhetorically conservative and operationally liberal or progressive.
BEINART. Yes, the term needs to be defended. But I think one also needs to recognize that while people may be conceptually liberal, they're not voting for enough liberals. Liberals need to look at how they grew estranged from large numbers of Americans in the post-Vietnam period. And I think another estrangement has occurred since 9/11. Many Americans have questions about the degree to which liberals are willing to defend the country.
VANDEN HEUVEL. A majority of Americans support an America that works with international institutions, that wants a strengthened U.N., that wants to be part of a constructive multilateral engagement with the world. And that is ignored by too many liberals because it doesn't seem like a winning strategy.
TOMASKY. I want to move on to the cultural issues here for a moment, because they are obviously quite important in what's happened to liberalism. There's a conversation that's going to have to happen with regard to issues like gay marriage. Was it pursued in the right way in 2004, either by the Massachusetts court or by [the mayor of San Francisco] Gavin Newsom? And abortion is obviously a very vexing question. Has the rhetoric that's used to defend abortion rights really defended the core principle well? Or does that rhetoric need to change?
VANDEN HEUVEL. We need to make a distinction between the first-principles conversation and the one on electoral winning strategies. And I think that becomes tricky. But on the gay marriage issue, for example, we are a more tolerant country than we were 20, 30 years ago.
BEINART. I think one of the great problems in the debates about abortion and gay rights is the perception that liberals are illiberal and nondemocratic. It's remarkable to me how many people still mention the fact that [the anti-abortion Pennsylvania governor] Bob Casey was denied the right to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention. That was an illiberal thing the party did. And there is an important debate for liberals to have about the role of the courts in pushing social change. Finally, I don't think you can separate these questions from people's larger concerns about the culture. Liberals should believe in free speech, of course, but there is no reason that liberals need to believe that everything that comes out of an unregulated free market is good culturally.
VANDEN HEUVEL. I agree that too often liberalism has become associated with license instead of liberty. But you know that among progressives there is a critique of this kind of free-market vulgar culture, which is promoted not by The Nation or The American Prospect or The New Republic but by Fox television.
TOMASKY. Parents do worry about what their kids are seeing, what their kids are being exposed to. I'm no prude but sometimes I'm surprised by what I see on television or what I see in commercials.
VANDEN HEUVEL. Again, we need to make the case that these are not our values, but without diminishing the liberal belief in free speech.
BEINART. Democratic politicians who made this the biggest issue, Tipper Gore and then Joe Lieberman, both faced a fair degree of ridicule from within their own ranks. Neither of them as far as I can tell was advocating censorship.
What would a liberal foreign policy look like?
TOMASKY. A kind of principled realism. First, terrorism is a threat. It threatened our shores more directly than the Soviet Union ever did. And it must be the focus of a foreign policy. We need alliances, yes. But alliances are a means. The end is the isolation of terrorists and the states that harbor them. The end is the control of nuclear proliferation, an extremely serious issue that the Bush administration sort of ignores. And the end is bringing liberty to the places of the world where it doesn't exist.
BEINART. I would just add that the Bush administration's guiding principle is a belief in military power, not a belief in human rights and democracy. It is why there has been no Marshall Plan since 9/11 by this administration. It is why they consistently try to cut programs to deal with the loose nuclear materials. It is why they have not seriously engaged with trying to create liberal currents in civil society in the Muslim world. This is where liberals have a real opportunity. Conservatives today, like conservatives during the cold war in so many ways, do not have a sufficient appreciation of the nonmilitary aspects of American power in this struggle.
VANDEN HEUVEL. I don't think we understand the challenges of the 21st century if we make the ''global war against terror'' our organizing principle. How does military dominance -- and that is at the core of too much of the establishment liberal conception of security policy -- deal with the central challenges of insecure and decrepit nuclear arsenals in the former Soviet Union? Or pandemics like we've never seen? Or environmental degradation? Or global inequality? Or failed states? I would also argue that you need far more effective nonmilitary responses to the fight against terrorism, which may be lost if one pursues the kind of hawkish security policy you're laying out.
TOMASKY. I think the war in Iraq was a catastrophic mistake. It was not part of the war on terror. Somebody attacked us. We didn't get him. He's still at large. That's the war on terrorism to me. That's the heart of it.
VANDEN HEUVEL. In the context of the war on terror, Iraq was an act of self-sabotage.
BEINART. Let me say a couple of things as someone who did support the war in Iraq. There is no question that the war is going very, very badly. But I think two things remain even if we do end up deciding that Iraq was a terrible disaster. The first is that there is an important connection between dictatorship and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Secular dictators like Saddam Hussein or secular autocrats like Hosni Mubarak create a political dynamic in which liberalism gets weakened and weakened. And the only alternative becomes Islamic fundamentalism. The fight for a third way in the Muslim world is critically important. The second thing is that it is still entirely conceivable that there will be a role for the American military in this fight in the future -- not alone, I hope -- but in preventing a state from being a haven for the people who want to attack us. Because if we are attacked again, it will be a terrible, terrible day for liberal values in the United States.
VANDEN HEUVEL. I think you are ignoring the legitimate grievances in the Middle East. You cannot ignore the role of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And I think that is a very difficult one for the Democratic Party to address.
TOMASKY. I'm skeptical that Palestinian statehood, which I assume all of us support, which George Bush has said he supports, will solve a lot of these problems. I'm not persuaded that on the day that Palestinian statehood arrives that there still won't be buses being bombed in Israel. I'm skeptical that Israeli security forces will sit on their hands. And I'm skeptical that Islamic fundamentalists won't just find some other reason to hate the United States. I admit that's not a very hopeful assessment of the situation. And it's not very constructive.
