Liberals and centrists, or hawks and doves?

It is being said that Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean creates or intensifies or exemplifies a split between “liberal” elements and “centrist” or “moderate” or “New Democratic” elements in the Democratic party.

Pardon me, but that’s horsesh*t. The split isn’t liberal/centrist; it’s hawk/dove.

That’s the central issue that divides Dean from Lieberman, and on which Gore agrees with Dean and not Lieberman: the question of how much American power, especially military power, should be used in the world, and how much of that power should be channeled through, and limited by, international institutions. (The war in Iraq is a symbol of this, but it’s possible to be hawkish in mood, tone, and general policy and yet to have opposed the war, as Wes Clark did.)

During the Cold War, when American power was often used to protect or establish reactionary regimes, and especially during and after the Vietnam war, there was a fairly strong — though far from perfect — relationship between domestic liberalism in its various dimensions (equal treatment for minorities, women’s rights, environmental protection, redistribution, support for unions, civil liberty [which included both limits on police power and toleration for alternative lifestyles], provision of public services, and redistribution of income) and a dovish stance on international affairs. The opposite had, roughly speaking, been true in the 1930s, when it was the right that didn’t want to get ready to fight Hitler.

But there’s really nothing about liberalism — whether defined as a set of doctrines or as a set of interests — that implies dovishness. Liberals have at least as good reasons as conservatives to want to see Islamic fundamentalism defeated.

It’s true that liberals are generally more distrustful of self-interest, whether individual or national, and more shamefaced about pursuing it, than are conservatives. They are certainly more prone to self-criticism, again collectively as well as individually. Liberals tend to see criticism of one’s own country, reflecting a commitment to ensuring that it does good rather than evil to others, as highly patriotic, while conservatives are more likely to equate criticism with disloyalty. And the idea that there could be a true international law, and that promoting it is a duty, has been a liberal idea since the days of Kant.

But there’s no internal contradiction in being a liberal hawk. Lieberman is both a hawk and something of a cultural conservative on lifestyle issues, but on the distributional questions, on support for unions, on women’s rights, on the environment, and on the question of the income distribution he’s at least as progressive as Howard Dean. (Rolling back the tax cuts for the quarter-million-a-year crowd alone is a more liberal stance than rolling them back for everyone.) I think Lieberman’s attacks on Dean, which the Republicans will be able to quote to good effect should Dean be the nominee, have reflected disloyalty to the party and a lack of seriousness about making sure that Bush isn’t re-elected, but the idea that Lieberman is some sort of closet Republican — “Bush lite” — doesn’t pass the giggle test.

9-11 put the country in a hawkish mood, and no matter how badly things go in Iraq a fundamentally dovish candidate will start the general election race behind the 8-ball. There’s a good argument to be made that Bush’s cowboy attitude and astounding incompetence have led to miserable failure in protecting our national security from the threat of terrorism. (The GAO report about the fumbling effort to trace terrorist money is really quite hair-raising.)

But that case can be made effectively only by someone with evident competence on security issues and a hawkish attitude. With Bob Graham out of the race, I think that leaves the Democrats with just one choice.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Liberals and centrists, or hawks and doves?”

Comments are closed.