Discussed in this essay:
How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid
The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again
Here they come again! As we move into the midterm elections, the usual suspects have emerged with a fresh batch of new books and articles, all designed to teach the Democrats how to regain power. “What the Democrats still don’t have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society,” Michael Tomasky wrote this spring in an American Prospect article—an exemplary of the genre—that set off the usual, syncopated head nodding. Tomasky’s big idea? Democrats should “stand for something clear and authoritative again,” which is to say, “the common good.”
A rash of similar prescriptions have poured in from all quarters with titles like, Crashing the Gate or Take It Back or With All Our Might or How Would a Patriot Act? or Being Right Is Not Enough, or, notably, Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. Pundits have been writing similar books for a generation now, and, as always, these vary greatly in quality as well as in sincerity, intent, and originality. Taken together, though, they do succeed in defining the one real choice that American voters will face in the years ahead. This is not a choice between big ideas and little ideas or between particular advertising tropes or policy fixes, but a choice about whether our politics itself will be serious or will be fake serious. Will it be a politics that in some way addresses the reality of our situation in the world? Or will it be wholly involved with the pundit class’s obsession with “authenticity”? For in the national media today, a candidate is considered “serious” in direct proportion to just how fake he or she really is.
No two books better illustrate the difference between serious and “serious” than Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again and Joe Klein’s Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid. Beinart’s book is serious, albeit flawed in its analysis, whereas Klein’s book is not serious at all. It is the depressing climax of the national race to remove the last vestiges of serious thought from our political discourse.
Klein, who is most famous as the “anonymous” author of the novel Primary Colors, has led an erratic, thirty-year career writing about politics for publications from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker to Time. Politics Lost purports to give us the accumulated wisdom of that of that career, the hard-earned, insider nuggets that will demonstrate just how our politics has lost its way and how consultants have ironed any real feeling out of our candidates. Instead, Klein has produced a shoddy, repellent rant, in which he contradicts himself every few pages and gives full vent to his (invariably right-wing) prejudices. His inside access produces little wisdom, just a surfeit of anecdotes designed to prove just how in Klein is with the in-crowd. For instance, did you know that Klein and Lee Atwater both loved the rhythm-and blues artist, Little Milton? Or that Klein and George W. Bush both liked the old New York Giants baseball team? Or that Klein and John McCain spent most of their time together “just spritzing?” How cool is that?
But this is more than simple name-dropping. It soon becomes apparent that Klein judges politicians according to how much time they spend convincing him, one-on-one of their authenticity—or at least making the sounds he wants to hear. Thus, John McCain “was probably included among the Keating Five for purely partisan reasons”—a demonstrable falsehood that even McCain himself has never claimed. Bob Kerrey is “an extremely rare politician,” something Klein means as a compliment. Klein is very fond of Ronald Reagan, who he admits seemed scripted, but whose key trait was “character.” That is, “the character he played”—the very essence of fake seriousness.
Above all, Klein tells us, “I’ve always found rogues more fun, and often more useful, than reformers.” These include Lee Atwater, “an entirely feral human being, a backstabber and flamboyant self-promoter—and yet, he was irresistible” because he was “unapologetically what he was, a perfect rogue.” South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Alex Sanders was “a rogue donkey”; Frank Luntz is “something of the carnival barker”; Dick Morris is a “snake-oil salesman”; Ed Rollins is a man whose “no-bullshit style has led to more than a few roguish flameouts.”
Klein does worry briefly that “the egomania” of some “mavericks” might be “compounded by the lavish early reviews they receive from rogue-lovers like me,” but soon, he is off on “another exhilarating rogue-ride and flameout” with Howard Dean. Well into Politics Lost, Klein tells us how, during Fred Harris’s 1976 campaign for president, he began “my lifelong love affair with mavericks.” And, we may safely presume, rogues.
This insouciant amorality fails to charm—especially when Klein concedes that his old blues buddy Atwater ran what “would be the darkest, emptiest presidential campaign in history,” one that elected a president, George H.W. Bush, “who was mediocre on his best days,” and proved “how difficult it is to succeed as president after you’ve campaigned as someone you’re not.” After eulogizing Ronald Reagan, Klein admits that “there was something missing” and that “Reagan never asked anything of the American people”; that during the Reagan years, “civic responsibility was encouraged” and that “the Reagan style of leadership would contribute mightily to the trivialization of American politics” by sticking us with “an antiseptic, carefully programmed political style that was about performances and appearances, photo ops and platitudes.” After slavishly praising Karl Rove’s elegant campaigns, Klein laments the runaway corruption and incompetence of the George W. Bush Administration: “Everything was politics, even war.
