Liberals need new narrative that takes terrorism seriously

John Leo

6/4/2006 12:05:00 PM - John Leo
Peter Beinart thinks the left needs more anti-totalitarian liberals like Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson, and fewer anti-imperialist liberals (think moveon.org, Michael Moore and George Soros) who can't seem to take terrorism and the jihadist threat seriously. "The Good Fight," Beinart's new book, is a history of liberalism for his fellow liberals, and an insightful elaboration of arguments he made as editor of The New Republic.

Henry Wallace, he believes, is the model for today's blame-America, soft-on-totalitarianism left that has cost the Democrats so dearly at the polls. When communists pushed Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk out of a window in 1948, Wallace, America's leading progressive, thought it was America's fault. He said: "The Czechoslovakia story will repeat itself so long as our gun and dollar policies ... are continued." The modern Wallaceites feel the same way about jihadists. Moveon.org said: "The U.S. has become adept at creating monsters. Osama bin Laden is only the latest in a long line."

Beinart says that the New Left of the 1960s severed the tradition of liberalism as "a fighting faith" and reinstalled the notion that there are no enemies on the left. In 1963, Alger Hiss got a raucous welcome at a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society, and two years later SDS removed the word "totalitarian" from its description of the form of government it opposed. The SDS view of the world is now front and center on the left. The anti-war marches of 2003 and after were largely organized by communist-front groups and fans of Slobodan Milosovic, Kim il Jong and other fascists. Nobody cared.

For the new Wallaceites, America's biggest problem is America. The most extreme seemed to enjoy 9/11 on grounds that at last the chickens were coming home to roost. (The same perverse sense of satisfaction is now rippling though some liberal commentary on the alleged massacre in Haditha.) Some dismiss terrorism as a simple problem of law enforcement. Others in effect discount terrorism by focusing solely on civil liberties, sometimes obsessively. The New York Civil Liberties Union is upset with random subway searches, though anyone stopped by authorities is free to walk away unsearched.

Bush and the Republicans come in for many criticisms -- for going it alone, insisting doggedly on America's virtue, and not taking economic aid to vulnerable nations seriously, because that would imply that "root causes" arguments were valid explanations of terror. Caught between two constituencies, one that wanted to fight the war on terror and one that didn't, John Kerry babbled on Dukakis-like about effectiveness and competence. In 2004, as in 1988, Republicans effectively argued that Democrats can't be trusted to defend America because they don't truly believe in America.

According to Beinart, liberals were pretty much on board with the war on terror in the first year after 9/11. This is debatable. Liberal opinion on campus was immediately out of sync with the rest of the nation. A Brown student, who hadn't voted for Bush, said he was astonished that dominant opinion on campus was "more concerned with protecting the civil rights of Osama bin Laden" than with preventing future attacks. Michael Walzer, a prominent writer on the left, said leftist intellectuals "live like internal aliens" in America, and therefore had "difficulty responding emotionally to the attacks of Sept. 11 or joining in the expression of solidarity that followed."

By 2004, more than half of Democrats, and two-thirds of liberal Democrats, thought U.S. wrongdoing abroad may have motivated the 9/ll attacks. Among Republicans, the figure was 17 percent. A post-election poll by the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation found that conservatives, and Americans in general, thought destroying al-Qaida was the nation's highest priority. For liberals, it was tied for 10th place.

Beinart writes: "Many liberals simply no longer see the war on terror as their fight. ... The liberalism emerging today denies that fighting global jihad should even be a priority."

This is a huge national problem, and both parties deserve blame. Nothing would be more crippling to American prospects than a war on terror fought by only one political party. America needs a new liberal narrative, Beinart says, but he offers no concrete advice on how Democrats can disentangle themselves from the new Wallaceites. They account for a great deal of the money, energy and Internet presence of the Democrats, so a direct confrontation is unlikely if not impossible. It may take a great presidential candidate of Rooseveltian skill and deviousness. Lots of luck with that.