DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'?

By David Brin, Ph.D.

After sharp Republican setbacks in two successive elections (2006 and 2008), the latest buzz is about a looming "re-alignment" in American politics. Will the new wave of politically active young voters stay energetic and vote Democratic by similar margins, in the future? If urbanization and rising education levels continue to make a difference, as they did in Virginia and North Carolina, does that bode ill for a Republican Party that paints itself increasingly as rural and anti-intellectual? Questions spin about, like tornado debris, in the election aftermath. But few are more interesting than this: can we expect a showdown between the many branches of conservatism?

You might think so, given recent apostasy by mavens of the right, as diverse as David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Colin Powell, Peggy Noonan, Kathleen Parker, Paul Craig Roberts, Jerry Pournelle, Scott McClellan, Paul O'Neill... and even that supreme rationalizer George F. Will. The ranks of Republican stalwarts who either called for the election of Barack Obama, or have urged fundamental re-evaluation of party principles, extends even to David Frum, Kenneth Adelman, Charles Fried and other outright neocons. Any list of rebels could fill a telephone book...

...as would a lineup of angry Republican diehards, heaping scorn upon those heretics. Is a forty year-old coalition poised to fall apart?

Emerging from the ashes of Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat, in 1964, leaders of the Republican Party executed a number of agile maneuvers aimed at regaining influence and power -- though at some cost of consistency and historic relevance. For starters, they took advantage of bitterness in the formerly Solid (Democratic) South, over the civil rights reforms pushed by Lyndon Johnson. Thereafter, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove successively labored to offer a 'big tent' home for anyone who shared a single common bond -- resentment toward meddlesome liberal progressivism. Sometimes aided by witless, patronizing gaffes on the far left, Republicans were able to forge a strange alliance:

  • between pinch-penny deficit hawks and supply side gamblers...
  • between bedroom-policing social reactionaries and libertarians...
  • between small town populists and that most elite of elites -- proto-feudal plutocrats.

The resulting melange was truly a sight to behold, like some sewn-together patchwork creature straight out of Mary Shelly. And the list of contradictions kept growing as the Big Conservative Tent:

  • united foreigner-hating xenophobes... and cosmopolitans with Cayman accounts, who moved their corporate HQs to Dubai...

  • linked those who look skeptically on all government ("classic liberals") ... to neoconservatives proclaiming an omnipotent presidency, subject only to the check of a quadrennial, validating plebescite...

  • stitched those who believe in competitive market forces... with elements who used "emergency" exemptions to grant their pals no-bid, crony deals to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars...

  • comingled defenders of military readiness... with adventurers who used the armed forces and reserves like disposable tissue...

  • while persuading tens of millions of sincere social conservatives to supply eager GOP ground troops, without ever advancing a single major item on their agenda.

It was never an easy coalition to maintain. Smoothing over these, and many other, internal contradictions required ever-greater feats of polemical distraction, generally aimed at a demonized "liberal" bogeyman that kept expanding till it encompassed all of urban America and most of the professional classes, in a militant spiral known as Culture War. While this alienated most sober pragmatists and those in the country with the most knowledge -- erasing and then reversing what had been a Republican advantage in average education levels -- that only seemed to encourage a growing anti-intellectual fury on rightwing talk radio, distracting millions from a growing list of inconsistencies and diametrically opposite contradictions in what "conservatism" was supposed to stand for.

Let's admit, it worked for a long time, giving the GOP a lock on American national politics. Until, eventually, the nation got fed up.

Now? Any close look at the 2008 electoral map suggests a bleak prospect for the Republican Party. In order for the Rovean patchwork monster to come shambling back, there appears to be one hope alone -- for the presidency of Barack Obama to fail. And when a party is reduced to that kind of "hope," perhaps it is time for some re-evaluation.

[image from Marshall Foundation]

Can it be good to schism?

An alternative for honest and patriotic conservatives might be to go back to the drawing board. Instead of stitching up Karl Rove's coalition one more time, let it sunder, casting off the portions that have made today's GOP resemble the infamous 19th century Know Nothing Party.

That might seem suicidal at first, since any political movement that schisms will obviously get smaller, for a time. But, as it happens, there is a highly pertinent example -- straight out of history -- of this approach working. Sixty years ago, another great American political party faced its own crisis of contradictions. And, at a crucial moment, the liberal movement chose to grow stronger and better, by divorcing its fanatical wing.

On January 4, 1947, in a meeting at Washington's Willard Hotel, 130 men and women gathered to meet a challenge posed by Joseph and Stewart Alsop, columnists for The New Republic, who warned that liberals "consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West." Unless that changed, they argued, "In the spasm of terror which will seize this country ... it is the right -- the very extreme right -- which is most likely to gain victory."

