David Brooks: The Liberal Inquisition

David Brooks at his most insidious. Why won’t he get it: Lieberman has been kissing Bush’s butt for 6 years, and continues to support an illegal war that is destroying our country’s spirit, world standing and pocketbook. “Support” is one thing. With Lieberman, it’s an aggressive, delighted support that is out of tune with his constituency. I respect Lieberman for his furthering the liberal cause for years, but he has disappointed me and so many others over Iraq, and that’s what it boils down to. We don’t want our liberal senator to be a Bush poodle who glowingly praises a war that more and more Americans do not understand and do not endorse. That’s it, that’s all. Lieberman’s suck-up to boy George has destroyed his credibility and made him unappealing to people like me who once supported him. This is the beauty of living in a free country, David. We can express our feelings and take action. Going after Lieberman is not an inquisition – it is not based on superstition or prejudice, only on Lieberman’s political performance.

The Liberal Inquisition
Published: July 9, 2006

Sometimes history comes with previews. In the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War served as a precursor to the global conflict that was World War II. And in a smaller fashion, the primary battle playing out on the smiling lawns of upscale Connecticut serves as a preview for the national conflict that will dominate American politics for the next two years.

This isn’t a fight between left and right. It’s a fight about how politics should be conducted. On the one hand are the true believers — the fundamentalists of both parties who believe that politics should be about party discipline, passion, purity, orthodoxy and clear choices. On the other side are the quasi-independents — the heterodox politicians who distrust ideological purity, who rebel against movement groupthink, who believe in bipartisanship both as a matter of principle and as a practical necessity.

In 2008, heterodox politicians like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and even Hillary Clinton are going to have to face zealous assaults from within their own parties. But for the moment that war has come to Joe Lieberman.

What’s happening to Lieberman can only be described as a liberal inquisition. Whether you agree with him or not, he is transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men. But over the past few years he has been subjected to a vituperation campaign that only experts in moral manias and mob psychology are really fit to explain. I can’t reproduce the typical assaults that have been directed at him over the Internet, because they are so laced with profanity and ugliness, but they are ginned up by ideological masseurs who salve their followers’ psychic wounds by arousing their rage at objects of mutual hate.

Next has come the effort to expel Lieberman from modern liberalism. In a dark parody of the old struggle between Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, the highly educated, highly affluent, highly Caucasian wing of the Democratic Party has turned liberalism from a philosophy into a secular religion, and then sought to purge a battle-scarred warhorse on the grounds of insufficient moral purity.

So these days, for example, one hears that Lieberman is a crypto-conservative, a Bible-Belter. In reality, of course, this is a man who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. He has a Christian Coalition rating of 0.

But a lifetime’s record is deemed not to matter any longer. For in the midst of the inquisition all of American liberalism has been reduced to one issue, the war. Just as some edges of the pro-life movement reduce all of conservatism to abortion, the upscale revivalists on the left reduce everything to Iraq, and all who are deemed impure must be cleansed away.

Lieberman’s opponent, Ned Lamont, has neither expertise in foreign affairs nor any specific knowledge of Iraq, and he has struggled to come up with a plan for what we should now do there. But that is not the point, for the opposition to Lieberman is not about future actions or even politics as it is normally understood. It is about impurity, the scarlet letter, and the need to expunge those who have transgressed.

Liberal interest groups that seek practical goals, like the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the League of Conservation Voters, back Lieberman. But the netroots now seek to purge what’s left of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, and to eliminate those who have had contact with the evildoers in the other party, because movements are deemed to prosper to the extent they achieve holiness unmarred.

Ned Lamont is a strange vessel for all this passion. Based on the candidate debate Thursday night, he seems a genial if under-prepared politician who would be an innocuous presence in the Senate if he were elected to it.

