Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Nationalist Left Rises

Post-1960s progressives have been captured by a spirit of militarism.
Obama plane flag_edited
President Barack Obama speaks to U.S. military and civilian personnel about his plan to lift the nearly 20-year executive ban on oil and natural gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico at Joint Base Andrews, Md., March 31, 2010. Obama also announced that a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft, dubbed "The Green Hornet," will be tested on Earth Day, April 22, 2010. If the test is successful, it will be the first fighter to reach supersonic speed with a 50/50 blend of hydrotreated renewable jet and jet propellant-8 fuel. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Perry Aston/Released)

In a telling anecdote from President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, one attending Democrat looked up to watch the Air Force’s fighter jet fly-over and remarked: “Those are our F-15s now.” There was hardly a nationalist Left back then, as many liberals and those even further Left had spent the better part of two decades alienated from the institutions, symbols, and instruments of U.S. power and influence. Over the succeeding two decades, however, we have seen a muscular Left nationalism rise to set liberal foreign policy, and begin to set the Democratic agenda here at home.

Nationalism and patriotism were hard sells to a generation of the disenchanted Left, thanks to the Vietnam War and revelations of assassinations both attempted and successful, coups, and more nefarious activities carried out by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. There was “Cold War liberalism” for a time, but it rarely if ever made vulgar attempts at jingoism to sell its policies to the wider public. Cold War liberalism always argued to work in concert with the international system that it had helped create. Such jingoism was instead often used by the Right, especially after the Liberal crack-up of the late 1960s when the Cold War liberals became isolated in the halls of the liberal power elite, cut off and opposed to their party’s activists on the Vietnam War, the size of military budget, nuclear weapons, U.S involvement in Central and South America, direct military action in placed like Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War and other foreign policy issues.

What changed the American Left was power, pure and simple. The end of the Cold War in 1991 took foreign policy from being the main point of difference between the two parties and let questions of economics take center stage, making it possible for a scandal-tarred five-term Governor of Arkansas to become President of the United States. Out of power, it had been easy for the Left to dissent against the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy, just as it had been doing since the mid-1960s. Certainly the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, did so as young political activists at the time. Once in power, though, they and others who came through that 20-year period as dissenters were now suddenly responsible for the defense of the nation. And at first things did not go very well for them. Without a Cold War to structure U.S. foreign policy, said policy found itself confused and directionless. Military and civilian personnel often clashed, especially over culture and protocol as some wanted a peace dividend, others wanted the use the military as place for social engineering (openly serving gays in the military, women in combat roles); still others saw the military as a global police force (“What’s the use of having this great military when you can’t use it?” as Madeline Albright put it.) The resulting confusion and conflict often led to disasters like the U.S. intervention in Somalia and led to speculation about a “shrinking Presidency,” as Time magazine put it.

Bill Clinton had no intention of shrinking in office, especially after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The New Left’s non-interventionist, anti-jingoism mentality may have channeled dissent against the Cold War and the legacy of Vietnam, but it lost force without a Cold War to dissent from. Not intervening to stop Hutus from massacring Tutsis was seen as closer to what an older Left called “isolationism” than principled nonintervention, and it came under fevered assault from, among others, President Obama’s current pick for UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.

Thus was born the nationalist Left, willing to use force even while working with our allies and international institutions (to try and set itself apart from nationalist conservatives), but always prideful of the U.S.’s place as the “indispensable nation” that intervened across the globe to support its perceived “good guys”. It almost had to be born in such a vacuum if the Democratic Party wished to govern the world’s sole remaining super power. Albright eventually became Secretary of State, her allies filled  key diplomatic, intelligence, and defense positions within the government, and those not in step with the times were let go. Soon the U.S. was sending troops all over the globe again, intervening in far more places than under the Reagan and Bush I presidencies, and ultimately intervening in the Wars of the Yugoslavian Secession after refusing to get involved under Clinton’s first term.

Even as the Clintons departed from the White House, Left Nationalism in foreign policy was here to stay. Democrats backed U.S. retaliation for 9-11 in Afghanistan. Their votes in Congress (including from then-Sen. Hillary Clinton) sent the U.S. to war in Iraq. Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair played the same inspirational and intellectual role to U.S. liberals as Winston Churchill did for U.S. conservatives generations earlier. When current Secretary of State John Kerry became the Democratic nominee for President in 2004, he did so by playing up his military service as a lieutenant in Vietnam, not as a leader of the “Winter Soldiers” of 1971, who threw away their medals in opposition to the war. “Reporting for duty!” he said at his nominating convention, backed by a row of generals on stage. One of Kerry’s major rivals for the nomination was the very general who led U.S. forces in Yugoslavia, Wesley Clark, as the nationalist Left desperately sought to shed its image of noninterventionism by draping itself in military decoration.

Yes, there was an anti-war reaction to Iraq from the Left. It staged massive marches against the war across the country, it fueled the 2004 Presidential campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (even if he wasn’t especially liberal himself), it was personified by people like Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq. And it ultimately helped a man named Barack Hussein Obama become President.

