To throw off an intellectual inheritance is no small thing. In an article in the Winter 2021 issue of Dissent, Michael Brenes and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins try to do just that. They have made a strong case that it’s high time to bury Cold War liberalism. I realize that for many progressives the goal is to look forward, not to the past. New beginnings and slaying the old are always more hopeful than recognizing indebtedness and the burdens of history. But we need to be cautious when we start discarding parts of our intellectual and political toolkit. We might toss things overboard that could inform our political sensibilities today.
Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins start their travels backward by going to the “liberal consensus” of the Cold War. But that consensus is little more than myth. It never existed. By the late 1940s, a strong conservative voice was emerging in stiff opposition to liberal anticommunism. That included intellectual and political figures like Whittaker Chambers (and numerous other ex-communists), Joseph McCarthy, General Douglas MacArthur, Richard Nixon, and William F. Buckley Jr. Many of them rose to popularity on the heels of Republican victories in 1946 around the call of, “Had enough?” (referring to regulations and price controls). Chambers was the sort of man who saw creeping socialism in any management of free-market capitalism, and he articulated a faith impervious to any criticism or doubt. (Lionel Trilling used Chambers as a model for the eerie character of Gifford Maxim in his classic Cold War liberal novel, The Middle of the Journey.) As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1952, “Chambers demands belief in God as the first credential” for repairing a broken America. In doing so, Schlesinger argued, “he is surely skating near the edge of an arrogance of his own.” Or as he had already put it in The Vital Center, “The thrust of the democratic faith is away from fanaticism.” But according to Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins, Cold War liberals were “committed to defending God and country.” In fact, Reinhold Niebuhr thought it sinful to place that sort of faith in any one country, which explains why some liberals started Atheists for Niebuhr clubs during the heyday of the Cold War.
Or consider the liberal journalist, James Wechsler, who helped to expose the conspiratorial thinking that informed McCarthy’s communist witch hunt (which other Americans were slowly starting to realize, some from reading Wechsler’s exposé of McCarthy in the New York Post). In testimony, Wechsler admitted to being a communist back in the 1930s (liberal communists disliked the practice of taking the Fifth under government scrutiny). But McCarthy didn’t believe Wechsler when he said he had ditched the Communist Party and was now a Cold War liberal. In McCarthy’s bizarre logic, “If I were a member of the Communist Party and I were the bright newspaper man that Mr. Wechsler is, if I wanted to aid the Communist Party, I would not stay aboveground and say I was a member of the Communist Party, I would say I deserted the Communist Party, and then I could do exactly what Mr. Wechsler is doing.” McCarthy was an exemplar of what the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, about a decade after Wechsler’s testimony, called the “paranoid style” of American politics. When Wechsler provided examples from the Daily Worker excoriating him for a resolution he had presented that rejected communism, McCarthy went full berserk: “Did you have anything to do with the passage of that resolution?” There lay the conspiratorial reasoning that would eventually cause McCarthy to fall, though not soon enough. The only thing left for Wechsler was to scratch his head and laugh, recognizing a bullying buffoon when he saw one.
This divide between liberals and conservatives during the Cold War showed up more fully in questions about foreign policy. Cold War liberals recoiled at conservative ideas about “rollback” and the call for a “preemptive war” against the Soviets or China. Chambers added to these strategies a need for certitude and faith. Communism would prevail, he wrote, “unless the free world . . . overcomes its crisis by discovering, in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man’s mind, at the same intensity, with . . . a reason to live and a reason to die.” Liberals would gasp at such a statement, married as it was to the sort of aggressive military ideas that General MacArthur tried to practice during the Korean War. Niebuhr suggested that conservatives like Chambers had a “prescience about the future which no man or nation possesses.” These words stand out to those of us who lived through the “choice” of “preventive war” carried out in Iraq in 2003.
Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins claim that Cold War liberals “distrust the masses” and reject “populism.” But liberals don’t necessarily “distrust the masses”; we’re just not willing to entertain the idea that the “people,” as populist rhetoric would have it, are teeming with virtue. To quote from The Vital Center (excuse the gendered language): “The American liberal concluded by 1948 that man, being neither perfect morally nor perfect intellectually, cannot be trusted to use absolute power, public or private, either with virtue or with wisdom.”
There is no hope for perfection within the liberal lexicon. Niebuhr was a realist and a critic of utopian thinking about a future free of conflict—a fine warning to progressives that we have hope but not blind faith in the ease with which we can achieve our goals. A tragic sensibility is core to Cold War liberalism. Again, in The Vital Center: “You cannot expel conflict from society any more than you can from the human mind.” Today, that means taking seriously the obstruction we’ll face from steadfast conservatives and the cult of Donald Trump. We require a hard-boiled realism that can sustain political engagement—the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” that Max Weber once called politics.
I realize Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins are intent on noting the use of Cold War liberal language during the years of the War on Terror. I’ll admit that I saw a bunch of sloppy analogies thrown around during the aughts by so-called liberal hawks. Al Qaeda is not the Soviet Union; flying planes into buildings to kill civilians was not the grinding and bureaucratic concentration camp of Hitler’s regime; Islamic fundamentalism did not have the draw that communism did for many Americans especially during the 1940s. These careless comparisons—some implicit, others explicit—were designed to give weight to a liberal commitment to George W. Bush’s foreign policy, which was developed by neoconservatives who believed in unilateral wars of choice.
Yet I am unwilling to accept the authors’ allegation that “Cold War liberalism is now a zombie ideology.” Here they miss the richness of this political tradition. Liberal intellectuals practiced care in attending to differences and conflicts, and these distinctions matter. The authors conflate Bush and Obama’s foreign policies, while recognizing Obama’s indebtedness to Niebuhr’s thought (it’s hard to imagine that Bush read anything to inform his decision-making). Obama’s method was “lead from behind,” as his critics called it. He never got America into a preemptive war, and he remained a critic of unilateralism and “America First” rhetoric. Obama was not perfect, but his curiosity and tragic sensibility informed his view of America in the world.
Against the hubris of fundamentalism, liberals have warned us not to ditch a necessary sense of humility as we engage in politics. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, “I’ve felt that one should hold some part of oneself in reserve, never be completely sure of being right.” Schlesinger contrasted the “certitude” of totalitarianism with the “fallibility” of democracy. These are the virtues of liberalism: irony, fallibility, realism, wit. These are not such bad guideposts for a liberal left today.
Kevin Mattson serves on the editorial board of Dissent and is author of We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America.