The Future of The Left
It starts in the academy.


Stanley Kurtz

In an important article, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has called for a new, more hawkish, liberalism. A liberalism incapable of confronting the threat from al Qaeda with the very same passion it devotes to the quest for gay marriage or universal health care is a liberalism doomed to failure, says Beinart. Invoking the late 1940s purge of Communists and their fellow travelers from the Democratic party, Beinart says that a similar winnowing is needed today. Unless and until the likes of Michael Moore and can be stripped of their influence within the party, the Democrats will not only be wrong about the most important issue of our day, they will be left wandering in the electoral wilderness for the foreseeable future.

Beinart is right that a fighting liberalism could seriously challenge the Republicans. A Democratic party fully engaged in the war on terror would also be good for the country–very good. But let me tell you why the Democrats are unlikely to change their stripes. Then let me tell you what the Democrats would actually have to do to become what Beinart wants them to be.


Before Beinart can get to his plan for a restored tradition of hawkish liberalism, he must dispose of the claim that “values voters” played a central role in John Kerry’s defeat. If the Democratic loss was, in significant part, due to voters mobilized by the same-sex-marriage issue, then a new and more hawkish Democratic foreign policy may not be enough, by itself, to reverse the party’s fortunes.

Beinart dismisses the idea that gay marriage had anything to do with the Democrats’ defeat. He argues that a similar share of voters cited moral values in both the 2000 and 2004 elections. The real difference between the two elections, he says, was foreign policy, with voters far more concerned about that issue than they were in 2000 and with most of those voters favoring the president.

The problem with this argument is that it takes the roughly similar proportion of voters citing moral values in the two elections as an unremarkable phenomenon. Yet turnout in 2004 was massive, and the greatly increased turnout on the Democratic side was motivated by an almost unbelievably intense hatred of President Bush. (The New Republic after all pioneered the notion of respectable Bush hatred.) How is it, then, that Republicans were able to match–and even overmatch–a Democratic turnout swollen by bitter hatred and rage? Roughly the same proportion of Republican voters may have invoked moral values in 2000 and 2004, but the remarkable thing is that in 2004, that proportion held within a markedly larger pool of GOP voters.

We cannot take that massive Republican turnout for granted. Intensely motivated by their hatred of the president, the Democrats could easily have overwhelmed their rivals. So what force of enthusiasm propelled Republican voters to the polls in record numbers? Obviously, the marriage issue was an absolutely critical motivator of that massive Republican turnout. The relatively unchanged proportion of values voters in the two elections disguises the fact that intense concern over values issues brought so many more Republican voters out in the first place. If the president had not endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment, the sort of voters who care most about values would have voted in numbers closer to those we saw in 2000–or more likely, they would have stayed at home in anger at the president’s failure to fight for the family.

I don’t doubt that terrorism, and the Democrats’ reputation for weakness, were critical factors in the election, just as Beinart says. But it’s totally unconvincing to claim that a massive surge of voters motivated by values issues in general, and the marriage issue in particular, was not an essential element in Kerry’s defeat. It may well be that contemporary liberalism cannot and will not abandon the quest for same-sex marriage. But it is sheer self-delusion to pretend that there will be no electoral price to pay.


The significance of the marriage issue does not stop there. To see why the Democrats’ challenge is so much more daunting now than it was in 1948, one needs to understand the critical role the civil-rights issue played in the successful Democratic purge of its Left in the 1940s. It wasn’t just a question of the Soviet threat. It was the extraordinary blending of foreign policy and civil-rights issues that enabled the Democratic party to eject its own Left–and even its own Right–yet still emerge victorious in the 1948 election. But gay rights today is not like civil rights back then. The deepest substantive problem with the liberal understanding of the gay-marriage issue is that it accepts as simple and straightforward the flawed analogy between same-sex marriage and the African-American quest for civil rights. But it’s the (related) failure of the political analogy between gay marriage in 2004 and civil rights in 1948 that gives the measure of the Democrats’ dilemma.

As Beinart points out, Minnesota was the epicenter of the Democratic party’s struggle to shuffle off its Left. Hubert Humphrey’s successful quest to wrest Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party from Communists and their sympathizers turned out to be a key to Truman’s victory. (I draw on Jennifer A. Delton’s, Making Minnesota Liberal.)

The 1948 election was perhaps the first time the (northern) black vote came into its own as a significant force, sought after by the major parties. Believing that “the Negro bloc” held the balance of power in the critical states of Illinois, New York, and Ohio, Truman advisor Clark Clifford recommended what we might now call a “northern strategy.” Convinced that southern Democrats had nowhere else to go, Clifford advised Truman to begin a program of civil rights (abolishing the poll tax, making lynching a federal crime, establishing a civil-rights division in the Justice Department, etc.).

But Clifford was wrong. Southern Democrats did have somewhere else to go. As they threatened to bolt the party, Truman backpedaled on civil rights. Meanwhile, former vice president Henry Wallace was gearing up for a third-party candidacy on the left. Wallace opposed the Marshall Plan and Truman’s generally anti-Soviet stance, and he threatened to take much of the Democratic Left with him–especially in liberal Minnesota. While Truman dithered over the civil-rights reforms, Wallace toured the south, defying segregation by eating with blacks, speaking to integrated audiences, and braving the rotten eggs and tomatoes of the bigots. Humphrey knew that any serious compromise by Truman on civil rights would mean certain defeat for northern and western liberals seeking to wrest the Democratic party from the Left.

