According to a widely held theory of American politics, Democrats and liberals are doomed whenever foreign policy and national security are the primary concerns of voters. After all, Bill Clinton -- the only two-term Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt -- won his elections at a time when foreign policy and national security mattered less than at any time since the 1930s. As soon as the world crashed back into our lives on September 11, 2001, Republicans regained dominance.
But there is another theory, articulated in historian H.W. Brands' short 2001 book, The Strange Death of American Liberalism, which holds that liberalism was dependent on the Cold War and was buried with it. Brands points, for example, to the fact that much of the momentum for the civil-rights movement came from a worry, as the Justice Department said in its brief in Brown v. Board of Education, that "racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills." Sputnik led to the first federal investments in education. The Peace Corps abroad and Vista at home were the two faces of John F. Kennedy's liberalism. Cold War liberalism linked our sense of mission in the world with our obligations to one another at home. But by the 1980s, without active worries about an alternative ideology or a nuclear rival beating us in the race to space, Americans could turn away from a collective sense of national purpose to the individualism and laissez-faire of the conservative era.
For a moment after September 11 (which, by coincidence, is when Brands' book appeared), there was reason to think that the crisis would bring us together with a new appreciation of government and sense of mutual obligation. But it didn't happen, and Bush's presidency can be understood as an effort to make damn sure it didn't: the single-minded focus on military solutions, the refusal to call for shared sacrifice whether in the form of taxes or a draft, even the insistence that our enemies "hate us for our freedoms," since if that's the case, there's not much to be gained by improving those freedoms.
But after watching a few Democratic presidential debates and reading the candidates' speeches, I noticed something interesting. On domestic policy, such as health care and education, all the candidates have been pretty good, sometimes innovative, sometimes stumbling a bit, especially because most are still too timid to confront the need for taxes. But on foreign policy, all the major candidates have nuanced, sophisticated visions that cover the intersecting spheres of security, globalization, human rights, climate change, and energy, and that link international challenges to domestic issues such as education and job-creating public investment. They show an understanding of the complexity of Iranian politics and of the Catch-22s of Iraq. All appreciate that economic developments, notably the emergence of China and India, will matter more to our lives than terrorism, yet none fall into the crude assumption that our prosperity depends on keeping billions of people impoverished. They all appreciate that our actual conduct as a nation, and not just our image, determines our ability to exercise leadership in the world.
Their visions aren't all identical, of course, and Hillary Clinton's is significantly more security-focused and cautious, as is clear from her denunciation of Barack Obama for being willing to meet with leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. But there's no denying that hers is a sophisticated, complete vision that integrates domestic and foreign challenges. Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and Gov. Bill Richardson have almost 90 years of experience among them on international issues; John Edwards seems to have mastered much about Russia and Iran; and Barack Obama's vision on global issues, including climate change as well as international engagement, has been as confident, daring, and prescient as his domestic policy has at times been clumsy and cautious.
By contrast, all the Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul and sometimes John McCain, are like the monkeys given the choice between food and cocaine in that old experiment -- they'll forego all other policy nourishment just to keep pushing the button that might deliver that September 11 feeling again.
The secret strength of postwar liberalism was not its tough stance against Communism (there were always tougher guys, like MacArthur and McCarthy) but the deep, nuanced vision of American leadership that brought together our global role with a vision at home of greater freedom and opportunity. We are at a moment where such a vision is needed again, and, fortunately, in this generation of leaders, we have it.
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