As the question is framed it answers itself. Would Democrats be outraged if it were John McCain rather than Obama who was continuing and expanding Bush’s war in Afghanistan, his gulag at Guantanamo, his assault on civil liberties in order to “fight terrorism,” not to mention “business-friendly” policies to free the private economy from the “burdens” of taxation and regulation. Of course they would, and they would denounce them bitterly, whereas the same policies emanating from the Obama White House are either ignored or actively defended by the president’s liberal supporters.
But I certainly do not say this to sustain the right-wing argument that Obama has seen the light and realizes how necessary and reasonable were the crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush-Cheney regime. Rather, it’s one more bit of evidence of the crashing failure of liberal America to stand up for its forgotten principles of some sixty years ago, and its decision to chain itself to a Democratic Party now under the leadership of “centrists” or “moderates” who in fact occupy the terrain once held by the vanished race of liberal Republicans. Right now, Obama’s non-confrontational reach for “compromise” with the Tea Party Republican attack dogs not only suits his personality but represents the true face of his party—a determination never to be labeled soft on defense, socialistic, or spendthrift, leaving nothing very exciting to fight about.
The party’s liberals began their retreat in the 1940s when they fully supported the Cold War, consenting to purge the unions and the civil service of communist influence at home and to empower presidents and a secret government-within-a government, the CIA, to war on or to destabilize communist (or suspected communist) regimes abroad.
They retained influence throughout the Johnson administration before it sank into the Vietnam quagmire, but when Democrats were routed in 1972’s election and fell into the hands of the “competence but not ideology” crowd, the liberals lost their nerve and stayed aboard. Why? Because on social issues there was and is some perceptible difference between the parties (though not much on imperial adventures abroad or the glories of “free enterprise.”) When labor or civil rights, or pro-choice organizations helped Democrats to win campaigns, they flattered themselves that they had gained a seat at the table. Perhaps they had, in the basement dining room of the White House, but not in the presidential inner circles.
Who can recall any vigorous, high-profile campaigns for strengthening unions, dealing with the economic crisis within the African-American community, or simply defending women’s right to abortion without homilies on how it should be rare under any of our three Democratic chief executives since Johnson? But liberals remained true believers. They gave Jimmy Carter a pass on empowering the Taliban to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan; they gave Bill Clinton a pass on presiding over deregulation, the sellout of American labor that was NAFTA, and the completion of dismantling the U.S. industrial base. It’s no surprise that they will automatically vote next year for Obama even if in some areas he sounds suspiciously like his immediate White House predecessor.
This consistent empowerment of the present “pragmatic” and spiritless Democratic Party is defended by the argument this is realistically a two-party system, and that one less for the Republicans to fight for; QED, a vote in their favor—and of disasters to follow, well exemplified by the piranhas now governing some Republican states. But that so-called “reality” is not as unalterable as gravity; neither is it in the Constitution or the Bible. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, an excuse for not making an effort to change voters’ minds. In my opinion, it’s time to do exactly that if we want to be true to our best selves and our progressive past.
Bernard A. Weisberger
Bernard A. Weisberger has taught Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester. He is a contributing editor to American Heritage.
Republished with permission from History News Network.