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Comments On The Meaning Of "unity"

1. In his posting of January 27th, Cass Sunstein, with the success of “McCain, Obama and to some extent Huckabee” in mind, wrote that “unifying candidates are now being taken as a most refreshing change from the last years.” I beg to differ.

In my view, the most remarkable aspect of the Obama’s campaign has been his ability to make the tone of his politics mask their substance as well as the willingness of highly educated voters to go along with this illusion. His voting record and his views on foreign policy place him firmly on the left-wing of the Democratic Party. His are the views of the left-liberal political and intellectual establishment echoed in print in The New York Review of Books and The Nation, and online via His most frequent remark about foreign policy during the campaign is that he will withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. Despite the fact that the surge has achieved many of its goals, the press has not challenged Obama–or Hillary Clinton for that matter–about the consequences of an American withdrawal in the face of apparent success. While the call to get out of Iraq as soon as possible is unifying for the activist young and liberal and left-liberal intellectuals, it is profoundly divisive in American society as a whole. Indeed, were either Obama or Clinton to withdraw troops from Iraq before the United States had achieved a tolerable end result, the bitterness and turmoil in our country could match that of the divisions over the war in Vietnam. “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” would not be just a clever slogan. Millions of people, with good reason, would believe it to be true. Were that to happen, partisan division could become so intense that the Democrats’ domestic agenda would be unlikely to survive the tumult. You could kiss goodbye to universal health care.

2. A second, bizarre aspect of the primaries is that for reasons of their own, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama have stated the most obvious difference between them. It is, especially in foreign policy, that she is a centrist Democrat whose ideas are far “newer” than his while he is a left-liberal Democrat whose ideas are largely those of the Democratic orthodoxy of the pre-Bill Clinton Democratic Party. These are the same ideas that, except for the Carter interlude, kept the Democratic Party out of the White House in the three decades before Clinton’ election in 1992. If Hillary Clinton had stated this simple truth, she could forget about getting the support of the Democratic Party’s left-wing and thus would have little chance of getting the Party’s nomination. If Obama had stated this truth, then the post-partisan, unifying aura of his candidacy would evaporate. However fine a politician he may be, his political views are not those of the political center. The Republican Party will not be reluctant to bring this inconvenient fact to the voter’s attention.

3. The Obama candidacy is said to express a new idealism. To be sure, in the sociologist Max Weber’s terms, it does rest on an ethics of conviction that focuses on intentions rather than consequences. The refusal to publicly face the probable catastrophic consequences of rapid withdrawal from Iraq is typical of this kind of idealism. It contrasts with what Weber called the ethics of responsibility which focus as much or more on the consequences of actions than on the intentions of actors. Yet there is another sense in which the mood that has brought Obama to his recent successes is not idealistic at all. Aside from a lunatic fringe, no one claims that the enemy in Iraq is anything but utterly barbaric, inhumane and guilty of hundreds of repeated war crimes in the form of the intentional murder of innocents. A suicide bombing is a war crime. Yet in the face of this inhumanity, one looks in vain for passion and/or insight among the Democratic candidates about the nature of this enemy. To my knowledge, neither Clinton nor even more so Obama have even mentioned the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in their campaign. The Party left-wing places Clinton  on the defensive for her Iraq vote in 2003 but no one puts either her or Obama on t he spot for failing to speak clearly about Islamic extremism. Why is indifference to the actions of an evil enemy a form of moral idealism? The Republicans will not be shy about asking that question.

 4. This year’s Democratic primaries raise the following question: Is the Democratic Party any longer the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that is, the Roosevelt of the New Deal as well as the Roosevelt whose leadership and decisions were absolutely indispensable to defeating Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan in World War II? Cass Sunstein, among others, rightly evokes Roosevelt’s legacy of domestic social and economic reform. Today, in the form of the now familiar varieties of radical Islamism, we face an enemy that bears more similarities to fascism and Nazism than any other ideological movement of similar dimensions since World War II. The radical Islamists celebrate the murder of innocent civilians, proudly declare their hatred for the Enlightenment, liberal democracy, capitalism, communism and socialism, feminism, wage war on black Africans in Darfur, despise the United States and yes, also revive radical anti-Semitism in ideology and practice. To point this out is not “neoconservative ideology.” It is the unpleasant truth. These ideas and actions call for an American counter-offensive, one animated by a liberalism with deep and abiding memories of Roosevelt.

The political habits and short historical memories of the past thirty years have brought us to a Democratic Party that does not want to speak too loudly about the fact that its greatest President was a great wartime leader in a war against fascism and Nazism. Vietnam became the formative experience of the Party’s leaders and a loss of enthusiasm for the hard-line during the Cold War became Democratic orthodoxy. It was not surprising that the Republicans would have more enthusiasm for the Cold War against the Communist. In the 1970s, Democrats who dissented from their Party’s course turned to the legacy of Harry Truman. Yet Truman’s legacy was formed in the early Cold War with the Communists. Today, although radical Islam has impeccably reactionary credentials, the Democratic Party candidates do not present the fight against it as a distinctly liberal endeavor. So it is no wonder that they don’t evoke the memory of FDR’s wartime leadership.

Yes, there are vast differences in power, ideology, geography and culture between the issues of the 1940s and those of our time. I am, after all, a historian with all of the attention to awareness of difference and specificity of time and place that our discipline fosters. Yes, much went very wrong in Iraq and much should have been done differently in the way the United States has fought the war on the terror inspired by radical Islam. Yes, a President in 2009 cannot slavishly copy the policies from the middle of the past century. Yet traditions and memories offer us a sense of how a President might face friends and enemies today. The unfortunate silence about Roosevelt, in this time of war, stems from a political party that has forgotten or even become uncomfortable with the ideas and policies of its most important political figure. A considerable component of the activist and passionate wing of today’s Democratic Party has distanced itself from the meaning of foreign policy liberalism in the Roosevelt tradition.

This is a recipe for electoral defeat in fall 2008 and, again, opens the door to the White House to a Republican willing and able to appeal to voters in the political center many of whom still look back with admiration to a liberal President whose revolution in American foreign relations launched the United States to its subsequent path to world power.

 --Jeffrey Herf