When oh when are American progressives going to recover their moxie – the fighting spirit of their predecessors, like Bob La Follete – and stand up against the warmongering and the assault on civil liberties that characterizes the Obama administration? I keep asking myself that question, even as the apparent answer becomes all too clear.
The evidence that the long silence of the progressives will be extended throughout the already-started presidential campaign season was on display in Washington this week, as the confirmation hearings for Leon Panetta as the new Defense Secretary commenced. The Huffington Post reports:
"Robert Gates is due to retire as defense secretary in three weeks, but his named successor, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, said Thursday he plans to continue Gates’ policies.
"At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he spoke of bolstering defense spending, staying the course in Afghanistan and Iraq, treating al Qaeda as a standing threat and maintaining the most powerful military in the world.
"’Secretary Gates and I pretty much walk hand in hand on these issues,’ Panetta said at the hearing."
Imagine an alternate history in which the Vietnam war continued for another decade or so – and was extended throughout Southeast Asia. Imagine, too, that a Democratic president – say, oh, Hubert Humphrey, since we’re in an alternative universe – not only continued LBJ’s war policies, but escalated the war, and nominated war-supporter and US Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Boeing) to head up the Department of Defense. Envision Jackson stating in his confirmation hearing that he and his predecessor "pretty much walk hand in hand on these issues" – and then imagine what Senator William Fulbright would make of this pledge of continuity.
Unfortunately, today, there are no Fulbrights to speak truth to power. Instead, we have fake-"progressives" like Barbara Boxer, who, instead of grilling Panetta, chirped:
"’Good luck, and I hope the committee does this quickly,’ Ms. Boxer said after describing Mr. Panetta as her mentor and ‘very smart, but he also gets it.’"
It’s Boxer who doesn’t "get it": she masquerades, for the benefit of her California progressive constituency, as an opponent of the Afghan war, calling for a drawdown and rapid withdrawal, and yet she gives a free pass to Panetta, who wants to "stay the course." Fulbright’s ghost is railing from the netherworld – but, alas, today’s progressives are deaf to his pleas.
Not a single Democratic legislator of real national prominence has stepped up to the plate to challenge Obama’s relentless expansion of our eternal "war on terrorism," let alone stood up against the Obama-ite assault on civil liberties. Dennis Kucinich is the one exception, but his leverage in his own party is minimal, at best: indeed, more Republicans voted for his resolution calling for a complete withdrawal from the Libyan conflict than did Democrats. In response, the War Street Journal ran an editorial mockingly denouncing the "Kucinich Republicans."
Glenn Greenwald rightly calls Democrats on this, disdaining the "partisan tribal loyalties" that distort political judgment and rule out any kind of ideological or moral consistency when it comes to foreign policy and civil liberties issues:
"Democratic loyalists spent many years pretending to care about civil liberties and wars because doing so allowed them opportunistically to bash a GOP President; as soon as a Democratic President adopted those policies, the purported concerns for such matters all but vanished (just imagine the sustained progressive outcry if George Bush — rather than Barack Obama — were conducting an illegal war without Congressional approval, or if Bush had tripled the detainee population at Bagram while insisting that detainees there have no rights of any kind). Obviously, widespread Democratic opposition to Bush/Cheney terrorism policies was motivated primarily by partisan advantage, not actual conviction."
Quite true. But what of the growing conservative Republican opposition to our wars and the PATRIOT Act – do these merit Greenwald’s support? Well, yes, and no. Yes in the sense that any opposition to these misguided and downright dangerous policies is a good thing, in and of itself, but no in the sense that these oppositionists are, too, motivated by opportunism pure and simple:
"Is there really genuine anti-war sentiment growing among the GOP? I sincerely doubt it. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the true test of the authenticity of claimed political convictions is whether they endure regardless of which party controls the White House.
"… [T]he intense fear of expanded federal power incessantly touted by "small-government" conservatives in the 1990s — dark tales of black U.N. helicopters, Janet Reno’s goon squads (i.e., federal law enforcement agencies), and domestic eavesdropping warrants issued by the secret and nefarious FISA court — instantly vanished as soon as a GOP administration began wildly expanding federal powers in the name of 9/11. With rare exception, there was no new federal power these "small-government" conservatives weren’t willing to cheer on once their party was the one wielding the power (just as there is no civil-liberties assault Democratic loyalists are unwilling to defend now). Given that history, it seems abundantly clear that the newfound GOP opposition to war and civil liberties incursions is grounded in the opportunity to oppose the policies of a Democratic President, not any actual belief. I’ll believe in its sincerity if — and only if — it endures into a GOP administration."
Insincerity abounds, because defending civil liberties and opposing unnecessary wars – "these inherently non-partisan and non-ideological principles" — "have been deliberately warped into prongs in the partisan wars — partisans care about anti-war and pro-civil liberties issues only when their party is out of power." Which is why "no effective constituency for them can be created. Beyond that, trans-partisan and trans-ideological coalitions are extremely difficult to assemble because tribal loyalties render them sinful and heretical."
I’ll tell you another thing tribal loyalties have rendered sinful and heretical: ascribing sincerity to members of the other tribe, which is something Greenwald seems unwilling or unable to do.
Greenwald is wrong, on two counts.
If we take Greenwald’s theory of partisanship to its logical conclusion, then no one is ever capable of learning or changing – and, of course, everyone is a cynical partisan hack. Yet his attack on the sincerity of the rising antiwar GOP’ers such as Sen. Rand Paul and the "Kucinich Republicans" in the House, is manifestly unfair: many if not most of them weren’t even in office during the Bush era, and, indeed, arose specifically in opposition to the free-spending "Big Government conservatism" that characterized Bush II’s reign.