So they were feral sociopaths who got bad leaders elected, encouraged irresponsibility, crushed American civic life, ushered in the sort of politics that Klein supposedly wrote this very book to denounce, and maybe even sold out our fighting men and women in Iraq…but what a bunch of party animals! It is obvious, by this time, that Klein has thoroughly internalized the morality of the consultants he claims to so despise. Like nearly all of the national pundit class, he never seems to believe that it might be up to him to seek out the truth of a matter. Thus, he can admire the judgment, vision, and acumen of Al Gore, but tsk that “no one was listening to his ideas, except for the reporters trailing him, who didn’t pay much attention to substance in any case.” Sure, “two or three national reporters might sift through the entrails” of Gore’s proposals and evaluate their worth, but, instead, the press was too busy “going nuts over Gore sighing” during his first debate with Bush.
Joe—this means you. But a celebrity like Klein is not about to be caught sifting through the entrails of anything; it cuts too much into spritzing with the candidates and their handlers. It is these moments of personal contact—rather than any verifiable facts—and a candidate’s ability to put on convincing displays of fake seriousness, that now determine whether a candidate wins the pundit stamp of “authenticity.”
Ironically, it takes the best writing in Politics Lost—and the most real demonstration of emotion—to illustrate haw fraudulent Klein’s basic premise is. The book’s prologue takes us back to the night of April 4,1968, when Robert Kennedy went into a black neighborhood in Indianapolis and announced to a crowd gathered to see him there, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated that evening. This is the most dramatic American political interaction ever caught on camera, and Klein describes the scene very well—how Kennedy, riven with emotion, made a mesmerizing, extemporaneous call for peace, understanding, and national unity; one that climaxed with him spontaneously quoting Aeschylus: “…in our despair, against our will, comes the wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
It’s a compelling, even thrilling story…and Klein’s use of it is the crux of his fake seriousness. Kennedy’s last campaign was indeed, as Klein characterizes it, “a wild, passionate frightening thing,” but the “naked, emotional intimacy” RFK displayed then, was the product of his own traumatic loss, and of a time when American society seemed to be coming apart under hammer blows of violence and tribal hatreds. We are unlikely ever again to see another day when the man, the moment, and pure tragedy are so perfectly met, and we probably wouldn’t want to.
Yet Klein laments, “I still find myself hoping for Kennedy-like moments of spontaneity and courage from the politicians I trail after—moments when they deviate from their script and betray a real emotion.” He cares little about what that emotion expresses, just so long as it comes off as dramatic and “real”—in the same manner that Michael Tomasky requires any “big idea” for “the common good.” What Klein is really demanding is a convincing affectation of emotion—the sort of “authenticity” that to him is the goal of all politics.
Far from objectivity that he claims, Klein exists at a perfect confluence of infantilism: all politics must be directed toward meeting his personal needs and prejudices, and all politicians must constantly entertain him. Politics Lost fairly drips with self-love. Near the end, Klein even has the effrontery to appropriate one of the very few moments in American life that surpasses in drama Robert Kennedy’s eulogy to Dr. King. In perhaps the ultimate example of fraudulent gravitas—one that goes far beyond what any of the politicians he has covered has ever dared to try—Klein informs us that he had planned to retire from covering politics, but that “sitting on the sidelines became impossibly painful after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” That’s right, Joe. Then the terrorists would have won.
In marked contrast to Klein’s fake seriousness, Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight is that rare pundit volume that offers something that is, in fact, serious—a real historical narrative for liberals to rally around. Whether the narrative itself is the right one is another question.
Beinart argues that the containment of Soviet expansionism in the Cold War was not only the finest achievement of the twentieth-century liberal foreign policy, but also an appropriate model for the struggle to contain Islamic jihadism today. Only liberalism is equipped with both the vision and, he contends, the humility to win a fight with a deadly, global enemy, and he finds a convincing symbiosis between the application of those values at home and abroad in the world. Telling the story to voters, Beinart argues, will be the key to Democratic electoral success in 2006, and beyond.
Beinart himself has learned the value of humility, as he admits at the start of The Good Fight. When he was editor of The New Republic, his outspoken support of the Bush invasion of Iraq raised hackles among his old Democratic allies. Now, Beinart writes, that he was “wrong on the facts” and “wrong on the theory.” The “facts,” of course, were George W. Bush’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The “theory” was that containment no longer was relevant in an age of unrivaled American power. Indeed, under Beinart’s editorship, The New Republic ran plenty of articles under such hubristic come-ons as, “Why Democratizing Iraq Won’t Be Quite as Hard as Critics Suggest.”
