Not his party

Posted: Dec 03, 2004 12:00 AM

Upon hearing that the people had lost confidence in the government, the East German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht quipped that it would be better to dissolve the people and appoint another one.

My friend Peter Beinart has a similar solution in mind for what ails the Democratic Party. A truly tough-minded and intellectually honest liberal, Beinart reads his party the riot act in the latest issue of The New Republic, the magazine he edits, in what will surely be a much-discussed article.

Beinart wants the Democrats to become a "fighting party" along the lines of the anti-Communist liberals that defined the Democratic Party from Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy. Back then, American liberalism was split between "hards" and "softs." The hards were willing to draw bright lines between themselves and Communists, up to and including purging from their ranks "soft" liberals who couldn't bring themselves to denounce totalitarianism. The softs, meanwhile, may not have been Communists, but they believed their only enemies were on the right.

By 1949, Beinart notes, "three years after Winston Churchill warned that an 'iron curtain' had descended across Europe," American liberalism had been - in Arthur Schlesinger's words - "fundamentally reshaped" in order to deal with the totalitarian threat.

Beinart continues, "Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not 'been fundamentally reshaped.' by the experience."

Beinart marshals a wide array of evidence that the Democratic rank-and-file doesn't take terrorism or even foreign policy seriously. Exhibit A: the vexatious popularity of goons like Michael Moore who believe Bush is a bigger threat than Bin Laden. "There is no terrorist threat," Moore writes in "Dude, Where's My Country." "Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?"

The Moore & crowd is not merely skeptical of American military power, it is downright hostile to American motives. America, says Moore, brings "sadness and misery to places around the globe." He tells foreign audiences that Americans are "possibly the dumbest people on the planet." is more thoughtful than Moore (a very low bar), but its opposition to the war and Bush has pushed it toward isolationism and common cause with real America-haters like the Stalinist front group ANSWER.

Meanwhile, John Kerry's logical loop-de-loops defending his foreign policy were in many respects the rational result of a Democratic Party that has become reflexively anti-war. Kerry couldn't avoid being the anti-war candidate because to be anything else would have meant not getting the nomination.

What Beinart wants instead is a party that first understands the very real threat of jihadism but, just as important, also understands that a morally serious fight against totalitarianism "provides a powerful rationale for a more just society at home." During the early Cold War, after all, liberals argued that Jim Crow undermined our credibility fighting Communists.

An ironic note is that Beinart's argument brings The New Republic back to where it began. Its founder, Herbert Croly, was a relentless advocate for the First World War, in part because it would provide a "moral tonic" for Americans at home. Walter Lippmann hoped the war would bring a Nietzschean "transvaluation of all values."

Beinart's not so ambitious, but I suspect he's destined for disappointment because there are no Bertolt Brechts in the Democratic Party. Beinart laments that the "foreign policy elite" of his party basically agrees with his prescriptions. It's those darn Democratic voters who disagree, dagnabbit.

The desire to remake the Democratic Party isn't new either. In the 1970s, the sainted Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson led a coalition of intellectuals and activists who wanted to beat back the blame-America-first pacifists taking control of the Democratic Party. They failed, and most of them are now "neocon" Republicans, like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle. And the remaining 1940s-style union Democrats Beinart wishes to reincarnate left too. We called them Reagan Democrats.

Beinart seems to think it's possible for the Democrats - now soaked with multiculturalism - to stand up to Islamic totalitarianism, although, ever since Vietnam, they'd been unwilling or unable to get their act together to fight Soviet totalitiarianism. I think that's wishful thinking on steroids. If you think that's unfair, ask yourself why Beinart has to go back to the 1940s to find a Democratic Party he wants to emulate.

That raises another reason why Beinart can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The Democratic Party in the 1940s wasn't nearly so democratic. Today, because of the primary system, mass media, and campaign finance reform, the party elders and elites have much less power. The Democrats of the 1940s could purge people. Today, even if they wanted to, party leaders cannot cull their ranks for fear of the lawsuits alone. Not all Democrats are the problem. But the activist base of the party is. Unfortunately for the Beinart feather of the Democratic Party, you can't just dissolve the base and appoint a new one.