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Terror and Liberalism

Give a read to Peter Beinart's analysis of what ails the Democrats. It's similar in several ways to the points I've been trying to make here, here, and here, namely that national security is the Democrats' main electoral problem, that though John Kerry was not ideal in many ways the problem is much more structural than personal, and that, paradoxically, the actual views of the Democratic Party's national security establishment are both better on the merits and, in principle at least, sounder politics than the message the Democrats have actually been sending.

I wouldn't put nearly as much weight on dovish sentiments within the base as Beinart does. This was most likely behind some of the things Kerry said and did during the primaries (notably the vote on the $87 billion supplemental) but I simply don't believe that it was a major consideration underlying his general election strategy. This is the sort of question, of course, that some good reporting might resolve, though neither of us exactly seem to have done it. My sense, though, is that we would have heard it reported somewhere if Kerry's communicatiosn operatives were sitting around saying, "hm...this idea over here might make for a good, hawkish message with centrist appeal but we can't afford to alienate Michael Moore!" The account I prefer pertains to the attitudes and interests of Democratic operatives and professionals outside the national security community. In my experience these people simply aren't all that interested in foreign policy and military issues. That's not really an ideological thing. In many ways far-left rank and file types tend to be better informed and more interested in these things than are more moderate liberals (note that "world affairs" was one of Ralph Nader's best issues in 2000). It's a question of temperament. Lots of people with all kinds of ideologies think Medicare reform is boring. I think Medicare reform is boring. I -- like many others -- would rather think and talk about something else. Relatively few people get involved in Democratic politics because they care about implementing the Democratic Party's main ideas on national security, instead they do it to implement the Democrats' ideas on health care, education, the environment, choice, gay rights, or whatever. I stole this thesis from Heather Hurlburt, so you may as well read it from her.

So that, I think, is the essence of the problem. Beinart's positive proposal at the end, though, dovetails about as well with my causal theory as with his:

In 1946, the CIO, which had long included communist-dominated affiliates, began to move against them. Over fierce communist opposition, the CIO endorsed the Marshall Plan, Truman's reelection bid, and the formation of nato. And, in 1949, the Organization's executive board expelled eleven unions. . . .

That absorption mattered. It created a constituency, deep in the grassroots of the Democratic Party, for the marriage between social justice at home and aggressive anti-communism abroad. Today, however, the U.S. labor movement is largely disconnected from the war against totalitarian Islam, even though independent, liberal-minded unions are an important part of the battle against dictatorship and fanaticism in the Muslim world.

The fight against the Soviet Union was an easier fit, of course, since the unions had seen communism up close. And today's afl-cio is not about to purge member unions that ignore national security. But, if elements within American labor threw themselves into the movement for reform in the Muslim world, they would create a base of support for Democrats who put winning the war on terrorism at the center of their campaigns. The same is true for feminist groups, for whom the rights of Muslim women are a natural concern.

I've long felt pretty hopeless about the idea of building an interest group basis of support for an appropriate liberal response to Islamism, but the point about feminist groups is well-taken. In the 1990s, the Feminist Majority Foundation was quite the leader on this topic at a time when there wasn't what one would call an overwhelming level of concern in the USA about the Taliban and they're still doing good work on related topics. This is, potentially at least, a major point of interface between interest-group liberalism and the global struggle with radical Islam. Being an elitist technocrat myself, my tendency is to believe the important thing is to change the outlook of technocratic elites rather than worry too much about the beliefs of the hoi polloi, but there's room for action on all fronts. There's even a website dedicated to the cause that people should explore.

December 2, 2004 | Permalink


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» We Get Linkage from Liberals Against Terrorism

I've never been called a member of the hoi polloi before, but I'll take it from Matthew Yglesias. Yes, the Matthew Ygelsias.

Matt brings up an exce [Read More]

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» Singing Harmony With The New Republic from Winds of Change.NET
I've been pretty much away from the compute for the last two days, so I missed the first wave of responses to Peter Bienert's piece on Liberals and Terrorism in TNR (registration required and well... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 3, 2004 1:01:05 AM

» 'Commonweal' blasts 'First Things' on the war. from Philocrites
The cover story of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal this week is extraordinary. I've been so preoccupied with it that I haven't yet read Peter Beinart's New Republic cover story that has liberal foreign policy circles buzzing — even though, as... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 9, 2004 8:43:56 AM


> is largely disconnected from the war
> against totalitarian Islam

If we are indeed going to have such a war, can we please (i) define it (ii) declare it?

Because at the moment, all I can see is that the "war" on "Islamofacism" is just like the "war on drugs": an excuse to use the coerceive power of the State against anyone whose politics (or national interest) I don't like. Up to and including killing them.

