Liberalism's Lost Script

Lately, trying to determine exactly how we became embroiled in Iraq has become a kind of intellectual parlor game. Was it oil? Settling old scores? Diverting attention from terrorism? Fulfilling the neoconservative agenda?

There is probably some truth in each of these, but of all the reasons that have been adduced for the war in Iraq -- and for the administration's failure to have devised a comprehensive postwar plan there -- the most significant may be the least conspiratorial, complex, or even politically motivated. The war planners never really thought there was any downside to going in, or that anything could go wrong in the aftermath. They assumed that the troops would sweep across Iraq without resistance, that Iraqis would greet them as liberators and stick flowers in the barrels of their rifles, and that an Iraqi government would be installed in relatively short order. They made these assumptions, we now know, not on the basis of any intelligence or understanding of the Iraqi situation. They made them because it seems they were in thrall to an idea that has become a fundamental component of modern American conservatism generally. It is the idea that, in the end, everything turns out well.

One can see just how significant an underpinning of conservative doctrine this has become by looking at a range of issues, from the jobless recovery (the jobs are coming, the administration promises) to the ballooning deficit (the deficit will shrink, the president says) to imperiled public education (testing will take care of everything) to Medicare (the market will bring down costs). Wishful thinking is not only the Bush administration's primary policy; it is its governing ideology.

But if conservatives act as if happy endings are always in the offing, liberals, by contrast, have come to act as if nothing can ever go right, as if a cloud surrounds every silver lining. Just compare the old liberal version of the "domino theory" in Southeast Asia with the new conservative version in the Middle East. In the first, the dominoes of communist expansion tumble, creating a threatening world. In the second, the dominoes of democracy tumble, creating a free and peaceful world. In short, conservatives have, in the classical sense of the word, a comic vision of the world, liberals a tragic vision -- a difference that goes a long way toward explaining why liberals have had such a hard time in electoral politics recently.

Or to put it in more homely terms, conservatism has become a Hollywood movie, liberalism has become literature. Like the movie blockbusters, contemporary conservatives centralize action, extol the power of the individual to bend the world to his or her will, demonize enemies to the point where anything short of annihilation would be a surrender, operate from an absolute confidence in the hero's rightness while treating opposition to it as a form of treason, and promise the comforting catharsis of eventual victory that confirms everything that has gone before. Contemporary liberals, on the other hand, like the best literature, centralize thought and deliberation rather than action, fasten on human interconnectedness and the inability of any one individual (or nation) to command events, attempt to understand the complexity of life, operate from a decidedly wary position when it comes to absolute certainties, and promise no final victories.

The Aesthetic Reversal

It was not always so. Conservatism has its roots in Thomas Hobbes, with his jaundiced view of human nature, and in Edmund Burke, with his emphasis on a natural order with which one tampers only at grave risk. This was hardly a prescription for optimism, much less Pollyannaish faith that all will end well. Rather, it was a form of hard-boiled realism. You had to take the world as it was and hope for the best. Translated into politics, conservatism -- at least in its American incarnation -- encouraged social Darwinism, economic rapacity, protectionism, a minimal government, self-reliance, and independence. For better or worse, people were to be left to their own devices without any interference. In foreign policy, conservatism was basically isolationist except when, in the natural course of things, America could reap rewards without undue risk. In effect, it was an ideology in which power and fate ruled.

If there wasn't much about this form of conservatism that was inspiring, it did nevertheless have its flinty attractions. To the oligarchs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it legitimized economic and social inequities because these were, after all, the products of natural forces. (Indeed, even depressions were thought to be natural purgatives.) To less well-heeled Americans, it had the virtue of seeming tough-minded and manly, a way of facing the world without illusions and of avoiding the unpredictable consequences of intervention. What conservatism pointedly did not promise was that some good would necessarily come of all this inaction. A world without illusions was also a world without giddy expectations.

It was liberalism that was idealistic and hopeful, liberalism that believed in our better angels. Liberalism has its roots in John Locke, with his faith in human possibility, and in William James and John Dewey, who thought man was less a passive victim of history than an active shaper of it. In political terms, liberalism encouraged social welfare, economic justice, free trade, compassion, and a sense of community. In foreign policy, at least by the 20th century, the outlook was largely internationalist, encouraging democracy and cooperation that would release goodness. This was the ideology of optimism, pointing not to how things inevitably were but to how they should be, and not to man's helplessness in the natural swirl but to his greater destiny. In liberalism, idealism about a better world was joined to optimism about the possibility of making that world a reality.

While conservatism was serving up economic brutes, liberalism was serving up Woodrow Wilson, the last century's first and perhaps greatest idealist who laid as the basis for war not the realpolitik of conservatives but the larger principle of freedom. "We look for no profit. We look for no advantage," he announced in what would have amounted to heresy for conservatives, who believed that profit and advantage were the best reasons for doing things. Wilson's internationalist idealism would be tempered by New Dealers skeptical about the costs of American interventionism, but his basic faith would be amplified by Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt saw himself as an instrument of providence, and he firmly believed that if the motive was good, nothing would go wrong. As one of his biographers, Kenneth S. Davis, wrote of Roosevelt's attitude, "It was by God's design that he was the axis, the focus, the radiant star." It accounted for a large portion of his charm. When Roosevelt famously asserted, in his first inaugural address, that we had nothing to fear but fear itself -- when, in fact, Americans had a great deal to fear -- he was delivering the boldest assertion of willed optimism as a national tonic. In this view, the world doesn't just operate by natural forces, as conservatives then would have had one believe. Roosevelt suggested that it operates by men who are assisted by providential forces, which is why he was so confident and why the nation drew confidence from him. Not for nothing was his theme song "Happy Days Are Here Again."

