A case for the New Liberalism

I am what historians call a Cold War liberal. I believe in the absolute necessity of both a muscular foreign policy and an ambitious domestic agenda designed to help all Americans, not just those suffering under the burden of high dividend taxes. Some people might say this particular vantage-point lost all it’s relevance after the Vietnam War and the implosion of the Democratic Party at the Chicago Convention in 1968.

But I’d disagree; in fact, I think that Cold War liberalism could provide a wellspring of renewal for a Democratic Party currently divided between timid Clintonites and ossified left-wingers. It’s time for a new burst of self-assured, patriotic liberalism, a chance to finally bury the election of 1988, when “liberal” became “the l-word” – an epithet. It should once again be shouted in acclamation.

It’s important to note from the start that I’m not arguing for the tired orthodoxy of so many who describe themselves as “liberal” but are in actuality leftist. Williams is a beacon of this kind of politics, of the belief that opposition to a Republican administration automatically makes a liberal. It doesn’t. For me, liberals are fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of human nature and self-government.

But when you look at many of those who today profess liberalism, optimism is the last thing you’ll find. Instead, one is more likely to be struck by the self-regarding contempt for the American people, who after all are so much less civilized than Europeans and the editors of The Nation, and have actually been stupid enough to support this idiot-in-chief – or so the accusation goes. But it remains merely that: an accusation, one of the many political sneers the left has adopted in order to compensate for a worldview increasingly unpopular with Americans.

So if the Sixties Left is defunct, what does the new liberalism look like? Two examples come to mind: Thomas Friedman and the West Wing. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, is all about using American power to create a more humane, decent and democratic world. This means nation building, a process the Bush administration has yet to fully embrace. Perhaps equally important, Friedman believes in the importance of responsibly handling global crises that extend beyond military affairs: namely, energy and the environment. How can we assume our rightful position of moral leadership, he asks, if we are unwilling to make the smallest sacrifice concerning oil or emissions?

Or take the West Wing. It, like Friedman, is fundamentally optimistic about the prospects for American democracy. Its fictional President, Jed Bartlett, supports left-of-center reforms at home like campaign finance reform while never shrinking from striking out at those whose antipathy to freedom places them on a collision course with the United States. His willingness to use military force separates him from the “All Appeasement, All the Time” crowd who have come to dominate the left.

One columnist and a television show may seem like a hazy basis for a new political movement. But I think there’s something there. There’s a reason both Friedman and the West Wing are so popular. The things they say, hopeful things about who we are as a people and where we can go if only we try and dream hard enough, resonate deeply. There’s something Kennedy-esque, something almost intoxicating about the idea of a great society at home and a great coalition for liberty abroad.

This was the assumption that dominated American politics from FDR to LBJ, and there’s no reason it can’t dominate again. Indeed, a worldview which postulates that the federal government can actually do good might strike new and deep chords in the post-Sept. 11 era, when each of us relies on the work of Big Government each day to provide protection from terrorist threats. Suddenly Newt Gingrich and his acolytes, with their disdain for Washington, D.C., seem anachronistic.

In terms of economics, the stage is set for a rejection of the pro-business, pro-wealthy policies of the Bush administration. Put aside, for a moment, the profoundly illogical Bush tax cut, and consider the increased necessity of strict government regulation of business in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and the rest of that coterie of corporate crooks.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. has suggested that we have entered into a new era in which big business is regarded with some hostility by the average man or woman, as opposed to the ’80s and ’90s, when C.E.O.s seemed invested with superhuman glamour. If Dionne’s right, then a liberalism which calls for the taming of corporate power might find a broad swell of support among Americans.

I realize that this is a fragmentary sketch rather than an in-depth treatise, and for any confusion that results I apologize. With this said, however, I think the basic features of what I call the New Liberalism are clear: at home, a determination to use the power of the Federal Government to make life better for all Americans; abroad, moral clarity and the willingness to use U.S. military might to strike at those forces – terrorists networks, rogue states – which threaten the generally beneficent world order over which America presides.

It contends, like Friedman and President Bartlett, that America is a force for good in human affairs, and never shrinks from the responsibility such a position entails. These were the guiding principles of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy; we would do well to remember their applicability in 2003.