What "war" are we in? Pray tell.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 2, 2004 12:40:00 PM

Two points about the Beinart's union proposal:

1. There is a macro analysis that strengthens his argument. Strong labor movements have been linked to democratization efforts throughout the world: Eastern Europe, South Korea, South Africa, abortively in China, and nascently in Mexico, to pick only most prominent examples. Unions link the material and political aspirations of working people in their workplaces to building democratic and egalitarian state structures on behalf of the entire polity. Unions also are themselves, in many cases, democratic structures of civil society that nuture a democratic ethos among large numbers of citizens.

2. Beinart's notion of how unions could help the party articulate its foreign policy is a fair one, but there needs to be some reciprocity, a reciprocity that can only help the Democratic party increase its support among working class whites and Latinos, i.e. party officials, candidates, and office holders must explicity support organizing drives, and more broadly, unions as small 'd' democratic vehicles for economic fairness and political empowerment. The recent election only underscores what the data has been showing since the Reagan era: white voters, especially men, are far more likely to vote for Democrats when they are union members than when they are not (and this includes problematic subgroups like gun owners and pro-life advocates).

Posted by: debs | Dec 2, 2004 12:49:26 PM

What "war" are we in?

War On Terra.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 2, 2004 12:50:00 PM

Matthew is exactly right. The main problem with his position is that the activist base of his party either (a) doesn't agree that we're at war with radical Islam (this position is exemplified by cranky observer and abb1's comment above) or (b) wants our side to lose because winning is equated with American imperialism. Overcoming that problem is going to be quite an undertaking.

Posted by: Al | Dec 2, 2004 12:55:06 PM

'Elitist technocrat' is good, I like that, but what's with global struggle with radical Islam? This is just stupid, especially for an 'elitist technocrat'.

Go struggle with radical Christianity and radical Judaism and let the Muslims take care of their radicals; you're only making it more difficult for them with your crazy struggle - by creating more radicals than need to be.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 2, 2004 12:58:25 PM

Al, on Sept 10, 2001 you fellas weren't even dreaming about any global struggle with radical Islam.

Then a bunch of incompetent clowns in the administration allowed a crude and easily preventable terrorist act to happen - terrorist act committed by about 3 dozen perpetrators - and now you're all excited about your global struggle, running around and sticking your fingers in every hornets nest you can find. Look in the mirror and see a fool.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 2, 2004 1:10:18 PM

Few quick points:

I think one problem us Liberals need to face is that good, hawkish national security isnot nearly as popular as it may appear. The Republicans are known as strong on national security because they have pursued hawkish language and some hawkish action, but they have not pursued good or effective hawkish action. Such action is almost always unpopular because it demands sacrifice on the part of the American People. For the Democrats to be perceived as good on national security, they would probably have to adopt bad positions of hawkish rhetoric, ineffective diplomacy, and insufficient resources devoted to real problems. The Republicans are about largesse to interest groups at home in the interest of national security.

Truman was actually an amazing success at National Security when one considers all he accomplished - Martial Plan, Saving South Korea, building the alliances and infrasctructure necessary to contain Communism and eventually destroy it. He also was amazingly unpopular by the end of his final term and he did not establish the Democrats as Stronger on National Security than the Republicans. In many ways, Reagan was a disaster on National Security, particularly in his policies towards the Middle East, Central America, and South America, but he talked tough and got to be known as "strong" on National Security. Bush's father and Clinton both accomplished a lot in National security terms, but they were not viewed as strong. Bush II has been a TRUE DISASTER in almost every respect, but he is perceived as "strong". People who care about national security need to think critically about how they can achieve good national security, but still win elections.

"the hoi polloi" Hoi Polloi includes the article within itself. While "the" hoi polloi is acceptable English, I would expect a Harvard elistist to flaunt his language skills a little more agrressively and abandon the "the".

Posted by: MDtoMN | Dec 2, 2004 1:13:40 PM

Perhaps the reason MoveOn and other Democratic leaning organizations don't see the importance of the "war on terrorism" is that there really isn't any such war. Certainly, even if one agrees that a "war on terrorism" is justified, that doesn't excuse invading Iraq, which never did engage in any terrorism against the US. And, we have to be talking about terrorism against the US and the US only, or we have to engage ourselves in war, since we were the terrorist nation that supported terrorism against certain Central American countries not so long ago. Now, about "totalitarian Islamism", pray tell why should we be concerned if a Islamic country decides to have a totalitarian government? And, how is it better for that totalitarian government to be imposed on them by the US, as we have done in Iraq? Come on people, the only justification for use of the US military is to protect the US or to protect US allies. And, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq threatened either the US or our allies.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Dec 2, 2004 1:17:02 PM

I would expect a Harvard elistist to flaunt his language skills a little more agrressively and abandon the "the".

