Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 6, 2006|Volume 35, Number 5















Alumnus and New Republic editor Peter Beinart (right) calls for a re-claiming of the Cold War liberal tradition, which held that democracy was an ongoing struggle and process, as opposed to a "finish line that we've crossed," as conservatives like President George W. Bush have characterized it.

Liberals must articulate their
vision more clearly, says journalist

The greatest failure of liberals at American polls in recent years can be attributed to their inability to clearly articulate a foreign policy vision for the country, asserted Peter Beinart '93 in a public talk on campus as a Poynter Fellow in Journalism on Sept. 28.

Conservative politicians such as former President Ronald Reagan, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush, by contrast, have made their views and aspirations for the nation explicitly clear, he told his audience in the Law School's Levinson Auditorium.

In his talk, Beinart, editor at large of The New Republic and a former Rhodes Scholar, summarized the theme of his new book "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again." In both the book and in his talk, he noted that the last time liberals focused their platform on national security was at the dawn of the Cold War, when they linked the struggle for democracy abroad with calls for economic opportunity at home. He also argued that the struggle against Islamist totalitarianism should define contemporary liberal politics in the same way that the fight against Soviet totalitarianism defined liberalism during the Cold War.

Beinart said his book was inspired by President George W. Bush's assertion that "You may not always agree with me, but at least you know where I stand."

He began thinking about how that comment rings true for many conservative politicians dating back to Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he described as the "first person to come along to draw a line in the sand between American freedom and Soviet totalitarianism ... between 'us' and 'them.'"

Later, in the wake of America's defeat in the Vietnam War and its damage to the national psyche, Ronald Reagan stressed the rightness of American values by declaring, "The era of self-doubt is over," Beinart recalled.

Likewise, after 9/11, Bush attempted to "expunge" American self-doubt by using the phrase "evil" when describing terrorists in his first State of the Union address after the attacks.

Removing American self-doubt and emphasizing that the nation's citizens "do not believe strongly enough in ourselves," has become a part of the conservative "story," Beinart claimed.

The liberal "story," he told his audience, has always been the opposite, and is rooted in the thought of such intellectuals as theologian and foreign-policy thinker Reinhold Niebuhr.

"Neibuhr argues that the right kind of self-doubt is actually key to American strength," Beinart told his audience. "He says that American virtue is not inherited and that we are as capable of injustice and evil as any other people." Americans' ability to recognize their own fallibility -- and vulnerability to imperialism -- was a theme of the liberal story much the way the erasure of self-doubt has been an emblem of the conservative one, he added.

It was this ability to recognize the imperfection of American democracy, Beinart contended, that led the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to build global institutions following World War II, such as the United Nations, NATO and others, that helped to curtail American power and dominance.

"Bush tends to discuss democracy as a finish line that we've crossed," said Beinart. "That's not the way liberals of the Cold War talked about democracy. Instead, it was presented not as a fixed accomplishment but as an ongoing struggle and process."

Cold War-liberals also understood that Americans are interdependent with the rest of the world, and the belief that the nation's fate is dependent on how others live around the world is "at the heart" of liberal thinking, Beinart said.

"Who would have thought on Sept. 10, 2001, that a country as remote and obscure as Afghanistan would matter in the way it now does, or that a village in China could incubate a bird flu that could spread across oceans and start a virtual panic ...?" Beinart asked.

Beinart argued for a re-claiming of the liberal tradition begun in the dawn of the Cold War. Part and parcel of that tradition, he said, is American acknowledgement that "moral progress requires moral reciprocity."

In that tradition, Beinart said, "we could not speak effectively about human rights and democracy in places in Darfur or Iraq or Afghanistan while we operate [the detainment camp] at Guantanamo Bay, or talk about solving large global problems while we turn our backs on the great global threat of global warming."

Likewise, he said, "America's ability to solve global crises and civil conflicts is deeply undermined by the fact that we are the greatest exporter of small arms that often end up in those conflicts."

Addressing the students in his audience, Beinart said that "one of the great challenges" for their generation will be to revitalize the international institutions born out of the liberal philosophy that is sensitive to America's potential for greatness combined with its infallibility.

He predicted a growing turn by conservative policymakers toward isolationism, which he said is already evident in their "panic about immigration and the Dubai ports deal."

The great challenge for liberals, he said, is to articulate the vision of an America that, by holding itself up to high standards and struggling to improve, can be an inspiration to some of the "bleakest places on the globe.

"It is up to your generation to re-create that America," Beinart told students members of his audience.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


Campaign formally launched at 'Yale Tomorrow' celebration

Hollander named Connecticut's poet laureate

YSN student carrying on family tradition of healing

Astronomers find evidence of galactic 'birth control'

NIAAA award will support study of alcohol use and HIV

Liberals must articulate their vision more clearly, says journalist

Conference celebrates 60th year of Yale's Directed Studies Program

Exhibit of artists at work explores creative process

Area artists will be showcased in annual festival

Theologians and scholars to speak at Divinity School convocation

Memorial service for Robert Wokler

Campus Notes


Bulletin Home|Visiting on Campus|Calendar of Events|In the News

Bulletin Board|Classified Ads|Search Archives|Deadlines

Bulletin Staff|Public Affairs|News Releases| E-Mail Us|Yale Home