With that action, though, the fate of the non-nationalistic Left was pretty much sealed. It was much easier to organize other Leftists against a Republican, a conservative administration populated with caricature-like warmongers, but a harder sell when it’s a black, liberal President who just allowed gays in the military. Obama himself, as he repeatedly noted, never opposed intervention or war in principle, just “stupid wars” like the one in Iraq. And with the rapidity with which he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, and by next year will have withdrawn them from Afghanistan combined with lingering concerns about terrorism and security, it has become almost impossible to get ordinary people to dissent from U.S. foreign policy or the national security state. Under Obama, U.S. drones drop bombs which slaughter whole villages in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, the Administration spies on reporters, the IRS investigates the political activities of public groups, the NSA collects vast swaths of American phone records, TSA agents continue to harass at the airport, the Patriot Act and other noxious, related laws still are in place, Gitmo is still a prison, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army PFC who leaked thousands of classified documents and diplomatic cables to the website Wikileaks, is still in prison, the government unrelenting in its efforts to prosecute him. The public’s reaction to all this? Anywhere from indifference to active cheering.

In another day and in another time, Bradley Manning would have been the perfect person to be chosen as an honorific Grand Marshal of the annual San Francisco Pride Parade. Manning’s ordeals in prison and the overzealous manner in which the federal government prosecuted him have earned him support from many all over the world. Juxtaposing his gay orientation alongside that of the military’s former prohibition against gays serving openly in its ranks would have made Manning the perfect symbol of a citizen struggling against oppression at home and militarism abroad. Certainly no one organizing such a parade would have objected to it.

Almost as soon as Manning was tabbed to be this year’s parade grand marshal by the organizing committee, though, the offer was rescinded by that committee’s leadership for a variety of reasons seen by local activists to be utterly convoluted and downright deceptive. Antiwar.com editor Justin Raimondo wrote that the parade committee is run by partisan hacks of the city’s Democratic Party machine, unwilling to embarrass the Obama Administration while it’s throwing the book at Manning, and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald argued that the corporate backers of the parade want things to be respectable, and they put pressure on the leadership to make it so. Both may be the case, but it has also since come out that the objections to Manning headlining the parade came not just from interested institutions, but from the gays and lesbians now openly serving in the nation’s armed forces. They have a different point of view than those on the social democratic, antiwar Left about Manning’s actions, and they resent others “speaking in their name” just because Manning is gay. Thus the rise of Left nationalism has even swept one of the most stalwart counter-cultural communities of the New Left into a mainstreamed comfort with institutionalized power and militarism.

What started as a patriotic, nationalistic foreign policy has created a nationalist Left domestically as well, one that, as it has grown accustomed to wielding power, has started looking for ever more places to crusade employ it. Indeed when it comes to social questions like health care or gay marriage, the nationalist Left speaks like the old Whigs and Republicans of the 19th century. Salon writer Andrew O’Hehir unfurled the nationalist Left’s banner at the beginning of this year:

Today’s fights over abortion and gays and God and guns have a profound moral dimension, but don’t quite have the world-historical weight of the slavery question. As with slavery, however, it’s tough to imagine any viable long-term middle ground. At the moment, two women who get married in Iowa will have no legal relationship if they move to Kansas, and a teenage girl in Seattle can easily get a safe and legal abortion while her cousin in Dallas faces mandatory counseling, a 24-hour waiting period and a parental consent law. (If they have another cousin in rural Mississippi, she probably won’t find legal abortion services under any terms.) Regardless of how you feel about those issues, that’s nuts. No nation-state can function indefinitely on that kind of patchwork-quilt basis.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” as Lincoln said. As the nationalist Left flocked to watch the film Lincoln this past winter, they did not fill the theaters to see government and the Congress “working”, but to see themselves as Lincoln’s heirs, or even better Thaddeus Stevens disciples, ready to finish the job of the Reconstructing the “reactionary” South and its fellow rural red states. The communitarianism, populism, and localism of the now old New Left is pretty much gone and with it the healthy skepticism of large institutions that defined many post-1960s liberals. Today, so long as one state bans gay marriage, or tries to thwart Obamacare, or puts onerous restrictions on abortion or immigration, national solutions are needed to keep this diverse, multicultural country together. To the nationalist Left of the present day, the liberals of the 70s, 80s and even early 90s, were weak, whiney, out of touch and at times self-destructive. Their alienation was nothing more than mere posturing.  The new breed want to be Johnson, Kennedy, Truman, Roosevelt, Wilson all in one with Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Stevens rolled in for good measure.

In this they have the perfect foil for their opposition, the Tea Party Right. Born amidst the ruins of “Big Government” or “Compassionate” conservatism, Tea Partiers have tried to meld their conservative identity to a visceral libertarian view of statism, even if they can’t always agree or are fuzzy on what it would entail; that the most popular Republican amongst the young is the libertarian-influenced Ron Paul shows a sense, at least, of knowing who their opponents really are and what they represent. Such political divisions may last, and supersede the current Left-Right arguments, even perhaps realigning the parties to a degree if nationalist conservatives decide they’re willing to live with a liberal social policy in exchange for an keeping military bases open and an interventionist foreign policy.

After all, the nationalist Left dominates the Administration’s foreign policy and the organs of liberal opinion, especially amongst its younger blogger crowd. Unless events alter course, whoever succeeds Obama among the Democrats, whether it be Biden, Clinton, O’Malley or Cuomo, will largely follow the policies of the current Administration and employ the same people implementing them. Only one real liberal of any stature, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, would offer a dissenting critique to the nationalist Left, and no one talks of an impending Feingold campaign for 2016. Even if he did run, and win, there’s no guarantee he would not act follow in the footsteps of Obama, adopting the rhetoric of the antiwar Left only to succumb to the national security apparatus that surrounds any President, along with the nationalist spell that has taken over the party. They’re at the front of the parade now, leading it where they want, and choosing the grand marshal as well.

Sean Scallon is journalist and author living in Arkansaw, Wisconsin.