TCS Daily


Origins of the Post-Democratic Democrats

By Carroll Andrew - February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Iraq's January 30 elections were a success. Iraqis braved the threat of violence and turned out at the polls. Pride in participating within Iraq was obvious; there was literally dancing in the streets. Back in the United States, however, the leadership of the party that calls itself by the name of "Democratic" seemed strangely unable to take any joy in a democratic moment of historic proportions.

The morning after the election, John Kerry, the Democrats' most recent nominee for President, reacted by saying "no one in the United States should try to overhype this election". The day after that, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saw elections as only the second most important story in Iraq, at best. He chose, instead, to highlight a report on the failure of the Coalition Provisional Authority "to impose adequate controls on nearly $9 billion that was distributed to various Iraqi ministries". The day after that, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, found no place for democracy in her reaction to the State of the Union; the mention of Iraq was the single sentence "the President also put forward a blank check for Iraq and an open ended commitment for our troops". The "Iraq Watch" section of Democratic Congressman William Delahunt's official website shows no evidence that the elections were worth watching; "Iraq Watch", at the time of this writing, makes no mention of the elections.

How did one of history's original democratic political parties become so indifferent to the cause of democracy?

One popular explanation is structural factors. Peculiarities of the American system of campaigns and elections force candidates towards policy stands that please the more extreme elements of their electoral base. Others suggest a more visceral explanation; partisans from one side hate the leader of the other side to the point where they refuse to support the major programs supported by an opposing leader. I propose a third, simpler alternative. The Democratic leadership is telling us what they really believe -- that democracy is not all that important.

It was not always like this for the Democrats. The New Republic's Peter Beinart recently used a 1947 meeting of the Americans for Democratic Action to remind Democrats that there was once strong support for democracy within their party. Signs of democratic life within the Democratic party were, in fact, visible during the early days of Bill Clinton's first term in 1993. In September of 1993, Clinton and national security adviser Anthony Lake articulated a grand strategy for the post-Cold War world -- the strategy of "democratic enlargement". In front of the United Nations General Assembly, President Clinton said, "during the cold war we sought to contain a threat to the survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions".

You probably do not remember democratic enlargement as the grand strategy of the Clinton administration. That is because, less than a month after it was publicly unveiled, 18 American servicemen were killed in a failed attempt to capture a local warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia. The failed raid generated substantial negative publicity about the incoherence of the Clinton administration's foreign policy. As a result, Clinton backed away from democratic enlargement, fearing any implied suggestion of foreign commitments could undermine his Presidency. (This is not a revisionist view of the Clinton administration. Historian Douglas Brinkley chronicled both the development and the abandonment of democratic enlargement in the Spring 1997 issue of Foreign Policy).

Today, we think of Somalia as an important turning point in the war on terror, the moment when terrorist organizations began to believe that America had become too soft to defend itself. But Somalia was also a turning point in a different kind of conflict.

Since the radicalism of the 1960s found a sympathetic home in the Democratic party, the party has been consumed by an internal struggle. On the one hand, the Democrats want to be the liberal party: the party that believes in the primacy of individual liberty, the party that believes the proper role of government is to protect spaces where individuals can thrive, and that history is ultimately driven by the actions of individuals. On the other hand, the Democrats are also America's party of the left: the party that believes that history is unstoppable change driven by impersonal forces, that the proper role of government is to move individuals to the right side of history, and protect them from being overwhelmed by forces they cannot control, perhaps not even understand.

The events in Somalia, and the reaction at home, gave the advantage to leftism over liberalism in the struggle for the soul of the Democratic party, an advantage leftism has yet to relinquish.

A single failed mission, by itself, did not move the Democrats to their present leftism untempered by liberalism. The shift in foreign policy resulting from Somalia -- a reticence to even discuss individual political freedom -- accelerated the movement of a generation of Democratic leaders in a direction they were already comfortable moving. Individuals who began their political careers in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, when American radicalism was near its peak, held on to an atmospheric skepticism about ideas like American exceptionalism, American values, and even the importance of American democracy. They internalized a distrust of the idea that there could be anything special about the nature of American power.

An America that had been lucky rather than good was less offensive to the radical chic that grew out of youthful radicalism. The Democratic leadership bought into the idea that American strength had been created by morally-neutral geographic and economic luck. The protection of oceans, access to natural resources, and lack of expansionist neighbors had provided America with growth opportunities not available to most nations. The belief that the democratic system of government made significant contributions to America's strength was a nationalistic myth. America had been successful because geographic and economic resources -- the forces that really drive history -- favored American development for three centuries.

In the 1990s, the Democrats recentered America's foreign policy debate around unexceptional forms of power. The purpose of foreign policy was working with bureaucracies to efficiently manage the flow of capital needed for growth, and balancing long-term environmental concerns against short-term development concerns. There was no higher priority than forging trade agreements and determining what set of IMF or World Bank or World Trade Organization rules best fostered development. Traditional security concerns were important only so far as they prevented "backlash states" from disrupting the international economy. Injecting democracy into this debate was naïve cultural chauvinism, a crude attempt to impose "Western values" -- values irrelevant to the course of economic development -- on others.

At the start of the Clinton administration, the elevation of economics was to be coupled with support for democratic enlargement, at least rhetorically. After the Somalia disaster, Clinton dropped democratic enlargement from the public discourse, leaving the nation with a foreign policy of pure economics and democratic agnosticism. It was a shrewd, short-term political strategy. He successfully divided the Republicans according to their own version of the individuals-versus-forces debate -- broadly speaking, Reagan's conservatives versus Bush 41's risk-averse managers. He built a foreign policy mandate out of Democratic partisans and Republican managerialists.

Towards the end of his second term, Bill Clinton reportedly was concerned about what his Presidential legacy would be. Today, we have the answer; the Democratic party continues advancing his administration's foreign policy of ignoring democracy. The Democratic response to the State of the Union highlighted the current state of Democratic post-democratic thought. None of the three "key concerns" enumerated by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (training the Iraqi army, accelerating Iraq's economic development, and intensifying regional diplomacy) involved democracy, because democracy is not a key concern to Democrats. They believe that democracy is a luxury that emerges when other forces are properly managed. Democracy itself is not worth directly supporting.

In accepting the chairmanship of the Democratic party, Howard Dean said Democrats could be successful if they "actually begin fighting for what [they] believe: fiscally responsible, socially progressive values". The present Democratic leadership must clarify where democracy fits into this view. Do socially progressive values include democracy, or is democracy unnecessary if other forces sufficiently advance progressive values? And if belief in democracy is a socially progressive value, at what point will Democrats again begin supporting its progress?

Carroll Andrew Morse is a frequent TCS contributor and a contributor to the weblog Anchor Rising.

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