To move on to domestic economic policy, the Bush administration pursues a more market-oriented philosophy while liberals tend to pursue a more government oriented philosophy. Is there some meeting ground?
TOMASKY. Not on Social Security. Social Security returns efficiencies that very few private programs of its sort can return. It's the greatest social insurance program devised by any government, ever. A lot of Democrats are open to some kind of private account on top of it. But as a principle Social Security is inviolate.
VANDEN HEUVEL. In fact, liberals and progressives have done a lot over the course of history to save the market from itself and from its excesses. And there is an interesting movement under way within the Democratic Party led by people like Eliot Spitzer and the treasurer in California, Phil Angelides, to use public pension funds to invest in what are called high-road investments: clean energy, high-wage enterprises. I think that's an interesting use of the market.
BEINART. I completely agree on Social Security. But I think liberals should be entirely empirical about market-oriented tax credits versus new government programs. Does a tax credit do something better or does a government program?
VANDEN HEUVEL. Something that hasn't been mentioned is labor, which I think is very important. Labor was a core component of the New Deal liberal coalition. Now it's under assault. It's a diminishing constituency, unfortunately, in the progressive liberal coalition.
TOMASKY. Labor can play a significant policy role if it becomes more powerful. Because that's how politics works. To me, the effort to organize Wal-Mart is what it's all about. That's a very hard fight that could take 20 years, but if the unions can organize the Wal-Mart stores that would be a titanic historical victory, like organizing the coal mines in the past.
BEINART. There was a very interesting discussion going on near the end of the Clinton administration between labor and what you might call New Democrats on the question of trade. It might have produced a kind of synthesis about America pushing for expanded trade deals that have labor and environmental protections -- as opposed to no free trade deals at all, or free trade deals that have no protections whatsoever, which is what the Bush administration generally favors. I think unfortunately that conversation, because the party is not in power, has come to a halt.
VANDEN HEUVEL. I do think that there is a larger question underpinning the role of labor in the Democratic Party, which is: How do you operate in an international environment where global conditions make it murderously difficult for American working people to achieve fair wages? The whole issue of international trade is one that has pulled the party apart. We are living in a new world and new conditions. There need to be some fundamental standards.
Can the Democrats become the majority party in America again?
TOMASKY. One of the Democratic Party's problems is that it doesn't have enough contact with its rank and file. Right-wing people in this country have a place to meet and talk politics -- their churches, increasingly the megachurches in the exurbs. There's not a meeting place like that for liberals and for Democrats. I think it's a job of the new party chairman to initiate some conversations about the core principles of the party. This is not usually the job of a chairman. He's usually a mechanic. But I think this has to happen now, because otherwise, before they know it, it's going to be 2006 and they're going to be the party of prescription drugs again. And then it's going to be 2008 and there won't be any context for what the party should be.
VANDEN HEUVEL. One of the things that came out of this election, which is exciting, is that there's the beginning of an independent infrastructure outside the Democratic Party, a kind of fusionist politics combining movement politics with electoral politics. And I would build on that, building a farm team of new, Paul Wellstone-type leaders, developing messages and ideas. Stop listening to the pollsters and consultants inside the Beltway; that's not where the energy, the passion, the conviction's going to come from.
BEINART. I think that the base needs to be engaged, absolutely, and I certainly think that Washington and Washington political consultants should not be the only people who set the direction for the party. But I also think it's important to remember the base was enormously engaged in this election. The Democratic Party still lost. The party has to have a listening tour within its own base but also a listening tour among swing constituencies that are moving away: Hispanics, Jews, the military in particular. The Democratic Party needs a strategy with military voters not simply because of their numbers, but because military voters will give the Democratic Party credibility with nonmilitary voters who are concerned the Democratic Party is not tough enough. One cannot forget the central fact that the Democratic Party has lost every election since the 9/11 era, in which national security has been predominant. That is an enormous, enormous problem.
What color is the sky on Planet Vanden Heuvel?
My guess would be commie red.
They still don't understand how out of step they are with the majority. I hope they do go to their base, the vocal whackos with "Bush is Hitler" and "Stay out of my Womb" signs in the streets, and the ACLU that wants Christmas and the Boy Scouts banned. Always crowd-pleasing topics sure to generate more Republican votes! :)
The Democrats' Prayer
May America be plagued with disunity
Let the terrorists attack with impunity
May the economy crash
And no one but the government have any cash
They voted for Republicans, so, let them feel pain!
With earthquakes, fire, floods and rain...
Hey, y'all have your coven meetings!
herd aninal discussions are interesting
I think all three should go to Iraq and tell the "people" who they fel their pain and tell them about their ideal of liberalism...gay marriage protections...judges making new laws without the consent of the people...television that can show anything...stealing money for the workers and giving it to the lazy.
They'll see the errors of their ways very quickly.
"Why has ''liberal'' become a dirty word for so many Americans today?"
Liberal used to be a good word here and abroad. It meant to be liberated from government, or monarchy. American liberalism meant anti-communism, smaller government, lower taxes. Now it means the opposite, and conservatives now stand for all those things.
It's really going very, very badly, for the Democrats!
Liberal Navel-Gazing ping
I don't remember any mention of their old mantra, gun control. Do you?
VANDEN HEUVEL. A majority of Americans support an America that works with international institutions, that wants a strengthened U.N., that wants to be part of a constructive multilateral engagement with the world.
This, this...thing is nuts. I could not get past this sentence. Strengthened U.N.- please!!!