Duly chastised by unfolding events, Beinart has sought a philosophy that might better help him understand his error, and found it in the works of the great Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It turns out the humility Beinart lacked, was precisely what America itself once had in abundance and now requires again. “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization,” Niebuhr argued. “We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.”
In other words, as the preeminent power on the plant, we could not just say we were good and expect other nations to take it on faith. (That would be fake serious, in a big way.) Even our massive economic and military dominance—much more predominant, incidentally, that it is today—was not enough to make all of our wishes come true. Instead of just imposing our will upon our allies, we had to work with them and respect their views. At home, we had to prove we were worthy of leading the fight against Communist totalitarianism by correcting, in President Truman’s words, “the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy.” This humbling of ourselves was not inspired by goodness alone, but also came from the understanding the limits of power—a perfectly liberal (and Christian) convergence of the moral and the pragmatic.
Beinart argues that Niebuhrian humility was essential to the triumph of liberal anti-Communism. Cunning foreign-policy initiatives that emphasized recruiting real allies, instead of coerced satellites—initiatives such as the Marshall Plan and NATO—soon tipped the balance in the Cold War. At home, a long series of progressive reforms and the first significant steps forward in civil rights since Reconstruction began to correct at least some of those remaining democratic imperfections. Liberals in the postwar era were willing to admit that America had problems with poverty; with health care, education, urban decay, and especially with race—and they were going to do something about it. (Not coincidentally, these are all questions Klein professes himself to be the most bored with.)
Too often, Beinart glosses over much of his story, refusing to contemplate the things we actually did in the course of the Cold War. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Archbishop Romero, and Nelson Mandela were all victims of “our” side in that murky struggle, along with, who knows how many, forgotten labor leaders, peasant organizers, intellectuals, schoolteachers and social workers, priests, and nuns. Real moral courage means looking that in the face. But there’s no denying that it ended much better than if the Soviets had won it—or if it had been fought as the right wanted to fight it. Beinart makes a convincing case that liberals were able to “build a narrative of national greatness for their time”—a time that was both a “golden age of civic engagement” in America and also “a golden age of economic equality,” as “overall family income roughly doubled. And, remarkably, the poor and the working class fared even better than the rich.”
With every Eden there must be a fall, though, and for Beinart, the liberal fall came when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations lost their Niebuhrian humility in Vietnam. Like characters in another Greek tragedy, the old liberals were left to wander blindly into the political wilderness. But those who replaced them had forgotten the other half of Niebuhr’s great dictum: that we must take “morally hazardous action” to preserve our freedoms.
The New Left radicals who took over the Democratic Party morphed into what Beinart calls bloodless “neo-liberals,” who “simply no longer believed the United States was a beacon to the world,” and who were thus unwilling to risk their moral purity by fighting America’s enemies abroad or American criminals at home. Their moral ambiguity led to a long influx of “white, affluent, highly educate, and sexual” votes into the party at a time that saw “culturally conservative working-class whites moving out.” It wasn’t until Bill Clinton was able to reclaim the working class with a lusty language of “economic populism,” argues Beinart, that Democrats could begin “rediscovering Niebuhr’s core insight that America should not fall in love with the supposed purity of its intentions,” and could start projecting American power effectively again, in conjunction with its allies.
This effort was interrupted by the advent of Bush and the neoconservatives, who, astonishingly, The Good Fight credits with sincerely wanting to spread democracy. But when it came to fighting Islamic jihadism, Beinart argues, the neocons had the right intentions, but lacked the old liberal chops. They were stymied by their Republican prejudices against economic-development aid abroad and in favor of reckless tax cuts at home. Worst of all, Bush evinced absolutely no sign of Niebuhrian humility, responding to charges of U.S. human-rights violations with typical arrogance: “It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world.” Before long, the suzerains of cluelessness Bush sent over to Iraq had created a bigger mess than ever, while on the home front, economic inequality, deficit spending, and civic disengagement all proceeded apace, until ultimately “the Bush administration may be creating exactly the condition that conservatives have long feared: an America without the will to fight.”