Attendees, who included philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, journalist Arthur Schlesinger Jr., economist John Kenneth Galbraith, labor leader Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, announced the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), declaring that, "the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," and therefore America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." Moreover, to do that would require recognition that communism was an aggressive danger to liberty, and that the Soviet Union was the era's dangerously expansive, despotic empire, one that must be contained.

"At the time, the ADA's was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress."

That paragraph was penned by arch-conservative author Peter Beinart, in "An Argument for a New Liberalism," an essay redolent with irony, because his intent was to demand that today's liberals and democrats cut themselves off from a fringe of pathetic campus socialists. In itself, that argument was easy to shrug off -- today's few dogmatic leftists are only relevant in that they serve as convenient betes noirs for Fox News. But what I found stunning, back in 2004 when Beinart wrote his piece, and even more so today, is how the lesson of 1947 is far more relevant to today's Republican Party than to contemporary Democrats:

"The ADA was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S. Truman's March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion."

Beinart rightly points out how nervous the American left felt in those days, about Truman's evolving doctrine. Many Democrats still clung to romantic images of the USSR, leftover from our anti-fascist alliance, or even earlier. Yet, things were rapidly changing. The wholesale murder of scores of East European trade unionists stoked fury among hard-boiled members of the AFL-CIO. Moreover, having learned from refugees the truth about Stalin's purges, many liberals were finally able to cut through the propaganda of socialist mouthpieces like The Worker and Forward -- the pre-McCarthy versions of Hannity and Limbaugh, in their day. As Beinart puts it --

"...over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA's help, Truman crushed Wallace's third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republic broke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write in The Vital Center: 'Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped ... by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism.'

Of course, what Beinart fails to mention is that Truman faced even more resistance from Taft, Vandenberg and other top members of the Republican establishment. Some wanted a return to pre-war isolationism. Others insisted on direct and immediate military confrontation with the Soviet behemoth, a thuggish, macho set-to, sure to trigger cataclysm. No, if support for assertive but calm patriotism were to come from anywhere, it wouldn't be the right.

[image from OECD]

When Democrats bit the bullet

Indeed, it was at first quite hard for Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall -- then Dean Acheson -- to get any sort of American consensus behind their far-seeing approach -- one aimed at striking a patient but determined balance, firmly resisting Communist expansionism while calmly avoiding provocations of Russian paranoia. In time, however, Democrats rallied behind it, and immediate results ranged from the Marshall Plan to NATO. Once it was ratified by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, the policy of assertive. but patient containment of communism proved (aside from grievous errors like Vietnam) to be sane, mature and sensible enough to save us all.*

This shift of liberalism also affected the domestic agenda, turning our national argument away from some abstract and divisive ideological or class struggle, toward focusing on specific, incremental reforms. Step by pragmatic step, this approach propelled a transformation of our evolving consensus about ourselves and our very character, in realms of civil rights, womens' rights, environmentalism and dozens of other areas. It was never easy and the sultry allure of indignant dogma never went away. But now, there can no longer be any doubt -- in the recent election of Barack Obama, we see proof that incremental-but-determined, pragmatic progressivism ultimately accomplished far more than doctrinal manifestos. And it all began at the Willard Hotel, in January 1947.

No one should minimize how difficult this adjustment was back then, for many sincere Democrats. Despite left-wing schisms that went back to the Spanish Civil War... and FDR's insightful 1944 replacement of Wallace with Truman in the Vice Presidency... there were still strong bonds of friendship and camaraderie between liberals and socialists, from past struggles against robber barons and strikebreakers. It took both courage and hard re-appraisal to cut those bonds. It wasn't painless. But the Democrats of that era bit hard on the bullet.

What soon grew evident, to the surprise of many, was that it was also a politically smart move! Despite having just cast off a large part of their base, Democrats actually improved the prospects of President Harry Truman, leading to his surprise re-election the following year. It can also be argued that, by seizing high ground at the middle, they forced the Republicans, in 1952, to nominate centrist Dwight Eisenhower, a historic and crucial step toward forging the national consensus that survived every subsequent political whirl and gyre.

That is, until the right went mad. And so, it became the turn of conservatives. To choose.

[image from free territory Trieste]

Now conservatism must pick reason and moderation

Is the Miracle of 1947 an example to inspire sincere, pragmatic and truly patriotic conservatives at this moment of crisis in their movement? For starters, is it fair to compare portions of the Rovean Coalition to communism and Stalin's USSR?

One could make a strong case. Certainly, when it comes to indisputable damage to U.S. world leadership status, international popularity, economic and fiscal health, military readiness, or almost any other measure, Stalin never wrought anywhere near as much palpable harm to America as has been accomplished under neocon rule. And that doesn't include the immeasurable damage done to our society through the outright treason of Culture War.

