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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What’s Left?

by David Rieff
Having proudly identified themselves as the heirs to Cold War liberalism, the authors of the Truman Project paper nonetheless wish to claim to be leftists. This is preposterous. The point is not, as they claim, that I am trying to propound “one vision of the left,” as they put it, let alone that I am carrying its mantle. Not that this will be of great interest to the readers of this blog, but in European terms I rather think I would be on the right of center of any mainstream social democratic party. A ‘hardline leftist?’ Not bloody likely.
But the authors’ ad hominem attacks aside, the point here is that only in the fundamentally right-wing context of the United States can Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and F.D.R. be considered figures of the left…unless, that is, the Truman Project paper’s authors have defined down the left so much that it includes people who a) supported all existing economic arrangements, even if they wanted to reform them slightly, b) were avid Cold Warriors, and c) were committed to American hegemony in the world. If that’s left, then what are all those tendencies (no, not just one) to the left of that?
It continues to fascinate me that the authors of the paper are so indifferent to, let me put it charitably, the non-left aspects of their heroes. To FDR, Truman and JFK, they now add Woodrow Wilson to their pantheon. Woodrow Wilson! One of the most virulently anti-black presidents in American history, the man who ordered US forces to invade Mexico, not once but several times. Now there’s a left/progressive role model for you!
Lastly, the authors of the Truman Project paper observe that I “challenge the American greatness narrative.” In that, of course, they are correct. But they go on to say that “we think this is an intellectual dead end. Americans, like all individuals, like to think of themselves as good, and perhaps more than many others, wish to think of their country as great.” This may be true. But that does not make what I said an intellectual dead end, it makes it a political dead end. Even in Washington, surely at least some people remember that is not the same thing. On an intellectual level, the issue is whether the American national greatness narrative is true or false, not whether, as the authors put it, “the left’s fight against [Americans’] desire [for such a narrative] has been its death knell.”
Actually, the reverse is the case. The intellectual dead end is when political activists pander to the public and reject the intellectually licit and the historically accurate in the name of political expediency. That, in my view, is what the authors of the paper are up to. And between the Republican original and this Democratic photocopy, I’m by no means sure the Republicans don’t come out the winners.

David Rieff is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven books including, most recently, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention.

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