TCS Daily

Will George Bush's Legacy Be a Democratic Majority?

By Carroll Andrew - March 11, 2005 12:00 AM

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber believes that President George W. Bush's small-d democratization efforts might help build a majority for the large-D Democratic party ("George W. Bush's Legacy: A Democratic Majority", TNR, 03/08/05). Scheiber believes that "the only reason most conservatives support Bush's democratization rhetoric is partisanship" while the Democratic base believes in "things like democracy, human rights, civil society, responsible governance, etc. with every fiber of their being". Bush's aggressive public promotion of democratization "paves the way for a future Democratic majority" by converting "the middle of the country to a position that liberals fundamentally support and conservatives fundamentally reject".

Scheiber's analysis is too large-D Democratic. He immediately dissects the Republican base into a coalition of special interests -- "Southern and lower-Midwestern isolationist/realist types, Western libertarians, conservative evangelicals, and K-Street taxcutters" -- and assumes that their only reason for supporting the Republican party is advancement of their narrow agendas. This is a classic Democratic blind spot, a reluctance to recognize the possibility that individuals can identify with America as strongly as they identify with their regional or special-interest cohorts. Libertarians and taxcutters can believe that government is doing too much but still believe that defending the country from foreign threats is a fundamental governmental activity worth fully funding. They can find true common ground -- not just tactical advantage -- with evangelicals who want the government to protect their children from both Hollywood culture and foreign terrorists.

When the subject is national security policy, the impact of voters who vote national security first should not be ignored -- even if they are scattered across the different segments used by campaign consultants and pollsters. This is not to say that the existence of a cohort of issue-oriented, security-minded voters translates into automatic support for the policy of security-through-democratization. What it does translate into is an advantage for candidates who present a coherent strategy for engaging the world. Bush and the much-maligned neocons have put a long-range strategy onto the table -- democratize the chaotic places likely to support terrorism. This is not the only viable strategy. Maybe it is not even the best strategy. But it has been the only proactive strategy articulated in the political arena since September 11. The alternatives have been reactionary calls to restore the world to its post-Cold War (or even pre-World War I) state and deal with new threats on a case-by-case basis.

Democrats have a growing organizational awareness that their inability to present a coherent foreign policy alternative is a problem. In spite of this growing awareness, the official Democratic view on national security remains indistinguishable from the all-multilateral-means and no-strategic-ends view of a decade ago. The supposedly more cosmopolitan Democrats seem to have lost interest in keeping up with the world around them.

Scheiber provides a clue as to why this is. He notes that the willingness of Democratic-leaning activists to act on "democracy, human rights, civil society, responsible governance, etc." is conditional. They grant their blessing only when "you persuade them the motivation is pure". The Democratic base, still suffering from the effects of lingering geopolitical traumas like Vietnam, regards national security considerations as impure, a necessary evil at very best. Since the end of the Cold War, Democrats have been most likely to support American involvement in the affairs of other countries when there is no national interest involved. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, "anti-war" Howard Dean wanted to send troops to Liberia. John Kerry considered intervening in Haiti. Feminists were unwilling to celebrate the deposing of the misogynistic Taliban because the proximate cause of action was an attack on America.

No recent Democratic leader has been able to excite his or her party's base by talking about either democracy abroad or forward strategies for American security. The unresponsiveness of the base to either democracy or security is the major obstacle impeding the formation of Scheiber's center-left democracy coalition. The left cannot win over the security-minded center with abstract support for democracy without talking unabashedly about strategies for American security.

The significant number of countries both democratically deficient and unfriendly towards the US will test the Democrats' ability to compete in the pro-democracy climate being created by the Bush administration. Countries like Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela provide opportunities to combine the advancement of American interests with the promotion of democracy. Will the Democratic leadership support real democratization in a few of these countries -- before revolutions are obviously underway -- or will the Democrats lapse into their more familiar pattern: ignoring the lack of democracy in countries hostile to the US, offering support for democratization only in places where the process is well underway, and criticizing Republicans for endangering the inevitable march of history with their rash actions? The voters have seen this pattern before, and have not been impressed.

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



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