Missing the Movement
Liberalism is the American version of social democracy, but it lacks a strong working-class base, party discipline, and ideological self-consciousness. None of these are in the offing, but we need to be aware of what we are missing, and we need to begin at least the intellectual work of making up for it. European social democrats are on the defensive right now, but they have a lot to defend. Liberals here are in catch-up mode, and not doing all that well. We know more or less what we have to do, but we haven’t managed to give the American people a brightly colored picture of the country we would like to create. There is a lot of wonkishness on the liberal left, among American social democrats, but not much inspiration. We haven’t found the words and images that set people marching. As an old leftist, I can talk (endlessly) about citizenship, equality, solidarity, and our responsibility to future generations, but someone much younger than I am has to put all this in a language that resonates with young Americans–and describe a “city upon a hill” that may or may not be the same hill that I have been climbing all these years.
Both liberalism and social democracy are most successful as domestic ideologies. But we also need a doctrine that provides guidelines for foreign policy. Here are the deepest divisions among American liberals–they go back to Vietnam, but they have been reshaped and reinforced by the Bosnia and Kosovo interventions (out of which the “liberal hawks” emerged) and then by Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Bush years, a group of liberal diplomats, political scientists, and public intellectuals worked out an approach to foreign policy that they called “liberal internationalism.” It is a pretty good approach, I think, but it needs a lot more work before liberals and leftists will be able to speak clearly and coherently about military intervention, democracy promotion, foreign aid, global justice, security against terrorism, and the limits of sovereignty. Obama began this work in his Nobel speech, where he defended the use of force, addressing himself to very reluctant Europeans, and insisted on the moral limits of that use, speaking, this time, to his own people.
For some reason, perhaps because of the legacy of World War II, during the Truman years liberals did pretty well governing a great power. We haven’t done well since. Many liberals believe that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy–and they are right to this extent: that a more egalitarian America would be a stronger and more influential America. But then we have to learn to use our strength and influence internationally, in a long struggle, which is only sometimes military, more often political, and always ideological, for liberalism and democracy.
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