Harper's Magazine
December 2002

The case for liberalism:
A defense of the future against the past

by George McGovern


I believe in the essential decency and fairness of the American people. This does not mean, however, that I believe our leaders and our voters always to be of sound judgment. Democracy does not guarantee wisdom or virtue; it guarantees only the principles of majority rule and freedom of choice. And freedom of choice includes, whether we like it or not, the right to be wrong. We can only hope that from time to time our leaders will be right.

Now is not such a time. President Bush and his team-Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice-have claimed, on our behalf, the right to send the United States Armed Forces into Iraq, regardless of whether such a move would be acceptable to the international community. They have even implied a willingness to act without congressional approval if necessary. President Bush has already pushed past Congress, the press, and the American people an enormous addition to military spending on the grounds that our nation is "at war"-with Osama bin Laden and soon, possibly, with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, the so-called axis of evil. Almost daily we hear or read an announcement from the White House, the Pentagon, or the Attorney General's Office of some new terrorist threat. If the aim of terrorists is to spread terror, I suggest that the Bush Administration is doing their work for them.

Over the years I have developed some skill in telling the difference between, as Lyndon Johnson put it, "chicken salad and chicken shit." We are not at war, and the President should quit saying we are. Is there any evidence at all that Iraq wants to go to war with us? In the last decade we have done much to damage, weaken, and topple Saddam Hussein, but what has he really done to damage us? It is said that Saddam is trying to build weapons of mass destruction similar to the ones we have had in vastly greater numbers for half a century. Other countries that have had such weapons for years include Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India, none of which would be so suicidal as to launch an attack on the world's greatest nuclear power. Does there exist any hard evidence that Saddam has actually been able to join this nuclear club? And, if so, is it really believable that he would assure the incineration of himself and his people by a senseless assault on the United States?

President Bush and his colleagues seem to think so. They look into the future and see great evil, and they believe it their mission to eradicate that evil. There has been evil in the world at least since Cain and Abel, and there will be evil after all of us are gone from the earth. God might be able to change that, but not us mere humans. I look into the future with far less fear and therefore far less cynicism. I believe, in fact, that we are on the verge of the best period in human history. Over the last twentyfive years we have made great advances in the sciences, in education and health care, in protecting the environment, and in securing a more peaceful economic order, and I have reason to believe we will do even better over the next twenty-five years. The danger of terrorism is indeed one of the more vexing problems facing us, but I do not think it justifies an obsession with external threats and internal security at the expense of so much that is worthwhile in a democratic society and an interdependent world, and I do not think it justifies going to war with Iraq or any other nation that has not harmed us first. Having survived two global wars and a near calamitous nuclear standoff, we need to arrive at safer and more dependable ways of settling disputes than open-ended war between nations. I do not suggest an end to nations-the diversity of national cultures, languages, economies, and systems of government will endure, as will the power of patriotism. I simply propose that nations submit their disputes with other nations to an international court instead of destroying each other. believe and say these things because I am an American patriot and a liberal in the tradition of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. I believe that many, if not most, Americans are liberals, too, or at least have some liberal impulses. There are, of course, those among us who are prepared to condemn without reservation liberalism and all of its works, but few of these people seem to grasp what liberalism actually is. Webster's dictionary defines it as "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties." From the beginning, Americans have believed that the conditions of their lives could and would be improved; that is, they have believed in progress. One cannot conceive of a nation dedicated to democracy that does not rest on faith in "the essential goodness of man." It would seem even more likely that in a democratic society most of the citizenry would accept the importance of personal freedom-"the autonomy of the individual"-as well as the need to protect that freedom.

Thus, except for the most confirmed standpatter or unswerving cynic, nearly all Americans have some identification with liberalism, whether they know it or not. Just about every educated person I encounter around the world is a liberal. Almost every working journalist, nurse, and flight attendant leans toward liberalism; nearly every teacher, scientist, clergyman, and child-care worker is a liberal. I can't remember the last time I met an illiberal professor of history, my old profession. How could anybody read history and not be a liberal?

