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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Other Narratives

by Heather Hurlburt
Over the period that this debate has been up, we’ve seen a new mini-trend of progressive manifestoes on national security popping up, here, there and everywhere. My colleague Shadi Hamid did a nice job of summarizing them over at democracyarsenal.org.
But there’s also the emerging “narrative” mini-trend, with projects in the works at the Truman Project, Third Way, National Security Network and probably others I haven’t heard about yet.
I agree with much of the substantive critique that earlier commenters made of the Truman Project document’s central policy propositions and messaging language.
And I even agree with David Rieff that some of the progressive community can be awfully quick to embrace a cleaned-up version of “our” past heroes — the sort of thing that, first, we like to chide the Republicans for doing and second can lead us to repeat their mistakes (see under: hubris).
Bruce Jentleson has some thoughtful comments on one of the political class’s new favorite national security clichés — how good we had it under containment.
What I don’t ever get from Rieff’s critique is a sense of how we are supposed to move forward. Yes, I’d like to see the national security community pause and ask ourselves whether we’re really sure we wouldn’t let another Rwanda happen again, especially since it looks as if we are in slow-motion in Darfur. We could have a productive discussion about the right lessons to learn from how Kennedy got embroiled in Vietnam, and how those are relevant to the mistakes in judgment that well-intentioned progressives made on Iraq. And we should be thinking about how Roosevelt’s treatment of Japanese-Americans has echoes in the present day.
That’s something that Rieff and writers like him are particularly well-placed to do — and it behooves the rest of us to pay attention.
But that’s not the only thing progressives need. They need a playbook for candidates, elected officials, and talking heads to follow — and that is the sort of thing that the Truman Project and others are trying to develop. Such efforts use the language of politics — as they should.
But there’s a third thing progressives need, where I think both the Truman effort as outlined and the Rieff critique are missing the mark. The compelling American narratives are not now being written inside the Beltway by smart foreign policy professionals. They are being “written” by soldiers with cameras in Iraq; by viewers picking videos on YouTube; by country musicians and comedians and film directors and everyone who is trying to make sense of our world at a human level, not a policy one. The party that next gains the upper hand will not be the one whose young staffers write the most eloquent narrative, but the one that best understands the narrative that the public is telling itself and that the entertainment industry chooses to tell. In 2006, Democrats had a relatively easy job of aligning ourselves with a public mood still best captured by TV news coverage of Katrina: “How could they do this to us?”
That narrative wasn’t written in Washington, and the next one won’t be either. Soul-searching about the past and paradigm development for the present are both important. In national security, professional Democrats have seldom done enough of either. But they won’t be sufficient; and in fact, if we focus too much on the “technology” and ignore what’s happening beyond our office windows, we’ll be scooped again.

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