Twenty years later, John F. Kennedy demonstrated how deeply this optimism had become embedded in liberalism; he was practically the physical embodiment of hope. But somewhere between Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, conservatism and liberalism changed places. Though it is impossible to identify all the factors that may have undermined liberal optimism, one element was certainly an ongoing campaign conservatives had conducted since Roosevelt's death to conflate his exuberance with a kind of willful obliviousness to communist expansionism.

But it wasn't all the conservatives' fault. Optimism is difficult to maintain when things don't turn out the way they're forecasted. No one was more an apostle of liberal optimism than Lyndon Johnson, who had studied, after all, at Roosevelt's knee, but the Vietnam War eroded confidence in government and ultimately forced liberals into a pessimism about the value of trying to do good in an uncertain and dangerous world. Indeed, the war divided the Democratic Party not only between hawks and doves but also between those who believed in America's mission as the beacon of freedom and those who had come to doubt it. Once the war turned bad, liberals turned wary, fixating on examining how things had gone wrong. As everyone now knows, this was the new liberalism -- gun-shy and cautious. It no longer embraced a "rendezvous with destiny," as Roosevelt had declared. By the 1970s and the Carter administration, it had a meeting with malaise.

Not at all accidentally, while liberalism was undergoing its soul-searching, conservatism was undergoing a face-lift. The modern conservative movement, spearheaded by Barry Goldwater, had been as sour and antagonistic as the old conservative movement. Its prescriptions were cast in gloom, especially when set against Johnson's bold self-assurance. Ronald Reagan changed all that. Reagan's major contribution to conservatism was not ideological (he basically followed the old Goldwater line). It was aesthetic. While deploying simplistic sound bites like "government is the problem" that drove liberals to distraction, Reagan, who had been a great admirer of Roosevelt, was accomplishing something much more profound. He managed to graft Roosevelt's implacable optimism and sense of destiny onto a conservative movement that had long resisted those things, and he did so at the very time when liberalism had turned pessimistic.

This, perhaps above all else, is why conservatism suddenly moved from the margins to the political center. Conservatives still seemed to believe that natural forces determined the course of events, but Reagan seemed to think that nature was not indifferent but progressive. A movie actor who had made his living by conveying a sense of confidence to audiences, Reagan as a politician was equally cheery and free of doubt, and just as American movies typically had happy endings, he convinced Americans that the country would have a happy ending, too. In effect, Reagan turned conservative politics into a movie. History was moving in the right direction. Everything was going to be all right. It was morning in America. Polls indicated that most Americans did not agree with Reagan's policy positions, but they loved his attitude, which was liberalism's old attitude. Whatever else he did, Reagan, like Roosevelt and Kennedy before him, seemed certain of victory.

The aesthetic of certainty, Reagan's gift to the conservative movement, has been a gift that keeps on giving. Invoking God and prattling about his faith, George W. Bush has portrayed himself as a tribune of the lord, working in his service and operating under his blessing, which liberals may see as a sop to Bush's evangelical base but which also underscores the president's sense of righteousness -- a man, as Pat Robertson recently said, who was tapped by providence just as Roosevelt was. This is what Bush political guru Karl Rove constantly stresses. Act as if you are the Chosen One. Be certain. Be confident. Don't entertain any doubts. Don't call for sacrifice or introspection. Keep telling everybody that everything will be all right.

Along with this sense of self-righteousness is also a sense of luck. Like many American movie heroes, George W. Bush has been a remarkably lucky man -- lucky in his upbringing; lucky in his elevation to the presidency; lucky, if one wants to call it that, in suddenly becoming a war president at a time when his administration was foundering and his popularity plummeting; lucky even in his timing of the Iraq War. The luck as much as the optimism has buoyed his appeal because it promises that the country will be as lucky as he. Things just seem to fall right for conservatives.

Nothing could be more contrary to the new liberalism, which has eschewed simplification, gloss, and certitude for nuance, honesty, and contingency -- again, movies versus literature. Perhaps because they have lived with this for more than two decades now, liberals have come to embrace this uncertainty and skepticism as a kind of superiority. They don't demagogue. They see things clearly. They face the world not as they want it to be but as it is, which is of course precisely what conservatives used to say when they were losing elections.

This fall's presidential contest will turn on many things, but one of them will certainly be the parties' contrasting aesthetics: the comforting bromides of conservative cheerfulness versus the disturbing sobriety of new liberalism's cold glare. But while it may be foolish and even dangerous to view the world as anything but tragic, doing so isn't a very promising way to win votes. Twenty-five years ago, conservatives stole liberal optimism, and George W. Bush, currently bumping from one disaster to another, is relying on it to pull him through this election. He may succeed -- unless liberals can rediscover their Rooseveltian sense of hope and convince Americans that they again have a rendezvous with destiny. That is both liberalism's tradition and its traditional appeal.