Why, then, do so many contemporary liberals feel compelled to keep their liberalism a secret? Why does it seem increasingly difficult for liberals to get elected and to advance their agenda if they do? The negative associations with the word "liberal" are now so pronounced that many a political campaigner has profited simply by charging his opponent with "liberalism," as if it were a crime. Liberals themselves now shy away from the word: "I'm neither liberal nor conservative," I heard one prominent Democrat assert on television recently. "I'm a pragmatic progressive." Another liberal has described himself as a "progressive pragmatist." I'm not quite certain what the ideological difference is between "pragmatic progressive" and "progressive pragmatist," but it must be profound.

My friend Bob Dole is fond of Robert Frost's observation that a liberal is someone who won't "take his own side in a quarrel." I will. I believe that the most practical and hopeful compass by which to guide the American ship of state is the philosophy of liberalism. Virtually every step forward in our history has been a liberal initiative taken over conservative opposition: civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, rural electrification, the establishment of a minimum wage, collective bargaining, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and federal aid to education, including the land-grant colleges, to name just a few.* Many of these innovations were eventually embraced by conservatives only after it became clear that they had overwhelming public approval for the simple reason that almost every American benefited from them. Every one of these liberal efforts strengthened our democracy and our quality of life. I challenge my conservative friends to name a single federal initiative now generally approved by both of our major parties that was not first put forward by liberals over the opposition of conservatives.

We need conservatives, of course, to challenge liberal ideas and proposals and to impel us to examine their soundness, but we cannot depend on conservatives to offer constructive new ideas of the sort that might bring about a more just and equitable society or a more peaceful and cooperative world. If we assume that Lincoln, the first Republican president, was a liberal (which he surely was), nothing inspiring has come out of the conservative mind since the age of John Adams. As my friend and sometime debating partner William F. Buckley puts it in his book Up from Liberalism,

Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.

The business of conservatives is, in other words, to cling tightly to the past, and although such a stance can be admirable, a stale and musty doctrine is of little use at a time when the nation needs not to fear the future but to seek out ways to improve it.

Instead of spreading fear across the land, our leaders should be asking themselves, and asking us, thoughtful questions about the world in which we live. Why is it that a wealthy and misguided zealot was able to recruit young followers in the slums of Cairo, the hills of Afghanistan, and the back country of Saudi Arabia? Why do these young men hate the United States? Is there something we can and should do to change that attitude toward what we believe to be the greatest country on earth? Is the fact that half the people of the world live in poverty perhaps the key to terrorism? Is it possible that we cannot reduce terrorism except as we reduce poverty in the world? Is there some practical merit in the proposal Senator Dole and I have been pushing, which calls for the U.S. to take the lead in providing, through the U.N., a nutritious lunch every day for every hungry schoolchild in the world? Does not the creative director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, offer a useful instrument of reducing misery and terrorism when he seeks $500 million for simple tools such as water pumps for the poor farm families of the world?

My historical heroes-Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, Adlai Stevenson-used the instruments of government to benefit the citizenry of America, and they also understood that America had responsibilities to the rest of the world. By contrast, the Bush Administration, in an unvarnished revival of the know-nothing spirit of an earlier age, actually withheld $34 million in family-planning funds for the United Nations on the grounds that any money going into the U.N. Population Fund would allow the Chinese government, in the words of Secretary of State Colin Powell, "to implement more effectively its program of coercive abortion." His statement was raw deceit: The Bush Administration knows full well that none of the family-planning funds from the United States can be or would have been spent on coercive abortions in China. No U.N. funds are used for that purpose. In the words of veteran commonsense columnist Ellen Goodman, "To appease the domestic `right-to-life' lobby, we are going to withhold enough money to prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 4,700 maternal deaths, and over 77,000 infant and child deaths." Frankly, I can't see much of a future-for Americans or for anyone else-in that brand of conservatism.