Secondly, Greenwald is wrong about the defense of civil liberties and opposition to the militarism of the National Security State being "inherently" "non-ideological." Indeed, no more intensely ideological issues are currently at the heart of the national discourse. The revival of the Old Right in the Republican party and among the grassroots conservative movement is an intensely ideological phenomenon, one which inherently distrusts any and all government action – including overseas. The GOP Establishment is fighting a losing rearguard action against them, but they have the momentum and seem destined to triumph – precisely because of the disaster visited on the nation (and the GOP) by Bush II’s foreign and domestic policies.
Opposition to the gutting of the Constitution and the policy of untrammeled imperialism is inherently inscribed in the conservative-libertarian tradition, and the revival of this tradition is what is energizing the "tea partiers" and the rising "Kucinich Republicans." Except that they aren’t "Kucinich Republican," they’re Taft Republicans, as in Robert A. Taft [.pdf], the leader of the conservative wing of the GOP in the 1940s and early 50s, whose opposition to interventionism and the Warfare State, although not always consistent, symbolized what the liberal interventionists of the time derided as "reactionary isolationism."
Progressives, too, have such a tradition, one that was often allied with – and is inextricably linked to – the "reactionary" anti-interventionism of the Old Right. The problem for today’s antiwar pro-civil liberties progressives is that many of these old progressives – such as Montana Democrat Senator Burton K. Wheeler, and the writer John T. Flynn – inevitably became Old Right conservatives, simply because their brand of progressivism lost out to the "modern" variety epitomized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt [.pdf] and Harry Truman.
On the right, the neoconservatives soon took over the post-war conservative movement and imbued its anti-communism with a militant militarism which sought to "roll back" the supposedly ever-expanding power and influence of the Kremlin. This ideological hegemony persisted as long as the cold war lasted, but after communism imploded as an international force a movement grew up on the right to reclaim the lost legacy of such anti-interventionists as Taft and Flynn: the Old Right was reborn.
On the other hand, no parallel effort to reclaim the legacy of the old pre-WWII progressive movement has appeared on the left. That’s because the "modernizing" super-centralism of FDR has won a permanent victory among those who style themselves "progressives." The march of progress, in this view, is defined as the march of government power across the American sociopolitical landscape as the ultimate solution to our problems: and, except for a brief "New Left" flirtation with decentralism, that victory has been sealed in the policies of the Obama administration – and virtually unanimous support for them among progressives – which concentrate all power in Washington, D.C.
If government in, indeed, the solution to most if not all of our problems, then why shouldn’t that include solving the problem of terrorism in the form of the PATRIOT Act? Given this premise, why shouldn’t government agents be reading our emails, spying on American citizens, and prosecuting whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, who, after all, are defying Washington bureaucrats who know better than he what is in the "national interest" of the US?
If the solution to our problems is more government control domestically, then why not extend that general principle when it comes to foreign affairs? Why shouldn’t the US federal government extend its power and influence to uplift the poor teaming masses of, say, Libya – or Afghanistan – and fight until every last one of them has the rights that each and every American citizen has – including the "right’ to healthcare and public education?
The logic of modern liberalism leads us, inevitably, to interventionism, and not only that, but it implies a particularly moralistic and on-your-high-horse variety of "liberatory" liberalism – the sort we were treated to in the run-up to World War I, when Woodrow Wilson declared that we had to go to war to "make the world safe for democracy."
Greenwald, I fear, disdains the alleged insincerity of anti-interventionist pro-civil liberties Republicans, while displaying a less-than-sincere attitude toward the issue himself. In a previous column on Republican opposition to the PATRIOT Act, he drew similar conclusions about the role of partisanship in these debates, and averred:
"[O]ther impulses in that movement render support for civil liberties abuses inevitable as long as they’re directed at other people. The nativism, the anti-Muslim bigotry, the blinding American exceptionalism, the fear-based eagerness to support anything in the name of Security, and the instinctive reverence for GOP political authority all ensure widespread support among the Right — even those factions incessantly marching under the banner of ‘limited government’ — for the vast majority of authoritarian assaults on civil liberties. There has been some principled, strong opposition among some libertarian and "paleoconservative" factions on the Right, but those factions are far too small to make much of a difference. For the vast majority of American conservatives — including the self-proclaimed limited government Tea Party movement — the instincts that generate support for authoritarian policies easily overwhelm the instincts against it."
Now that the paleoconservatives and their libertarian allies in the GOP have actually gained some influence, and indeed are rallying to the antiwar and civil libertarian cause in greater numbers than their "progressive" counterparts, Greenwald still challenges their sincerity and attributes their votes in Congress to partisan opportunism. This not only ignores the process by which people evolve politically, it also calls into question the role "tribal loyalties" play in Greenwald’s own public pronouncements. Perhaps his readership — and the editors of Salon — aren’t quite ready for a world in which conservative Republicans are the leaders of a movement calling for an end to the National Security State, but one would have thought Greenwald’s contrarian nature would allow him to live in it without too much complaint.
According to Glenn, we have to wait until Obama is defeated and a Republican is installed in the White House before we can properly judge the motives of antiwar/civil libertarian Republicans and gauge them on his Sincerity Meter. I, for one, am not willing to wait that long – and we don’t have to. The reality is that – given the conduct of the "progressives" in Congress, and in the media, during the Obama years – it’s the sincerity of the "progressives," whose faith in government is apparently boundless, that really has to be called into question.