As it becomes clear that a large percentage of Americans are rebelling against the prospect of a larger, more intrusive government, including many whom Democratic politicians assume would see themselves as beneficiaries of government spending and activity, debate among supporters of the Democratic agenda has focused on tactics.
Should the Democrats have depicted their health care program as providing security rather than cutting costs? Should Barack Obama insist that the "government option" is essential, or should he let that provision drop by the wayside? Was it a mistake to whip the cap-and-trade bill through the House in June rather than focus on health care? Should the president have crafted a smaller stimulus bill that pumped money into the economy more rapidly?
Those are all good questions, but they do not go to the heart of the matter. The problem the Democrats face is not just a question of this administration's tactics or those of the Clinton administration in 1993-94. It is, I think, more deep-seated -- a basic contradiction in what the party and the liberal movement stand for.
"War," wrote the liberal intellectual Randolph Bourne in 1918, "is the health of the state." Bourne, a writer for The New Republic and the Atlantic who died in the influenza epidemic later that year at 32, is mostly forgotten today. But in the second decade of the last century, he was a leading member of what author Edward Abrahams dubbed "the lyrical left," a group of intellectuals whose attitudes are not unfamiliar today.
Bourne celebrated the diversity of immigrants in America and opposed their assimilation into a single national culture. He opposed the racial segregation of the South ("the least defensible thing in the world"). He hoped that industrial workers would produce bottom-up reform of economic institutions through something like community organizing.
And unlike most New Republic writers of the time, he vehemently opposed U.S. entry into World War I -- not out of pacifism, but for fear of what it would do to the country. "All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offense or a military defense," he wrote in 1918, "and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become -- the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men's business and attitudes and opinions."