Liberals are left of center; to their left are socialists and communists. Conservatives are right of center; to their right are fascists and despots of all kinds. In World War II we fought the fascists and despots, and the socialists and communists were our allies in this fight. But after we crushed the fascists and the despots, we forgot about them. We turned our enmity instead toward the communists-Russia and China, plus such little states as North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. During the Cold War, conservatives discredited liberals by suggesting that the far left had infiltrated American liberalism. It was not nearly so effective for liberals to suggest that conservatives sometimes climbed into bed with fascists. The fascists, after all, had been defeated, whereas communists were everywhere on the rise. With huge campaign war chests and clever propagandists, conservative political candidates in the postwar years depicted their liberal opponents as weak on national defense, indifferent to family values, soft on communism, and captives of the welfare lobby, the gun controllers, and the abortionists.

This false and destructive approach has defeated many a Democratic liberal candidate and has, for the most part, kept true liberals out of power since 1969. As a result we have had more than our share of conservative leadership devoted to killing progressive programs while spending lavishly on the military and cutting taxes for the rich-a formula perfected during the Reagan years. Attempts to utilize the powers of government to improve the well-being of ordinary Americans have been shouted down in favor of policies serving only the commercial interests of the nation. In foreign policy the conservatives have tended to be isolationists or unilateralists, distrustful of dialogue with the other nations of the world, quick to resort to military force, and seemingly opposed to international assistance when it does not involve sending guns and land mines to the odd Asian despot who claims to have converted to Christianity.

President Bush is just this sort of unilateralist. Despite the fact that the United States stands alone as the world's greatest polluter, he rejected the international agreement reached at Kyoto, Japan, under which nations were to take concrete steps to reduce the enormous danger of global warming caused by increasing environmental pollution. Despite the obvious folly of the so-called Star Wars missile-shield fantasy, he abrogated the ABM Treaty of 1972 between Russia and the United States, which forbids either nation to build or test an anti-ballistic-missile system and has long been regarded as the cornerstone of worldwide arms control. For thirty years both nations had faithfully adhered to this treaty.

The Bush Administration has also turned its back on the idea of genuine cooperation with the United Nations, the World Court, and an international criminal court in favor of a go-it-alone policy that is obsolete in today's interdependent world. With the Cold War behind us, the U.N. is now free to become the great international organ for peace, development, justice, and freedom that Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, and others intended it to be. As the host nation, America should take the lead in calling for a strengthened U.N., a stronger World Court, and a modern, well-equipped international police force directed by the Secretary General of the U.N. and the U.N. Security Council rather than view such ideals as obstacles. The United States has neither the right nor the ability to play the role of international policeman. The problems of the world are too great for any one nation to master.

An attack on Iraq is opposed by virtually every country in the world. We would be alone in such an action, unlike in the first Gulf War, in which Iraq was the aggressor and the whole world knew it. Do we really want to duplicate the lonely course we followed for nearly thirty years in Vietnam? Supposedly our leaders are trying to build support for attacking Iraq because it might develop weapons of mass destruction similar to ours, but international law does not give the President of the United States, or any other head of state, the right of "preventive" war. Historian Arthur Schlesinger has pointed out that the Japanese claimed to be waging preventive war when they attempted to sink the American Navy at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Japan's leaders were eventually tried as war criminals for that action. If President Bush attacks Iraq, under his doctrine of "preemptive war," could he not be similarly tried as a war criminal? During the long years of the Cold War strident voices were sometimes heard calling for nuclear strikes to eliminate Russia and China. But when the Russians and the Chinese eventually became our friends, "everyone thanked heaven that the preventive-war loonies had never got into power in any major country," Schlesinger writes.