Elitist is an orientation, not a status. Being an elitist -- even from Harvard -- doesn't actually make you elite. Although most elitists are elitists because they also think of themselves as elite; just as support for any type of limited effective franchise is generally concentrated among those who view themselves as being in the class to which effective franchise would be limited.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 2, 2004 1:19:12 PM

Beinart is fairly accurate when stating: Today, however, the U.S. labor movement is largely disconnected from the war against totalitarian Islam, even though independent, liberal-minded unions are an important part of the battle against dictatorship and fanaticism in the Muslim world.

There are several reasons, though, for this.

The first is that the United States is not involved in war against totalitarian Islam.

This is evidenced by the fact that the current US administration has more than once praised the totalitarian, religiously repressive, anti-democratic Saudi regime for its alleged progress toward "democracy".

The second is that, unlike the USSR and its attempts at world Communist rebellion, which as a key component of its global strategy targetted labor and coopted unions worldwide -- including in the US -- and used those it could and sought to use others as tools for spreading their "revolution" which wound up, again, fostering an elite class and repressing workers even more harshly than any but the worst of the "capitalist" (often, in fact, either pre-capitalist [in the developing world] or mixed [in the developed world]) systems they replaced or sought to replace, neither "totalitarian Islam" nor the actual enemies (al-Qaeda, Taliban remnants, or Iraqi insurgents) the US is fighting are a particular problem for international labor or labor organizations, or for US unions in particular.

So there isn't a whole lot of reasons for the unions, collectively, to take a leading role in fighting (or marshalling support for) either any hypothetical war against totalitarian Islam, or the actual war the US is fighting against al-Qaeda, remnants of the Taliban, and insurgents in Iraq.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 2, 2004 1:28:19 PM

"The amount of insult and betrayal those on the liberal-to-left spectrum
will take seems to have few limits, if any. Below, we survey one
election’s worth of pre- and post-election betrayal from the Democratic
Party. By the end, we hope that rank-and-file Democrats and their
Anybody But Bush (ABB) election year sympathizers agree that the time
has arrived for all those that abandoned their movements in 2004 to root
for John Kerry to now abandon the Democrats on the national level and
join radical reformers and others working outside of the Party’s
stifling structure. Change will not come within this corrupt political

Liberalism and Its Bounds: Election 2004, an Epic Betrayal


Posted by: aaa | Dec 2, 2004 1:29:24 PM

I dunno. It seems a bit of a stretch to create a movement to get unions hyper concerned about reform in the "muslim world." Deliberately making this unnatural link in order to create more dem voters strikes me as a tad dishonest. It would be more in keeping with union missions to create greater concern about sweatshop labor in third world countries, stregthening American manufacturing competitiveness through healthcare reform, and the like.

Union membership has been decreasing every year for decades, although there are small gains in a few areas. Increasing dem attention to what's left with motives only related to increasing dem voters is crass. The dems are, or were, or should be, the party that is most concerned with protecting the American worker, with helping the low and middle income groups obtain their rightful share of the pie. I'd like to see dems reclaim this role and take actions like stopping the loss of "worker" power on the Labor Relations Board, and making sure that laws regarding union forming activities are enforced. We should increase awareness of how unions can assist in keeping American businesses honest and fair.

Yes, there are historical horror stories of union corruption, but remember the union's role in the American Airlines mess last year. When attempting to get costs down, the American Airlines unions agreed to salary and benefit cuts to help the company survive with the understanding that all employees would be affected. It was the union that discovered that top executives were not only lying about cutting their salaries, they were giving each other outrageous bonuses. This discovery by the union was a service to the company, to its employees and to the shareholders.
I'm going a bit off topic here, but there is a great role for modern unions in this country to help temper the more outrageous of CEO excesses, and to help keep the American middle class strong. Diverting some of their energy to reforming the muslim world is a bad idea when s many reforms are needed here. There are other groups better suited to that type of role.

Posted by: martin | Dec 2, 2004 1:29:56 PM

"And, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq threatened either the US or our allies."

Kuwait was and is our ally, ditto Israel.

The Taliban gave aid and comfort to a terrorist group which committed an act of war on American soil (along with various other attacks on Americans and American allies abroad).

