Friday, July 3, 2009

Reclaiming Liberal Patriotism

On November 4, 2008, I fell in love. I fell in love with the United States of America.

As I may have mentioned on other posts, I am part of the baby-boom generation, born in the early 1950s. I hid under my desk in elementary school during the Cuban Missile Crisis while my teacher casually mentioned that an H-bomb dropped on the Empire State Building would melt steel in Hackensack (our school was a lot closer to the Empire State Building than it was to Hackensack). I went to college in the early 1970s and learned about what had happened to people like Mossadeq, Juan Bosch and Allende. I watched the assassinations, marched in antiwar rallies (Vietnam and later Iraq), lived through Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 election and you-know-who's Presidency that came after that. It often occurred to me that Noam Chomsky seemed to be making some good points about the evil America had perpetrated in the world.

Then came November 4, 2008. I spent the day volunteering as a Democratic legal observer at a polling place in a blue-collar district near Scranton, Pennsylvania. There wasn't much to observe. Everything went very smoothly, very peacefully. I would say that 90+% of the voters appeared to be white, working-class people.

That night I came home with my family, and was moved to tears by the results of the election. I happened to go online to see what the results had been in the district where I had been working as a poll watcher. Obama got more than two-thirds of the vote.

That was the United States of America I fell in love with. It was the same United States of America that had been there all my life, but I don't think I fully appreciated it before. Did America change or did I? Probably a little bit of both.

I have been reading a great deal about FDR's Presidency lately. My wife, son and I always make it a point to attend the annual Reading Festival at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, NY (our daughter joined us this year, my sister-in-law and her husband joined us last year). I recommend it highly.

In particular, I have become fascinated by FDR's foreign policy and his vision for America's role in the postwar world. A couple of years ago, one of the speakers in Hyde Park was Elizabeth Borgwardt, whose outstanding book, A New Deal For The World, was a real eye-opener. This year there were some excellent presentations on FDR's foreign policy by David Woolner, co-author of FDR's World, and by Christopher O'Sullivan, author of a new biography of Sumner Welles, Under Secretary of State during World War II and an influential architect of many of FDR's policies during the war.

FDR's vision of America's role in the world was best expressed in his incredibly moving "Four Freedoms" speech, namely, the belief that America must dedicate itself to the promotion and protection of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Most importantly, FDR emphasized that these freedoms are the birthright of every person in the world, not just Americans. The concept was, and is, revolutionary. One person who was inspired by FDR's speech was an aspiring young South African lawyer named Nelson Mandela.

FDR's vision of the postwar world was more than just pie-in-the sky platitudes. FDR's thinking specifically differed from Wilsonian idealism in that it attempted to find grounding not just in theoretical structures and diplomatic organizations, but in the practicalities of real life. In particular, FDR understood that economic liberalism - a New Deal for the world - was essential to the implementation of his ideas. In a way, FDR's concept of America's role in the postwar world could be summed up as Wilson plus Keynes. FDR's vision stood on three pillars: free trade, anti-colonialism, and multilateralism.

There was also a fourth pillar underlying FDR's program having to do with the domestic politics of the US. FDR was committed to bipartisan consensus as the basis for achieving popular support for his program. It was not just FDR's war cabinet that was decidedly bipartisan. FDR recruited prominent Republicans such as Arthur Vandenberg to help implement his program for the postwar world. In other words, FDR's vision was not distinctly Democratic or Republican - it was American.

As I have studied FDR's vision of America's role in the world, it occurred to me that it reminds me a lot of the America I fell in love with on November 4, 2008. How could I have missed it for most of my life?

The Cold War did a great deal to undermine FDR's dream of a new world order predicated on the implementation of the Four Freedoms. The Cold War in turn had an enormous, and very negative, impact on US domestic politics. What had been the isolationism that had destroyed Wilson's dreams for a system of world peace after World War I, morphed into the McCarthyism and fanatical anti-communism that destroyed any hope for either bipartisanship in domestic politics or multilateral cooperation in international affairs. Indeed, David Woolner commented in his recent talk that the American ideological strain that had fought Wilson was never truly isolationist, but is more accurately described as unilateralist. What Wilson's opponents preyed upon in order to shoot down the League of Nations treaty was not so much an American desire to be isolated from the rest of the world, but a desire to preserve America's freedom to act unilaterally, based upon a suspicion of other countries and an unwillingness to commit the US to act in a cooperative fashion with the rest of the world.

