Where Do We Go From Here?

Humphrey and Johnson
Humphrey and Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Ever since the Cold War began, the Center in American politics has increasingly had to adopt the policies and outlook of the Right. Thus the Truman Administration, after first ridiculing the rightist myth of an internal communist conspiracy, set up a loyalty program based on the premise that this myth was a reality. Similarly, the Eisenhower Administration outmaneuvered Joseph McCarthy by making his anti-communist crusade official policy, in the form of Attorney General Brownell’s security program. In foreign policy, liberals of the Center adopted as their own the theory that militant communism, bent on world domination, had to be contained by armed force, even though the policy of containment, as originally formulated by George F. Kennan, had not been intended to be exclusively military in its emphasis. When right-wing politicians launched their hysterical attack against Castro, Kennedy obliged them, in spite of his own last-minute misgivings, with the Bay of Pigs. When Goldwater demanded the liberation of South Vietnam, Johnson denounced him as a demagogue while secretly (and later not so secretly) putting Goldwater’s foreign policy into practice.

The dynamics of Cold War politics demanded of centrist liberals a continual effort to outmaneuver the Right by preempting it. This strategy, however, far from putting down the Right, merely contributed to its amazing growth. In taking over so much of the rightist program, liberal politicians raised expectations they were incapable of satisfying—victory in Korea, victory in Vietnam, the defeat of revolutionary movements all over the world. Instead of appeasing the Right, the inconclusive policy of containment encouraged clamor for the liberation of “captive nations,” while at home the unsuccessful attempt to contain explosive forces for change generated a rising demand for their forcible suppression. This demand now threatens to engulf the Center itself.

After twenty years of the Cold War, the focus of American politics has shifted far to the right. The liberal strategy of maintaining economic growth through arms spending, of containing revolution through a series of limited police actions, and of buying off domestic discontent by building superhighways and cars by means of which the newly prosperous ethnic constituencies, still the backbone of the liberal-welfare coalition, could escape the cities to the consumer paradise of the suburbs—this strategy fell apart against the unexpected obstacles of Vietnam, ghetto riots, and student rebellion. Not until Chicago, however, did its utter bankruptcy stand fully revealed. The Democratic debacle in Chicago showed, in the starkest terms, that the Cold War can no longer be maintained under the guise of liberalism; showed, more broadly, that the corporate order can defend itself against its combined opponents within and without only by calling in the assistance of the most reactionary forces in American life. What other meaning can we assign to the savagery with which the Chicago police, unrestrained by their nominal superiors, set upon not only the peace demonstrators but reporters, bystanders, and finally even…

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