Left, Right, Left, Right; Populism and Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

Foreign policy elites have been shaken by the unexpected rise of powerful social movements in the Arab world, coupled with the Tea Party "insurgency" in the United States. Assumptions of stable foreign and domestic equilibria seem to be in shambles. It is possible there may be a re-run of the 1950s, when domestic McCarthyism drove an aggressive military policy into quagmires first in Korea and ultimately in Vietnam. On the other hand, a progressive populism may awaken and develop into a powerful force, the beginning of which has already been observed in the popular Wisconsin reaction to Tea Party Republicans and the less-publicized immigrant rights revolt shaping the electoral politics of the southwestern United States.These rival energies are unpredictable, but one thing is clear: the center cannot hold. It is a time of realignment.

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For definitional purposes, a stable equilibrium is one managed by elites--corporations, government, the media, and the military. This is in direct contrast to one that is constantly riled by rising social movements or unpredictable crises, such as the current Japanese nuclear catastrophe.

The equilibrium of the Cold War was based on nuclear-armed power alliances abroad and an anti-communist consensus at home driven by the rise of McCarthy ism, a populist phenomenon similar to die contemporary Ten Party. McCarthyism was a nationalist, xenophobic response to the perceived threats of the Soviet Union and the Chinese communist-led revolution. In US politics, the accusation of being "soft on communism" became a powerful political theme, starting on the far right and soon spreading to both parties.

My parents were from Wisconsin, part or the new middle class. My father was a strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy and believed that threats to the United States came from conspiracies abroad and were connected to covert allies here at home. I grew up in the Roman Catholic parish of Father Charles Coughlin in Royal Oak, Michigan, who was the first populist preacher to employ radio broadcasts to the nation. Coughlin often railed against the communist menace, and once caused my teachers to weep as they listened over school radio to the forced farewell of General Douglas MacArthur, sacked by President Harry Truman because he wanted to launch a ground war against China. Father Coughlin was also allied with Henry Ford, the populist automaker who wanted to build an American Nazi Party.

This Cold War consensus crumbled away during the pressures of the 1960s. Unlike my father's generation, ours perceived that we had plenty of problems at home, starting with the crisis of Jim Crow. The FBI and southern segregationists accused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of being a communist agent, but the accusations flopped. Along with many others, I became a Freedom Rider on the front lines of a brutal conflict at home. From there, I would go on to become a door-knocking community organizer in Newark, New Jersey. The founding document of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, which I drafted, described the Cold War not as a necessary burden but as an obstacle to our future. The document opposed the Communist ideology and also rejected Cold War thinking because it minimized the importance of fighting racism and poverty at home. The Cold War imposed a military draft on all young men while denying us the right to vote. Cold War spending prioritized the military budget at the expense of jobs and investment in the inner cities. And, as Vietnam demonstrated, the proxy wars of the Cold War could be devastating to human life and natural environments. The great absurdity is that we lost the Vietnam War to the Vietnamese communists, yet we now enjoy diplomatic relations with them and share a strategic alliance against China.

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During and after the 1960s, a new movement dedicated to domestic priorities emerged, seeming to prevail over the dominant Cold War paradigm. …