As for the Democrats, Beinart would love to purge from the party what he calls the “doughfaces”—borrowing a term that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. applied to those Communists and fellow-traveler liberals who were unwilling to fight the Cold War. For Beinart, contemporary doughfaces are the Michael Moores and the Nation set, who do not properly appreciate the threat that jihadism represents: “Reading them, you would easily think liberals have no enemies more threatening, or more illiberal, than George W. Bush.” Beinart casts these individuals as the heirs of the neoliberals, those “white, affluent, highly educated, and secular” Democrats who largely took over the party after the meltdown of 1968.
It’s hard to know just what to make of this narrative. Any history that celebrates Reinhold Niebuhr and the legacy of Americans for Democratic Action, as The Good Fight does, is worth listening to. On the other hand, anyone who lauds Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America over Jimmy Carter’s human-rights initiatives—as Beinart does—is seriously deluded, on both a moral and pragmatic basis.
Moreover, to talk of purging anyone from today’s Democratic Party is awfully silly, and the distinction Beinart draws between those bloodless “neoliberals” and what he depicts as bold Democratic Leadership Council “New Democrats” is specious. Say what you will about Michael Moore, but it’s not easy to mistake him for a yuppie. Beinart’s New Democrats and his neoliberals are largely one and the same, and it was they who actually made the Democrats the minority party for the first time in over sixty years, with the disastrous midterm elections of 1994—a debacle Beinart chooses not even to mention.
Nor are Moore and company necessarily wrong about who constitutes the greatest and most immediate menace to the republic. No thinking person would deny that Islamic jihadism constitutes a real threat to this country, even a horrific one. But let us consider the threat posed—and increasingly made good on—by the Bush Administration. We’re not talking about a few points off the capital-gains tax here, but the full, unadulterated Bush agenda: the end of Social Security, and probably Medicare and Medicaid and public schools, as well; the drastic worsening of global warming; the unchecked license of the federal government to spy on citizens as it pleases, and even to strip them of their citizenship and secretly jail, deport, and execute them; the remaining consolidation of all political power in the executive branch, under the bizarre, right-wing doctrine of the “unitary presidency.” This scenario may not be sensationally apocalyptic, but it certain isn’t fake.
This is the tragedy that liberalism confronts today, the truth that dares not speak its name. No one wants to see the Islamo-fascists, the head-choppers, the death squads, and the woman-haters triumph in Baghdad, or anywhere else. But the real war the right wing is fighting is over here. It always has been, and it’s difficult to understand why Beinart can’t see that after the impeachment of Clinton; one (and maybe two) stolen presidential elections; the ruthless, cynical exploitation of every turn in the war on terror; and the relentless invective—and now even calls for the imprisonment and execution of any number of liberals—from the Republicans’ privately sponsored media.
During the Cold War, too, the Republican right usually displayed much more enthusiasm for destroying liberalism at home than rolling back Communism abroad. The crucial difference was that Democrats held the White House at the beginning of that struggle. More moderate Republicans cynically exploited Cold War fears to win back the presidency, but at least they could be relied upon to check the worst excesses of the far right. What we have now is not Ike’s Republican Party. Picture, instead, a dozen clean-and-sober Joe McCarthys, backed by a thousand Roy Cohns, majorities in every branch of government and oceans of cash.
But if Beinart is wrong about many things, he is right about one very big thing. That is, the need to revive liberalism as a “fighting faith,” one “based upon shared power and shared risk,” that will proceed with humility and restraint abroad, and take American democracy at home “back from the forces of private interest and concentrated wealth.” The symbiosis he recognizes between foreign and domestic policy is critical. Liberals didn’t make the current mess in Iraq, and Democrats would almost certainly have fought “the war on terror” very differently. But history doesn’t allow do-overs. One way or another, liberals, too, will have to wade into the treacherous estuaries of radical Islam, if they ever want to hold power again. And the only way they will win such a fight is by reestablishing fairness and economic opportunity at home.
Beinart is right to want liberals to wage these battles by reclaiming that “narrative of national greatness” from the Cold War. Here he has it all over the far-left narrative that tends to view the whole of American history as a grand hypocrisy. And Beinart offers a truly serious prescription for what ails the Democrats as opposed to the pundits’ usual “fake serious” tweaking of messages and TV ads and “character.”
The times bend toward seriousness now, as the consequences of the Bush Administration’s extreme frivolity became more and more manifest. Even conservatives have begun to fight among themselves over just what they believe in. Far from purges, liberals need to unite beyond a philosophy that can stand against both Bush and bin Laden. That is the only serious foundation upon which to build a lasting Democratic majority.