Posted by: Achillea | Dec 2, 2004 1:32:35 PM

Let's see now, in the Cold War American unions joined with the CIA to destroy unions in foreign countries. As a result, manufacturing left for sunnier climes where...THERE WERE NO UNIONS. Now, to our amazement, the union movement has declined in tandem with the loss of blue-collar jobs.

Now Matt would like the unions to join in a "response to Islamism". As a union man, I consider it much more important for unions to join in a response to capitalism. I don't see where unions should get in any kind of religious fight, and I'm sure most union members would agree on that.

Matt, if you think the hoi-polloi have such bad taste, why not join the technocratic elite in Fragh-Yur-Ass City, formerly known as Baghdad. I hear the CPA hired a lot of real blue-bloods who had the usual qualifications for being part of the elite: NONE.

Posted by: serial catowner | Dec 2, 2004 1:40:07 PM

It surely was convenient that the internal politics of the unions matched the foreign policy conflict of the time, but it's unlikely that it this will be repeated. It's also noticeable that the main conservative interest groups on the "radical islamism" issue is the pro-Israel lobby. It's simply uncommon to have large interest groups on foreign policy issues, unless there is a very visible connection between their welfare and foreign policy.

Posted by: Carlos | Dec 2, 2004 1:41:03 PM

Count me in among the "soft." Terrorism is not the primary threat to the future of Western society. By that I am not saying we don't need an effective response to it, but that our current fixation causes us to ignore other more important problems. As far as I can tell, Beinart would condemn me for lacking the fixation. It is not enough that I merely acknowledge the problem.

9/11 has been interpreted as a sign of worse things to come, but I think you could equally interpret it as something more like a 100-year-storm in actuarial terms. Clearly, the US has and will continue to have enemies who want to carry out attacks of this magnitude. We can and will protect ourselves almost all the time, but in infrequent cases, we will fail catastrophically to do so either through our fallibility or through chance event. I hope we learn and improve, but it is unrealistic to expect we will ever have immunity to catastrophic asymmetric attacks.

Though I know it's unfashionable--and maybe a sign of my age--I still think that nuclear warheads, the real McCoy such as made by the US and former Soviet Union, are about the only human-controlled scenario (i.e. ruling out a comet impact) likely to bring a swift end our species. Jury-rigged "dirty" bombs won't do it, and even small fission bombs made by non-state groups are too small to harm more than a city.

On a regional level, the prospect of an India/Pakistan nuclear conflict probably scares me the most. This would be a nightmare all out of proportion to what you can do by hijacking some planes. It's sheer myopia to think it's too far away to affect us in the US.

I also don't think that intentional violence is the greatest threat to human life. More lives have been lost to AIDS than to terrorism--orders of magnitude more. I think the human effect on the environment is beyond dispute, whether or not "global warming" is a good term for it. I expect losses of fishing stock and desertification to occur. This will kill more people than terrorists.

To get back to the domestic fixation of Democrats, there is just no question that the quality of life for many Americans is in jeopardy, and the reason has nothing to do with terrorism. The quality for a large plurality is probably improving by many measures, which makes it a tough sell. The Bush economy, for instance, was just lovely if you had a mortgage to refinance--uh, and a job.

The impact of all the above is in practice more severe than terrorism, and when I see people using the "War on Terror" as a justification for ignoring these and other problems, I have trouble keeping my head from exploding. So that's me, I'm a real softie, and heaven help us all if the only way to say the Democratic party is to reorganize it around the principle that terrorism is the one fundamental problem facing us in the 21st century.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Dec 2, 2004 1:43:29 PM

Mr. Yglesias,

I agree completely that the Democratic party base that includes its technocratic elite needs a change of heart with respect to national security.

One positive step you could personally take would be, as a Harvard alumnus, to press for the restoration of ROTC to Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League where it has mostly been excluded.

Posted by: luisalegria | Dec 2, 2004 1:47:15 PM

"The recent election only underscores what the data has been showing since the Reagan era: white voters, especially men, are far more likely to vote for Democrats when they are union members than when they are not (and this includes problematic subgroups like gun owners and pro-life advocates)."

Unions are also far more prevalent in blue states. Let's take an example of 40 families living in the same neighborhood in South Boston. 10 of the 40 families have a member in a union. Yet all 40 of the families are voting democrat. How can you really distinguish the union influence on voting in traditional heavy blue areas? (Truly, though, in a neighborhood like this there are probably a couple of Reagan dems who quietly voted for Bush. shh, don't tell Sean who is still pissed about the Air Traffic) Controller's thing)

Posted by: Mac | Dec 2, 2004 1:49:01 PM

Is it any wonder that liberals can't get excited about the war on terror? It's not that we support terrorism (nor does Beinart's otherwise milquetoast article suggest that), or that we don't actively oppose it (as Beinart does say). The frequent analogies to the war on drugs are appropriate, not because the two real-word situations are similar, but because they are both situations to which war, metaphorical or no, is an appropriate response.

