Rogue Notions: Democracy Is Still a Revolutionary Idea-That's the Problem

By Gottfried, Paul | The American Conservative, June 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

Rogue Notions: Democracy Is Still a Revolutionary Idea-That's the Problem


Gottfried, Paul, The American Conservative


IT WOULD BE WRONG to imagine that while Republicans are driven by their desire to transform those who are not like us politically and culturally, their Democratic opposition holds radically different premises. Both national parties, and even two publications with such supposedly opposing worldviews as National Review and The New Republic, engage in the same Wilsonian rhetoric, and both sides of the political center view foreign countries as places for trying out our progressive ideals. Both use the language of human rights, and both believe that if the U.S. is to be true to itself, it must export its values as a foreign-policy priority.

The values that we are urged to export, moreover, are coterminous with how democracy evolved in 20th-century society, with special emphasis on the treatment of women, minorities, and on a certain acquisitive individualism identified with the opening of markets and a mixed economy.

Where the center Left and center Right differ is in how much energy they would expend on such a world democratic mission and whether they would pursue their idealistic goals unilaterally or with other powers. Historian John Ehrmann in The Rise of the Neoconservatives makes the telling observation that during the Clinton administration, the architects of our present Republican foreign policy were generally upset by the lack of resolve in the president's handling of international relations. But these critics were pleased that Clinton and his foreign-policy team raised democratic ideals in public forums. And they mostly did not dissent in 1999, when Clinton provided impeccably Wilsonian reasons for bombing Serb forces in Kosovo. That act was justified as an expression of our commitment to human rights and to the fashioning of a pluralistic society in Kosovo.

There is, of course, no justification for thinking, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, that all of mankind yearns for the current brand of American democracy. Nonetheless, those who hold this position have advantages over their critics. They belong to the boards of influential magazines and prestigious Beltway institutes. They are therefore more likely to get their views and biases accepted as policy than those who are kept out of the public discussion. Moreover, the manner in which American history is now presented in public education and the media glorifies powerful and expanded executive government. The presidents whom educators, popular historians, and journalists place in their pantheon have combined strong economic control with grand military crusades for globalist, egalitarian ideals.

While this precedent has certainly not helped to deflect criticism from Bush's crusade in Iraq for secularism and women's rights, as well as against terrorism, certain critical factors must be looked at to explain the president's lack of popularity, particularly on the Left. He is a Republican and therefore the representative of what is considered a rightwing party, teeming with Evangelicals and other undesirables whom proper liberal intellectuals are supposed to despise. And the war is a big deal for the declared enemies of the Democrats, who condemn them on Fox and talk radio as the "unpatriotic Left."

But one should recognize these rhetorical outbursts for what they are: expressions of narrow partisanship. They do not prove that the only course that is consistent with Democratic thinking is shamefaced, blame-America retreat from international affairs. Nor does the center Left necessarily view wars intended to spread democracy as extrinsic to its own traditions. Vigorous presidents, who steamrolled everything in their way to launch crusades against reactionary forces at home and abroad, furnish the hagiography of the Democratic Party. In this respect--though no other--I find myself agreeing with Sen. Joe Lieberman and the editorial board of The New Republic when they remind us of their party's history. A party that still exalts Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, and Truman as its great presidents is not destined to become a permanent gathering of noninterventionists. …

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