Moreover, the very definition of conservatism has gradually been pushed into territory that would seem bizarre to Barry Goldwater... or even Cotton Mather. Take the puritan ethos of avoiding needless extravagance. How did liberals become the party of "waste-not" and "a stitch, in time" and "cleanliness is next to godliness"? How did the conservative virtues of prudence, accountability, courtesy, patience, public-mindedness and a keen eye for cause-and-effect somehow transmogrify into their diametric opposites? And didn't Adam Smith warn that free markets have a universal enemy -- aristocratic crony-cheaters -- that wrecks competition far more surely than socialism ever can?

Foremost, in a competitively technological world: since when have conservatives become brazenly proud of despising science, skill, negotiation and accomplishments of intellect? Or even good manners? As they come to realize how badly conservatism has been suborned, hijacked, distracted and riven by contradictions, those who still believe in the version offered by Wilkie, Dewey, Eisenhower, Goldwater and Adam Smith will have to choose. Shall they participate in yet another effort to stitch a shambling and discredited Frankenstein Creature back together again?

Or might they gather the courage and patriotism to bite down and do what those "craven, wishy-washy liberals" found the guts to do, back in '47? Cutting all ties to the know-nothings, the anti-future troglodytes, klepto thieves, secrecy junkies, and aristocratic would-be lords who are every bit as dangerous to freedom and markets and enlightened civilization as communism ever was?

Will the seminal election of 2008 be followed by civil war within the Republican Party? The players seem to be lining up.

Probably not.

Yet, if money were at stake, I would have to bet against it happening.

For one thing, Rupert Murdoch, the neocon think tanks, and those house "libertarians" at the Cato Institute are already hard at work, sewing polemical sutures in order to hold the grand amalgam of contradictions together, offering a raft of never-proved assertions and rationalizations ("liberals are even worse!"). In the November 24, 2008, issue of Newsweek, Dr. Frankenstein himself -- Karl Rove -- labored mightily with needle and thread, offering a list of things that the Republican Party must do in order to "embrace both tradition and reform." But laced through every paragraph was a core message that there are no portions of his Big Tent Coalition that should be dropped. No realignment of priorities or strategic changes of position. No contradictions to resolve. The elephant must stay intact, as-is! A little mascara, some lipstick, maybe a few months of superficial cooperation with a popular president (while hoping that he fails)... but leave in charge all of the elements that have led both party and nation to a dismal state.

In making this appeal, Rove is aided by the most-defining trait of conservatism -- one that still crosses all categories, like sinew holding every part of the movement together -- nostalgia. No group will want to stand outside the tent, for the time it takes to build something new.

(Another element at work: gerrymandered districts tend to increase the radicalism of Congressional representatives, making them less inclined toward respectful deliberation.)

And so, as they have done so often in the past, you can be sure the libertarians and fiscal adults and responsible internationalist-conservatives -- those who claim to still believe in science and openness and pragmatism and competitive enterprise and rational argument -- will knuckle under, yet again.

Another safe bet? It will be claimed that John McCain's relative centrist moderation was at fault for the defeat of a ticket insufficiently dedicated to its base, even though McCain was chosen by rank and file Republicans, during a grueling primary process, precisely because he seemed much less a partisan, "red meat" kind of guy. The one thing that kept the race as close as it was? McCain's maverick willingness to accuse his own party of having lost its way. In other words, the largest bloc of Republican voters have already spoken, if party leaders are willing to hear. In both the primaries and the general election, the call was for a return to pragmatism.

[image from suite101.com]

Let's hope they try

No one ever said it would be easy to fight for a chastened and rational conservatism -- one that is no longer misled by crooks and crazies. Life wasn't easy, either, for the Democrats of 1947. But they kept faith with the moderate spirit of our American wing of the Enlightenment. And liberalism has -- for all its ups and downs -- stayed relevant to this day.

I'll be frank, I wish the equivalent wing of the Republican Party well. I hope they'll find the strength and sense of duty to meet this challenge. We need a party that stands up -- in positive ways -- for nongovernmental problem-solving. If enough sincere, moderate conservatives were to stand up, their movement might yet earn an important place, once again, in American politics. And -- as if embracing a prodigal son -- many of us would welcome grownup conservatism back to our nation's dinner table conversation about the future.

If that happens, the only sure loser will be Culture War. And we can turn our eyes again to making a better tomorrow. And phase three of the struggle that started at Fort Sumter will finally be at an end.


* It might be worth noting how dismal it is for conservatives to give all the credit for "winning the Cold War" to Ronald Reagan. In fact, he merely rushed the end game (at some risk to all our lives) in an overall strategy that went back to Marshall. Those familiar with the concept of parallel worlds should note that we live in one in which the Soviets, under Gorbachev, remained the calm ones, for a change, adapting and giving in with uncharacteristic flexibility, instead of diving into reflex paranoia and even nuclear spasms -- the likely outcome on most nearby worlds. return