After (and not including) Afghanistan, almost every bellicose action taken by the Bush administration has been a demonstrable failure. The most common liberal position, and a highly defensible one, is that the war on terror, as currently prosecuted, has actually strengthened terrorism. So forgive liberals for not falling in line.

On the other hand, the Democrats' recent string of failures probably are largely attributable to their "softness" (to use Beinart's term) on Islamo-fascism. Liberals do need to cultivate a plan of action, but Beinart's apparent solution, get the unions involve, is quirky at best.

Posted by: Henry | Dec 2, 2004 2:05:26 PM

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 2, 2004 2:11:33 PM

If we take these local comments as representative of Democrats then how could the Democrats ever be taken seriously on national security? 1/3 of the commentors think global jihad is a rap group, 1/3 thinks that self-defense is saying "please don't hurt me" and the other 1/3 openly want the USA to lose every conflict outright.

Posted by: Warthog | Dec 2, 2004 2:16:03 PM

luisalegria: One positive step you could personally take would be, as a Harvard alumnus, to press for the restoration of ROTC to Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League where it has mostly been excluded.

A few of those Ivy League schools seem to be doing ok, ROTC-wise.

And anyway, there's hardly a huge stigma attached to being in those programs, among most reasonable circles. Speaking whereof I know (Dartmouth), an ROTC graduate (and current Army officer in Iraq) was featured (in glowing terms) on the cover of the Alumni Mag a few months ago.

So, perhaps, we needn't worry about the ROTC at the Ivies too much. Some of the kids who go to those schools are smart enough to figure out how to get into the military, if they really want to.

Posted by: foo | Dec 2, 2004 2:18:40 PM

I don't think it would be such a bad thing, if an important segment of the Democratic Party (like pretty much everyone to the left of Joe Lieberman) would reject the rhetoric of war, altogether. No "War" on drugs, No "War" on islamofascism, no "War" on poverty, even. Just say, "war" metaphors as the central strategic organizing principle, don't work well.

Iraq is the outstanding example. There, we actually had a war -- two of them actually, plus a coercive regime of sanctions in between -- and what did it get us?

What Iraq needed from the U.S. was not the bombs and the tanks -- though the bombs and the tanks were certainly useful against Saddam -- but, rather, support for building an economic and social infrastructure. They needed an honest administration of government, they needed a working electrical grid, they needed sewer systems and water systems, and traffic control. They needed medical care and a functioning educational system.

The U.S. pledged an $18 billion gift, which many Democrats in Congress demagogically opposed. That was a good thing, and only right, after we had spent a decade starving them and then a few weeks bombing them.

But, we haven't delivered. We did not deliver. Instead, we showed ignorance, hostility, incompetence and major league corruption. Three-quarters of the $18 billion will not be spent in Iraq, even if all the money is, eventually, spent. A large part will be diverted to "security" -- i.e. more war. An enormous portion will go to waste and corruption. Meanwhile, billions of Iraqi oil money have been similarly wasted.

And, of course, Iraq is a security nightmare, and most Iraqis hate us, with varying degrees of intensity. And, Iraq, as a country, is a mess, deteriorating in every respect.

Let the Democrats be builders and warriors and realists, not greedy, selfish, chickhawk morons, and that will be distinction enough from corrupt Republicans.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Dec 2, 2004 2:22:23 PM

Mr. Foo,

A few, true. And I understand that if someone really wants to go the ROTC route, there are options even in Harvard.

As a specific issue for any given student, I agree, this is not substantial.

As a gesture, however, it is. Harvard has a very high profile. This is a cultural problem and requires a cultural solution, where gestures are significant.

Posted by: luisalegria | Dec 2, 2004 2:26:07 PM

Speaking whereof I know (Dartmouth), an ROTC graduate (and current Army officer in Iraq) was featured (in glowing terms) on the cover of the Alumni Mag a few months ago.

The same was true of the Brown alumni mag a year or so ago. In the case of Brown, you can join ROTC, but you've got to get all the way across town to Providence College, at say 5 AM, to make it to ROTC. The University itself is really no help at all - they basically say: "if you want to, go ahead, there's Rhode Island bus stop down the block and that's the extent our participation."

Needless to say, there simply weren't that many ungrads who participated in ROTC when I was there in the late 80's/early '90's.

Posted by: Al | Dec 2, 2004 2:26:36 PM

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