This was the political background to Humphrey’s famous plea for a civil-rights platform at the 1948 Democratic national convention. Humphrey’s speech thrilled the delegates, won the day, and prompted a walkout by southerners, leading to Strom Thurmond’s fourth-party candidacy. But the lost southern votes were more than made up for by what happened in the rest of the country. Humphrey’s stand, and the southern walkout, stole the moral thunder from Wallace and the Left. Humphrey had become a liberal hero, and his moral capital gave him the votes to drive the Left out of the DFL. The convention’s dramatic events also transformed the image of the national Democratic party, which until then had been seen by many voters as a rather disreputable coalition of Catholics, southern power brokers, and corrupt big-city bosses.

Humphrey’s dramatic stand transformed the Democratic party from a rickety coalition of interest groups into the carrier of a comprehensive and principled national program deeply shaped by liberal values. Republican Minnesotans, proud of Humphrey’s stand, supported his Senate bid. Meanwhile, Truman got enough votes from northern blacks and swing voters to turn the election his way. And with the moral momentum of the civil-rights struggle now firmly in Humphrey’s hands (and the Communist threat growing more evident every day), Wallace and the Left were frozen out.


So to take Beinart’s 1948 analogy seriously, here is how we would have to imagine a successful Democratic struggle to eject the Michael Moore Left from the party: Disappointed in his quest for the Democratic party chairmanship, Howard Dean makes a third-party run in 2008 on a dovish platform while promising to bring gay marriage to the nation. Dean chooses San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as his running mate. Alarmed by the potential loss of the Left, a hawkish John Edwards makes a bold stand in favor of national gay marriage at the 2008 Democratic convention, sparking a walkout by a handful of socially conservative Democrats. Nationally, the Dean-Newsom third-party campaign is left stranded by Edwards’s inspiring gay-marriage stand. The steam goes out of the anti-war Democratic Left as Edwards unites an energized Democratic party under the gay-marriage banner. A coalition of gay voters combine with erstwhile Bush supporters inspired by Edwards’s risky pro-gay-marriage crusade, to give Edwards a narrow victory over Mitt Romney in 2008.

Possible? You tell me. Likely? I don’t think so. The gay vote is too small, and most of it belongs to the Democrats anyway. More important, support for gay marriage is simply not received by the broader public as a courageous stance in favor of civil rights. That’s why Gavin Newsom alarmed, rather than inspired. The gay-marriage issue is rightly perceived by moderate voters as too tied up with the fate of a critical social institution to be turned into a straightforward civil-rights story. Any pro-gay-marriage stance bold enough to somehow entice the Left and make them forget about their anti-war principles would unite the country behind the Republicans. In any case, the anti-war sentiments of the left-liberals who control the Democratic base are too deeply held to be cast aside for a fight over gay marriage.


So the first problem with Beinart’s analysis is that gay marriage does account for a significant share of the Democrats’ electoral trouble. The second problem is that precisely because the political (not to mention the substantive) analogy between gay marriage and civil rights does not hold up, the Democrats lack an issue that can simultaneously isolate their dovish Left and pull the center of the country in their direction. (Would a return of HillaryCare do the trick?) The third problem with Beinart’s program is that even a successful purge of Michael Moore and would not solve the Democrats’ trouble on the left.

With his crusade against Michael Moore and MoveOn, Beinart seems to be angling for a super-size version of Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment. Symbolism is important, but it will not be nearly enough. Post-60s dovishness is a deeply held cultural orientation. It is not something that can easily be separated from the Democratic base. To a large extent, it is the Democratic base.

The real institutional home of the Democratic Left is the academy. Discrediting Michael Moore won’t stop leftist professors from manufacturing Howard Dean foot soldiers. Not everyone who goes to college becomes a Democrat. But the Democratic base is decisively shaped by the academy.

Hawkish TNR-style Democrats are almost as outnumbered on college faculties as hawkish Republicans. Yet Hubert Humphrey’s takeover of the Minnesota Democratic party was manned by anti-Communist Democrats from Minnesota’s universities. The Wallace-ite doves in Minnesota were radical workers and farmers. The university types were the hawks. Today, the power of unions and farmers has shrunk, while the size and influence of the academy has vastly expanded. Yet the academy today is bereft of Hubert Humphreys.

Hubert Humphrey was a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. His ally, Eugene McCarthy, was a professor of sociology at St. Thomas college. Walter Mondale was a student dazzled by the “fighting faith” of these anti-Communist professors. Humphrey’s key aides–the ones who purged the radicals–had been graduate students working on dissertations about how the Communists had taken over liberal organizations in America. Where exactly are hawkish TNR-reading graduate students writing dissertations about how Michael Moore has taken over the Democratic party? (And who’s on their dissertation committees?)

What’s actually happening now is that hawkish scholars have been booted from faculties, while public scribblers like yours truly are writing about how the Left has taken over the universities, especially programs of area studies; kicked the ROTC off campus; harried military recruiters out of our law schools; and discouraged students from serving in our defense and intelligence agencies. Legislation addressing the problem is stalled in the Senate–stalled by Democrats. Is The New Republic helping with these battles? Not as far as I can tell. (Although Slate has helped.)

At this point, for the Democrats to purge their Left would be like discarding the left half of their bodies. Still, if there’s any way to succeed at this noble enterprise, the path leads through the academy. The academy creates and shapes the Democratic base. If there are few hawks in the academy, there will be few hawks in the Democratic base. The New Republic could make a huge difference in the battle to open up the academy. I remember the days, not so long ago, when The New Republic regularly took on the academic Left. Those days are over. If he really wants to turn liberalism into “a fighting faith,” Peter Beinart is going to have to bring those days back.