The Paradox of Democracy

George Packer — that rare species: a sensible socialist — gives us this thoughtful assessment of the marketplace of ideas in foreign policy. He describes Senator Joe Biden’s efforts to address problems he sees in the execution of the War on Terror. Biden is not looking to erode the military underpinning of our response to Islamofascism, and in that he is refreshing. To wit, Packer’s piece begins with the Senator experiencing an awakening that should move any altruistic hawk:

"In December, 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, President Bush asked Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who was then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to draft a legislative proposal for winning the minds of young people around the Muslim world. The following month, Biden went to Kabul, where he toured a new school -- one that was bitterly cold, with plastic sheeting over the windows and a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. When the visit was over and Biden started to leave, a young girl stood ramrod straight at her desk and said, 'You cannot leave. You cannot leave.'

'I promise I'll come back,' Biden told her.

'You cannot leave,' the girl insisted. 'They will not deny me learning to read. I will read, and I will be a doctor like my mother. I will. America must stay.'

As Biden put it in a recent interview, the Afghan girl was telling him, 'Don't f*** with me, Jack. You got me in here. You said you were going to help me. You better not leave me now.'"

I'd wager this is a guy who gets it.

There are a number of passages I could excerpt from Packer's article, but most of all I was stricken by this:

In the days that followed the September 11th attacks, we saw the early stages of something like a national self-mobilization. The long lines of would-be blood donors, the volunteers converging on lower Manhattan from around the country, the fumbling public efforts at understanding Islam: the response took on very personal tones. People spoke as if they wanted to change their lives. An unemployed young video producer waiting to give blood in Brooklyn said to me, 'I volunteered so I could be part of something. All over the world, people do something for an ideal. I've been at no point in my life when I could say something I've done has affected mankind.' A generation legendary for its self-centeredness seemed to grasp that here was a historic chance to aim for something greater.

It has been much remarked that President Bush did nothing to tap this palpable desire among ordinary people to join a larger effort. Americans were told to go shopping and watch out for suspicious activity. Nothing would ever be the same, and everything was just the same. 'How urgent can this be if I tell you this is a great crisis and, at the time we're marching to war, I give the single largest tax cut in the history of the United States of America?' Biden said. The tax cuts haven't just left the country fiscally unsound during wartime; their inequity has been terrible for morale. But the President's failure to call for shared, equal sacrifice followed directly on the governing spirit of the modern Republican Party. After years of a sustained assault on the idea of collective action, there was no ideological foundation left on which Bush could stand up and ask what Americans can do for their country. We haven't been asked to study Arabic, to join the foreign service or international aid groups, to form a national civil reserve for emergencies -- or even to pay off the cost of the war in our own time. The war's burdens are borne solely by a few hundred thousand volunteer soldiers.

Perhaps this was a shrewd political intuition on Bush's part -- a recognition that Americans, for all their passion after September 11th, would inevitably slouch back to their sofas. It's fair to ask, though, how a body politic as out of shape as ours is likely to make it over the long, hard slog of wartime; how convincingly we can export liberal democratic values when our own version shows so many signs of atrophy; how much solidarity we can expect to muster for Afghanis and Iraqis when we're asked to feel so little for one another.

'Why does not democracy believe in itself with passion?' Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asked in 'The Vital Center,' his 1949 book about totalitarianism and America's anxious postwar mood. 'Why is freedom not a fighting faith?'"

Indeed, in the Cold War context from which we can learn much about our struggle against Islamofascism -- that next, epic iteration in the anti-liberal oeuvre -- President Kennedy observed:

It is one of the great ironies of our time that the techniques of a harsh and repressive system should be able to instill discipline and ardor in its servants -- while the blessings of liberty have too often stood for privilege, materialism, and a life of ease."

The paradox of democracy is that its greatest moral virtue -- its principled elevation of the individual -- can be its worst practical weakness.

There are a number of implications here, not the least of which are those that inform the prognosis of Iraq -- but that's for another time. President Bush's recent appearance on Meet the Press, tepidly received by conservatives, revealed a striking inappreciation of his domestic shortcomings. And this isn't being shored up by inspiring initiatives. Take the SOTU: Steroids? Money for abstinence programs? And of course there is the powerful WMD red herring. Andrew Sullivan, for one, is losing faith, and I've got to say, in spite of the Herculean effort required to squander the advantage conferred on an incumbency by two successful wars, Bush may just do it.

If this should come to pass, it will be due less to domestic problems than to a lack of civic appreciation of the importance of the War on Terror. I am talking about a higher form of civics, the best kind, that which is felt en bloc by a society in a struggle to survive. That my framing the issue this way will appear hyperbolic to some readers makes my point. Would it have seemed so during the weeks after 9/11? We live in a time when foreign policy is ascendent, but it's as if we're tired of shouldering this perspective.

The Democratic alternative is an atavism. Devolving to multilateralism, coddling a corrupt and inutile UN, and worst of all, pandering to thugs, absolutely spells disaster. Conservatives are as right about 9/11 as liberals were about the Civil Rights movement. For Republicans, it would be sad to lose this election so needlessly -- the political version of Bill Buckner's 1986 Rain Man moment against the Mets. For all of us, though, it would be a tragedy to lose the War on Terror because we lost our civic common sense.

Let's remember what this election is really about.

Posted by at February 17, 2004 2:45 AM