Political Note:
Grand Theft
20 May 2019

In his review of George Packer’s Our Man in the NYRB, Thomas Powers puts his finger on the tragic element of Richard Holbrooke’s career. It was not, as Packer’s book might suggest, the surging egotism that made so many colleagues dislike Holbrooke, often viscerally; nor was it any of Holbrooke’s numerous other personal failings. Rather, the tragic element in his life was something he shared with almost all the luminaries of the Democratic Party: the belief, “learned” in Vietnam (but also earlier, in reaction to Joseph McCarthy), that to be dovish about war, to be “soft” on the use of military force, all but guaranteed political death in the United States. Powers announces this conclusion near the end of his review, when he cites the passage in Packer’s book in which Holbrooke warns John Kerry that, if he is serious about running for president in 2004, Kerry will have to support what would quickly become the American misadventure in Iraq. “Holbrooke didn’t add that the same was true for himself in his quest to become Kerry’s secretary of state.”

It is easy to say that Democrats were forced to assume the appearance of hawks by their desire to be elected and to stay in office. Considering the weight of Democratic Party baggage about cosmopolitan, humanitarian principles, though, this makes them seem an usually cynical bunch. They had to have a reason for wanting to stay in office beyond just that. And they did. They believed that Democratic Party governance of the United States was necessary in order to insure the ultimate liberation into full social equality of the descendants of slaves. This had originally been the mission of the Republican Party, but the GOP’s enthusiasm for the project waned almost to invisibility when Reconstruction decayed into Redemption, in the late 1870s. When in the last century Lyndon Johnson usurped the political commitment to full civil rights, the Republicans effectively turned their backs on it. Ever since Richard Nixon, the Republican Party has saluted the principle of No Principles. 

It has been my opinion for some time that the Democratic Party did could not flourish after Johnson’s transformation. It lived on, yes, but without conviction. It not only lost its way on the effective handling of civil rights issues, by becoming adroit at providing plenty of opportunities for the newly enfranchised to fail, but it abandoned the pursuit of peace that would have crowned FDR’s victory had he lived to see it. (It was left to his semi-estranged widow to keep the flame.) By 1970, Democrats running for office were more frightened by the risk of appearing to be “liberal” than by that of seeming unwarlike. By the time Bill Clinton denatured federal welfare programs, one might well have asked what on earth the Democratic Party really stood for, cloaked by its fog of verbiage. I believe that Barack Obama thought that he had an answer, but in fact he was nowhere near politically experienced enough to reverse course, and, to make advances even less likely, the color of skin became the leading issue on both sides of the aisle.

In today’s climate, it is much, much easier to yield to the excitement of condemning social injustice than to formulate a truly liberal party that advocates a platform of international and economic comity. (To be sure, the latter task requires the detachment of liberal politics from “liberal economics,” historically a wrinkle in British political history that Americans might have resisted.) Since I don’t forget where the Democrats came from, originally, I hardly look to them to complete the arduous homework of convincing voters that we need to maintain and update progressive institutions (such as all the New Deal agencies) instead of replacing or junking them. Democrats seem to believe that it is enough to pass a law, and that, once passed, a law will refresh its own validity and relevance simply by existing. As a result of such mindlessness, one of the cornerstones of New Deal financial regulation, the hygienic barrier known as Glass-Steagall, was swept away twenty years ago, and the global economy was exposed to the menace realized by the credit collapse of 2008.

It would have been better if the generation that stretched from JFK to Holbrooke had stormed the Republican Party instead of stealing its opposition. 

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