Unilateralism was what made America's behavior so objectionable in the post-World War II era. When America becomes unilateralist, it can become very ugly. That is the America I protested against for its unilateral acts of aggression in Vietnam and Iraq.

Just as the Cold War opened the floodgates to American unilateralism under the guise of anti-communism, so too did it divert the US from FDR's vision of America as a bastion of anti-colonialism. Vietnam was the clearest manifestation of this. The US committed itself to the restoration of French rule in Indochina, even though the French had sided with the Japanese during World War II and Ho Chi Minh had carried on a guerrilla war against both the Japanese and the French. Woolner's book suggests that although the record is not clear on the point, FDR, had he lived, might well have pushed for a stronger anti-French position in post-war Indochina. No matter - Ho Chi Minh was a communist and in the mindset of the Cold War, we had to defeat him. Anti-colonialism got put on the back burner. When the Vietnamese defeated the French, the US just stepped into their shoes. The Vietnamese saw no difference; the Americans had become the new colonialists. And while many Americans deluded themselves into thinking that we were fighting for freedom and democracy in Vietnam, it was the Vietnamese who had it right. We were really just fighting to prolong colonialism.

It was not just right-wing ideologies that were twisted by the Cold War; the ideologies of the Left also underwent a transformation, and in many ways, it was not a healthy one. Vietnam became a trigger for the belief that America could play no positive role in the world. All American military action, regardless of the purpose, came to be viewed as synonymous with aggression. The Left became champions of a new isolationism. We can hear this attitude today in the opposition by some on the Left not only against the war in Iraq, but against the war in Afghanistan as well. These attitudes on the Left carried over to economic policy, as a crude populism drifted towards economic nationalism. Free trade - the cornerstone of FDR's liberal economic world order - emerged as the bete noire of the Left. The Left became the opponent of globalization, and global economic development itself came to be viewed by many on the Left as nothing more than an excuse for profiteering by American corporations. The Right castigated the Left as the "blame America first crowd." I hate to say it, but the attack was not without basis.

The dream of bipartisan consensus collapsed. We became two Americas, one Red and one Blue. Partisanship became a blood sport. New media - talk radio, cable news, blogs - gave rise to a partisan atmosphere in which the notion of common ground became unthinkable.

That is, until November 4, 2008, and it became thinkable again. Those white folks I was keeping an eye on at the polling place in Scranton had voted overwhelmingly to elect a President named Barack Hussein Obama, whose mother was a white agnostic and whose father was a Muslim from Kenya. So too had a majority of the voters in Florida, and Virginia, and Indiana, and North Carolina - North Carolina for goodness sake! So too did every member of my family. Suddenly it became possible to believe in President Obama's vision of a country that was more than just a collection of warring Red States and Blue States, but instead, the United States of America.

President Obama has enormous substantive challenges ahead of him. We are in the deepest recession since the 1930s. Unemployment just went way up. Serious health care reform is no longer optional. We are in two wars. Al Qaeda is still out there.

But I believe that President Obama's greatest challenge transcends any substantive issue. He must rediscover FDR's vision for America and its role in the world and make it a reality. And we have to help him. We need to reclaim liberal patriotism.

It's not going to be easy. President Obama is coming under attack from both the Right and the Left. The attacks from the Right are to be expected, but the level of their viciousness almost defies belief. The attacks from some on the Left are almost as bad. Extreme partisanship has not only become a bad habit, it has become an industry. Many pundits of the Left and the Right do not want to see Americans work together, they do not want to admit of the possibility of common ground. Doing so would put them out of a job.

But there are bigger forces at work today than the insidious blather of partisan pundits. The peoples of the world stand on the brink of a new era, and it can be an era of peace, prosperity and freedom. There is no Cold War. In fact, there is no war at all among the major powers of the world and it is almost impossible to conceive of any danger of such a war arising in the foreseeable future. Economic development is on the march in China, India and Brazil. We can seriously talk about ending extreme poverty in the world. Technology has made interconnectedness and the free flow of ideas an unstoppable force. We have seen the rise of the spirit of liberty even in a country as rigid and authoritarian as Iran.

And notwithstanding everything America has done wrong in the past 50 years, much of the world still sees America as its beacon of hope. They see the America that I saw on November 4, 2008. They hear the words that inspired Mandela.

On this Fourth of July, I would like to salute my sister-in-law, a successful ob-gyn practitioner. She has gone to do volunteer work in a hospital in rural Kenya. She is one of the greatest patriots I know.

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