What becomes of American liberalism when it turns away from history? In Beinart’s hands, it becomes religion. He litters his book with religious language. Hubert Humphrey “worshiped the New Deal.” Beinart’s heroes shared “beliefs in anti-Communism, racial integration, and America’s capacity for redemption.” Together these made American liberalism “a fighting faith.” It is not a coincidence that Beinart’s favorite thinker is not a political philosopher but a theologian. “Niebuhr,” he writes, “provided the theoretical heft” for mid-century liberalism. Actually, he provided its theological heft. In the late 1940s, Niebuhr said that the task liberals faced was to “make our political and economic life more worthy of our faith.” An empirical thinker, Beinart thinks that ends are matters of faith, not reason.
Beinart might be a realist when it comes to policy, but he is a Romantic when it comes to questions of justice, and he instinctively looks left to find his moral bearings. In the book’s penultimate paragraph he writes,
citizenship can be as powerful a force for moral revival as religion. And democracy is not America’s gift to the world. It is the goal for which we struggle, against the injustice in our society, in solidarity with those people struggling against the injustice in theirs.
Beinart seeks redemption through politics, and he does so in the name of “democracy,” which for him is not a form of government but a way of life in which all citizens feel a communal bond, and are equal in more than merely their rights. That is why he takes the loss of “our ‘we’” so personally. In democracy, he seeks a communal home.