President Bush has said repeatedly that the terrorists hate us because of our freedom. I don't believe that. The world's people have always admired our freedom. What they don't like is the arrogance and indifference to world opinion inherent in so much of our international policy. Plenty of my fellow citizens don't like that either. I'm not alone in my dislike of the way our government is waging the so-called war against terrorism, in my opposition to a war with Iraq and to calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil." And I intend to press these points as long as I believe my convictions are grounded in common sense, patriotism, and veneration of life. One reason I am cautious about sending young men off to war is that I have seen what war does. Half of the bomber crews that I flew with in WWII never made it home again. The images remain with me after fifty-five yearsyoung airmen laughing and talking over breakfast before daylight, and then a few minutes later being blown to bits when their huge, overloaded bomber filled with men, bombs, and high-octane gasoline crashed during takeoff. I see the image of a bomber taking a direct hit over the target, catching fire, exploding, and falling in pieces over hostile enemy territory. I tell you these things because no man who has had these experiences will ever again speak carelessly about war. It is the worst thing that men do to each other. When I listen to the bombastic rhetoric of Messrs. Bush and Cheney and the war cries of Ms. Rice, I know that I'm hearing from people who've never been near a battlefield. The British conservative Edmund Burke put it best: "A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood."

During my years as a combat pilot I read the huge, two-volume tome by Charles and Mary Beard entitled The Rise of American Civilization. Lying on an army cot in southern Italy, with only a candle to light the page, I more than once was still reading when the call came at 4 A.M. for me to fly another bombing mission over Nazi Germany. Reading helped take my mind away from the other pilots and crews who had died. It was also a way to discover, in some 1,600 pages, what America was all about.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." And Abraham Lincoln said of this founding document that it "gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world, for all future time." Liberal ideas, in other words, have informed American politics from Jefferson to Lincoln, and we are no less in need of the vitality and redeeming strength of the liberal spirit today. Liberalism is not dead, though it does seem at times to be besieged and bewildered. Indeed, I fully expect liberalism to be stronger and more successful over the next twenty-five years than it has been in the past twentyfive-provided that liberals learn to shed a little of their timidity.

Most of today's liberals are too intimidated for my taste. When I look back on my twenty-two years in the U.S. Congress, I don't regret the questions I directed at policymakers; I regret the times that I didn't ask questions when I should have. The way of a public critic is uncertain and difficult, especially when flags are flying and drums are rolling, but patriotism includes the responsibility, when the nation is following an unwise course, to call it to a higher standard. A political leader has the obligation to identify as best he can the mistaken aspects of government policy and to lay bare the malfunctions of our body politic so that sensible repairs can be made. Beyond this, a political leader should offer a vision that can light the way for the days ahead.

Clearly we can't expect this of our conservatives, but we should demand it of liberals. Going to war with Iraq is a bad idea, and our liberal leaders should say so. They should speak out as well about the absurdity of a $355 billion annual military budget (if only for the sake of our overworked Pentagon employees-a budget that size, after all, requires them to spend almost $1 billion each day before they can go home to dinner). With careful planning to convert from a war economy to a peace economy we could gradually move to a military budget of $200 billion-still vastly beyond any other nation's. We might use the savings to extend Medicare to all American children, to raise the quality of public school systems in the states, to give millions of Americans a second chance at higher education, to develop a national energy policy based on conservation and renewable sources of power, to rebuild decaying water and sewage systems and repair other problems in the infrastructure, and to create in America the finest railway system in the world. I firmly believe that if we were to take such steps, America would be a better defended, more secure, happier nation than it is today.

We need to restore calm and confidence to American society-including our airports and presidential press conferences. That would be good for our souls, and it might even be good for the stock market. It was, after all, the freedom from groundless fear and the bold liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt that saved American capitalism after the disastrous collapse of the stock market in 1929.

The America I fought to defend as a young man was great enough to allow freedom of speech for all its citizens-even those citizens, especially those citizens, who ask questions and demand answers about government policy. The genius of American politics has always been the creative tension between our two great political philosophies, liberalism and conservatism. If either of these traditions is diminished, the American nation is diminished. And so, to the self-styled patriot with his bumper stickerAMERICA, LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT-I would respond, "America, let us improve it so that we may love it the more." U

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* Here are a few more: guaranteed bank deposits, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Park Service, the National School Lunch Program, the Voting Rights Act, and the graduated income tax.


George McGovern, the United Nations Global Ambassador on Hunger, was the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. He is the author of numerous books, including The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time.

©Harper's Magazine Foundation Dec 2002


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