If I were a liberal Democrat – and, as my regular readers know, this is very far from being the case – I’d be mad as heck over the way President Barack Obama has reversed himself on key foreign policy and civil liberties issues. I’d be positively furious about his "reconsideration" of preventive detention, the revival of military commissions, rendition, JSOC-style assassinations, denial of habeas corpus, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Not to mention the general direction of his foreign policy, which rationalizes escalating the fighting in Afghanistan – and its extension into Pakistan – under the general exculpatory rubric of fighting the "war on terrorism."
As Glenn Greenwald trenchantly makes the point, what appears to have happened is that:
"Obama’s political skills, combined with his status as a Democrat, is strengthening Bush/Cheney terrorism policies and solidifying them further. For the last eight years, roughly half the country – Republicans, Bush followers – was trained to cheer for indefinite detention, presidential secrecy, military commissions, warrantless eavesdropping, denial of due process, a blind acceptance of any presidential assertion that these policies are necessary to Keep Us Safe, and the claim that only fringe Far Leftist Purists – civil liberties extremists – could possibly object to any of that.
"Now, much of the other half of the country, the one that once opposed those policies – Democrats, Obama supporters – are now reciting the same lines, adopting the same mentality, because doing so is necessary to justify what Obama is doing. It’s hard to dispute the Right’s claim that Bush’s terrorism approach is being vindicated by Obama’s embrace of its ‘essential elements.'”
Jack Goldsmith, who headed up the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel, has written a comprehensive overview of how the Obamaites have given us Cheneyism without Cheney, in 11 key instances, and I won’t repeat them here. Instead, I will ask: why has the liberal-progressive community given Obama a pass on all these vitally important issues?
There are several possible answers to this query, including the obvious: he’s a "centrist," as Greenwald avers, and not a true progressive. This is what Obama’s critics on the Left – and they are few and far between – would claim. Now, I am hardly the best judge of who is and is not sufficiently progressive, but it seems to me that if this standard is applied consistently to modern occupants of the White House, none – not even FDR, or the sainted JFK, both of whom Obama is often likened to – qualify as true-blue liberals. FDR interned tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, spied on his domestic political enemies, and manipulated us into war. JFK tried to have Fidel Castro assassinated and escalated the Vietnam War. Woodrow Wilson had his opponents jailed, and he dragged us into World War I. And as for Abe Lincoln – his record of shutting down opposition newspapers and assuming dictatorial powers is too well known to require much elucidation here.
From this we are forced to conclude that the very nature of the office is inherently illiberal, that it conjures, in its occupants, a willful exercise of power too seductive to be resisted. The old adage about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely comes to mind here – and certainly the Bush crowd claimed absolute power in the person of the "wartime president," who, according to their legal doctrine, was granted monarchical power. That Obama has found these claims irresistible comes as no surprise – except to those who ascribe to our freshly minted president the fortitude of a saint.
This explains, at least in part, why Obama has reversed course on so many occasions. Once power is attained, the temptation to wield it is overwhelming, at least to mortal men. However, what explains the passive acceptance of this transformation by the Obamaites – or, at least, a great many of them?
The truth is that most liberals could care less about foreign policy and are willing to make concessions on civil liberties, especially now, in the post-9/11 era. A quick look at history confirms this.
The Vietnam War went on for over a decade before liberals had had enough and turned against it. JFK’s Bay of Pigs disaster provoked little backlash among liberal Democrats, and it was prominent liberals such as Hubert Humphrey who steadfastly supported LBJ’s escalation of the conflict he’d inherited from his predecessor – just as Obama is ramping up the war on the so-called Af-Pak front, to cheers from the Center for American Progress and the Center for a New American Security.
Even those liberals who are uneasy about Obama’s foreign policy course and disappointed by his reversals on civil liberties issues are keeping silent, or at least tempering their criticism with the allegation that Obama doesn’t really want to do these things but is forced to compromise by politics and circumstances beyond his control. Yet this feat of mind-reading is just a pretext for unleashing the real passions of American progressives, which they have embodied in the person of the president.
What really excites the liberal-progressive community is the prospect of seizing economic power in this country. They want Obama to slap down Wall Street and create WPA-style "work brigades" to keep the growing army of unemployed off the streets. Most of all, they want to centralize all power in Washington – where the Dear Leader, in his wisdom, will personally direct a militant campaign on behalf of the ultimate progressive ideal, which is the concept of equality.
Peace, individual liberty, and the inalienable right of self-expression used to be the hallmarks of the old, classical liberalism. Such liberal stalwarts as Oswald Garrison Villard, first editor of The Nation, and Randolph Bourne, the namesake of the nonprofit foundation that runs this Web site, carried the banner of an anti-imperialist, pro-freedom "Left" through World War I, fighting Prohibition, government repression, and the Wilsonian policy of global intervention overseas. With the advent of the New Deal, however, and the agitation for U.S. intervention in the European war, the old liberalism was murdered in its sickbed and a new – and decidedly illiberal – "liberalism" took its place.