The big story out of the campaign last week was the aggressiveness Lieberman has finally brought to his side of the fight. Over the past few years, polarizers have dominated Congress because people who actually represent most Americans have been too timid or intellectually vacuous to stand up. Even today many Democrats who privately despise the netroots lie low, hoping the anger won’t be directed at them.

But Lieberman has had no choice but to fight, and he will probably prevail. If he doesn’t, and if his opponents go from statewide victory in Connecticut to a national primary assault in 2008, then I hope the Republicans will be smart enough to scoop up what is sure to come — yet another wave of disaffected Democrats looking for a political home.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

To The Editor:

In “The Liberal Inquisition”, David Brooks’s defense of Sen. Lieberman is admirable, if misguided. When have “the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men” served as criteria for the U.S. Senate, “whether you agree with him or not”? Why does a Democratic primary challenge represent an “inquisition”, a pointed reference to Spain’s purging of its Jews? If Mr. Brooks wants to go that route, where was the outrage when George W. Bush leveled vitriolic and baseless attacks on Sen. John McCain during the 2000 Republican primary?

But Mr. Brooks posits a more disturbing point: “all of American liberalism has been reduced to one issue, the war”. Wrong. This administration has forsaken democracy’s basic liberal tenets in its lust for power and politics of fear. After the Iraqi war, we will still have to regain the lost respect of allies, address trillions of dollars of national debt, and fix an economy that has lost its competitive edge while favoring cronyism and extreme wealth over hard-working Americans. Most tellingly, it will require strong, uncompromising leadership to repair a callous disregard for human rights and to restore the rule of law and separation of powers mandated by the U.S. Constitution.


Barbara Speer

July 9, 2006 @ 11:17 am | Comment

It’s interesting to compare Lieberman’s enthusiastic support of Bush on the Iraq war, with Lieberman’s strident denunciation (“immoral!”, “unacceptable!”)of Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair – perhaps the loudest such denunciation among Dems at the time. Hillary is one of the few establishment Dems who has recently come out saying she would support whoever wins the Aug. Primary – in other words, she will not support Lieberman running as an “independent Democrat”, in case he loses. Some speculate this is Hillary’s revenge for L.’s treatment of her spouse during the sex scandal.

I find Lieberman’s standards of morality puzzling… B.J.s in private between consenting adults are deemed unnaceptable and immoral, while an unprovoked war predicated on cooked intelligence and falsehoods that his killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis (and 2500+ US soldiers), is somehow “moral”? Brooks characterizes him as “the most kind hearted and well intentioned of men”. Not kind to Arab Iraqis though, it seems.

On a related note: I wonder how much of Lieberman’s unswaying support for Bush’s aggressive policies in the Middle East might possibly be due to support for a strategy, popular among many Israelis, that Israel would be safer with the likes of Saddam (who attacked Israel in ’92),out of the way, and with a new Iraq under Western influence? Is L. acting, on this issue, more as an Israeli lobbyist than as a representative of Connecticut constituents? Just asking.

Unfortunately, the Iraq war appears only to have helped further destabilize the region, and to have increased, not diminished Islamic extremism. How Israel could possibly be “safer” under such circumstances, appears a mystery to me.

July 9, 2006 @ 11:24 am | Comment

David Brooks ( “The Liberal Inquistion,” 9 July) is a one-horse pony. He looks at Joseph Lieberman and sees, not the man who helped prevent reform of the accounting industry throughout the 90s, but “the most . . . well-intentioned of men.” He looks at the “netroots” and finds not the ugliness of Neo-Nazis or the advocates of short-circuiting “the homosexual plot against America” but bloggers (how many are irrational) angry at a “kind hearted” Democrat whose ’06 presidential candidacy was based on the justness of a vicious war based on lies. Back at the stable and out of the public eye, he deigns to rub flanks with inquisitors like Coulter, Limbaugh and O’Reilly but their keeper knows that, all together, they are the prettiest horsies in his stable.

July 11, 2006 @ 8:28 pm | Comment

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