The Magazine

The War for Liberalism

From the April 7, 2003 issue: American liberalism is in a dangerous predicament.

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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WE'VE LEARNED at least two things in the first nine days of the Second Gulf War. The American people are fine. American liberalism is not.

Here's the good news about the American people: They're not affected by the silly mood swings of much of the media. Americans outside newsrooms and TV studios understand that wars are often difficult and usually unpredictable. They know that totalitarian regimes do not fall easily. They grasp the fact that lots of military decisions are judgment calls, and that there's not much point paying attention to instant second-guessing. And they believe that the events of the war so far--the Baathist war crimes, the care in the use of force by the American military--confirm the depravity of Saddam's regime, and the justice of America's cause.

Our pro-war friends who are concerned about the mainstream media's idiocy can relax. It's not really doing any damage--except to the media. Every poll shows the American people are resolute, convinced the war is necessary and just, and determined to see it through to the end. As long as the Bush administration continues to focus all its attention on winning the war, it will have the support of the American people.

What of American liberalism? It is in the process of undergoing one of its once-in-a-generation splits. In 1948, the American left divided between Harry Truman's anti-Communists and Henry Wallace's fellow travelers. Luckily, the split turned out to be overwhelmingly one-sided, and American liberalism more or less ejected the Henry Wallace faction from its ranks.

Twenty-four years later, a Wallace supporter, George McGovern, captured the Democratic nomination for president. Now, the hawkish Scoop Jackson faction found itself on the losing side. Cold War liberals became an ever smaller minority through the 1970s, eventually departing the Democratic party and the ranks of modern liberalism.

Today, three decades later, after a Clintonian interregnum which papered over ideological differences, American liberalism is in the process of dividing again, into the Dick Gephardt liberals and the Dominique de Villepin left.

The Gephardt liberals are patriots. They supported the president in the run-up to this war, and strongly support the war now that it has begun. It would be misleading to call this group the Joe Lieberman liberals, because he was already too much of a hawk to be representative, but the group certainly includes Lieberman. It also includes Hillary Rodham Clinton, probably a majority of Senate Democrats, less than half of the House Democrats, Democratic foreign policy experts at places like the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, and a smaller number of liberal commentators and opinion leaders--most notably the Washington Post editorial page.

The other group includes the Teddy Kennedy wing of the Senate Democrats, the Nancy Pelosi faction of the House Democrats, a large majority of Democratic grass-roots activists, the bulk of liberal columnists, the New York Times editorial page, and Hollywood. These liberals--better, leftists--hate George W. Bush so much they can barely bring themselves to hope America wins the war to which, in their view, the president has illegitimately committed the nation. They hate Don Rumsfeld so much they can't bear to see his military strategy vindicated. They hate John Ashcroft so much they relish the thought of his Justice Department flubbing the war on terrorism. They hate conservatives with a passion that seems to burn brighter than their love of America, and so, like M. de Villepin, they can barely bring themselves to call for an American victory.

It would be bad for America if this wing of American liberalism were to prevail. Parts of the Republican party, and of the conservative movement, fell into a similar trap in the late 1990s, hating Bill Clinton more than Slobodan Milosevic. But this wing of the GOP and conservatism lost in an intra-party and intra-movement struggle, and has now been marginalized--Pat Buchanan is no longer a Republican, and his magazine these days makes common cause with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. The fight over the future of liberalism is not one conservatives can really join. But we can wholeheartedly cheer from the sidelines for the Gephardt liberals against their anti-American leftist rivals, hoping that they succeed in saving the (mostly) good name of liberalism.

--William Kristol