Previously, liberalism had been a disposition, an attitude, a generalized way of looking at the world, but in the 1930s it was transformed into a "science." The Marxist influence was evident here: the intellectuals of the presidential "Brain Trust" had certainly absorbed its lessons, and – careful to Americanize their rhetoric – were eager to apply them. Yet even before the rise of the Popular Front and the outsized prominence of the Communist Party and its fellow travelers in American intellectual life, American progressivism had already taken up a similar fascination with science, corroded the integrity of the old liberalism, and consigned its advocates to the margins.
Mesmerized by the idea that society could and should be scientifically organized along egalitarian lines, the liberal-progressives of the New Deal era looked the other way as the president tried to pack the Supreme Court and ceaselessly agitated for U.S. intervention in the European war – a cause that was taken up with alacrity by the Left the moment the USSR came under attack from Hitler’s legions.
Yet it wasn’t just rescuing the "workers’ fatherland" that motivated the Left to abandon its traditional antiwar stance in favor of relentless warmongering. It was also the wartime atmosphere – which allowed the centralization of economic and social power in the hands of the federal government – that unleashed their worst instincts.
The "modernization" of liberalism effected a remarkable transformation: what had been a doctrine that championed the individual against the state was inverted to mean its exact opposite.
Of course this did not happen all at once, nor did it occur uniformly, in all instances: the evolution of noted liberal writer John T. Flynn exemplifies the trajectory of those archaic types who insisted on clinging to the old prescriptions. Unfortunately, Flynn and his cohorts were a distinct – and distinctly persecuted – minority. For the most part, liberals went along with the new dispensation, abandoning their old ideological baggage as "outdated." The Constitution was derided as the product of the "horse and buggy" era, and FDR’s fervent followers looked forward to the dawning of a new day, when the slate would be swept clean and the world remade. As Rex Tugwell, poet-laureate of the New Deal, put it:
"I have gathered my tools and my charts,
My plans are finished and practical.
I shall roll up my sleeves – make America over."
And not only America, but the world.
It was inevitable that this crusading spirit would be transferred to the international arena: the doctrine of liberal internationalism was conveniently revived just in time for World War II. Harry Truman had no trouble extending it into the Cold War era. The Marshall Plan, the Korean War, and the anti-Communist witch-hunts that culminated in the virtual outlawing of the Communist Party – ironically, once the valued ally of the Democrats and the ideological spearhead of the War Party – were all embraced by the mandarins of what became known as the "liberal establishment."
The Vietnam era saw a rising rebellion against this managerial and manifestly illiberal liberalism – on the Right as well as the Left. The latter objected not only to the war, but also the bureaucratic colossus that had sterilized the educational system and turned society into something to be managed by a committee of "experts." The Goldwaterite Right rebelled against the federal supremacism that located all power in Washington, and they fought for economic and personal liberty as they understood it. In the "center" stood the liberal defenders of the status quo, who were soon crushed by the two-sided assault and undermined by their own arrogant assumption that their rule could not be credibly questioned.
Far from returning to its classical roots, however, liberalism took another wrong turn in the 1970s and ’80s, with the rise of identity politics and the dominance of "social issues" in American political discourse. Culture replaced abstract ideology as the core motivator of liberals, who applied all sorts of litmus tests to candidates and other public figures, involving such issues as abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, and the like. In an age in which self-absorption was the leitmotif of American culture, politics became a method of self-identification: instead of being about how to run society, politics became a debate about who we are, or, rather, who we should be.
This preoccupation with self – not egoism, in any sense that, say, Ayn Rand would recognize, but a neurotic obsession with self-image – was a reflection of the narcissism that infected American culture in the 1980s, and it only got worse as the we entered the 1990s and the new millennium. The growing predominance of social issues, over and above all else, was not limited to the Left, by any means; it was reflected on the Right, as well, with the growing influence of the Religious Right and the anti-abortion movement on the GOP. More recently, the question of whether government should recognize gay unions as legitimate has taken center stage.
In short, these are the issues that liberals really, really care about: abortion, gay rights, and economic equality – and they are quite willing to throw overboard whatever remains of their old classical liberal baggage in order to achieve these goals.
So – at last! – we return to the question asked at the beginning of this inordinately long column: why has the liberal-progressive community given Obama a pass on such vital issues as foreign policy and civil liberties?
The answer, given the above, is staring us in the face: because the old liberalism is largely dead. No one remembers Randolph Bourne’s very apt aphorism that "war is the health of the state" – heck, almost no one remembers Bourne, whose contributions to the history of liberal thought are buried in the graveyard of lost causes.
Obama will be given a pass by progressives as long as he holds out the promise of power and the means to reward his followers with perks, prestige, and the novelty of popularity. A few, like Greenwald, resist, but, alas, they are the valiant few – who will soon either desert the ranks of "progressivism" or be expelled.