Obama's Lyrical Left Struggles With Liberalism

Michael Barone
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Posted: Aug 27, 2009 12:01 AM
Obama's Lyrical Left Struggles With Liberalism

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."

This was a perceptive description of the dominant trend of the unlyrical warlike left of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. In World War I, the Wilson administration nationalized the railroads and shipyards; in World War II, the Roosevelt administration mobilized 16 million into the military (the proportionate equivalent today would be 35 million) and commandeered much of the private-sector economy.

The Woodrow Wilson war policies provided a blueprint for much of the New Deal. The Franklin D. Roosevelt war policies were a template for the makeshift welfare state of the postwar years. Lyndon Johnson declared a "war" on poverty. It was even clearer that war was the health of the state in Britain, where voters rejected the welfare state in the 1930s depression and embraced it after the experience of wartime mobilization and controls.

But in the late 1960s, the American left started going Bourne's way. They rejected Lyndon Johnson's "guns and better" and renounced the Vietnam War. They cheered rather than objected when Richard Nixon abolished the military draft. They supported civil rights and tolerance of diverse lifestyles and multiculturalist responses to immigration. They opposed military action in Grenada, in the Gulf War and in Iraq, and oppose it today in Afghanistan.

Barack Obama is very much part of this lyrical left. He seems to have absorbed its tenets somewhere between Punahou Academy and Columbia University. He never considered military service despite the large presence of the military in his native Hawaii. He left the business world and big law firms for community organizing.

The problem for Obama and America's lyrical left is that dovishness abroad and statism at home don't readily go together. Mobilization in a war effort, as Randolph Bourne taught, tends to create a frame of mind that welcomes regimentation under big government at home. Denigration of military discipline and tolerance of cultural diversity tend to create a frame of mind that resists government ukase and standardization. A big government president, Obama is learning, needs to be a war president first.