Democracy Arsenal

« Iraq: Damage Control | Main | 8 Events That Could Change Everything »

December 11, 2006

Truman Democrat II
Posted by Ali Eteraz

See update I below.

There has been a lot of feedback to my inquiry whether Truman Democrats could become a movement. In the comments. By Mathew Yglesias. And a snark by Atrios who has labeled me among the "silly" people.

The majority of the replies have argued that my dichotomy between "Isolationist Leftist" and "Truman Democrat" is false. They prefer to be referred to as "anti-interventionists." Their assumption is that since the word "anti-intervention" is not as insular sounding as "isolationist" they can't be accused of being self-obsessed Americans. This is an altogether meaningless game of semantics. Why? Because there is no such thing as a pure anti-interventionist. Even Kossacks have a favorite intervention: Darfur (these are the 432,00 results when you type "Darfur Daily Kos" into Google). So, very quickly it is established that in this global world, every American is an interventionist. (By the way, what exactly is "interventionism" anyway? Is foreign aid a form of interventionism? In that case we've been "intervening" in Israel since '67 and in Egypt since '79 both as Republicans and as Democrats). So those who don't want to be called Isolationist need to come up with a better term for themselves than "anti-interventionist."

Second, Yglesias'  reply and the Atrios snark are predicated on their antagonism towards "hegemony." (In my post I stated that American hegemony was principle # 3 of a Truman Democrat). But hegemony, by itself, is not bad. It is what is done with hegemony that matters. This is the most significant point at which Truman Democrats differ from the Neo-Cons that the ultra-Left wants to paint them out to be. Neo-Conservative hegemony was rooted in the idea that the first step in "improving" relationships with the the third world was to use military means to depose its dictators (which we ironically previous supported), and simply wait for those third world savages to run around in backbending thanks for being "liberated." Neo-Cons thought that once you put a good licking on a country (Japan 1945) that country's population did what you wanted them to do. Truman Democrats differ from this. It is disingenous for the ultra-Left (which is what I'm calling them since they don't like Isolationist and aren't anti-interventionist) to characterize a Truman Democrat in this manner as they do when they use the word "hegemony" as an epithet (or as Yglesias does when he reduces my entire post to "Democratic Hegemonists").

Now, to his credit, after Yglesias reduces a Truman Democrat to a "hegemonist" and concludes that the ultra Left is not Isolationist either, he offers a third way out: he calls it Liberalism.

The alternative to hegemonism and isolationism is, well, liberalism a policy of global engagement based on the attempt to create and sustain a liberal world order. To take a specific example, for the United States to join the International Criminal Court would be neither an isolationist policy nor a hegemonic one, but rather a liberal policy in which we submit to an egalitarian framework of rules and cooperate with others in the effort the enforce those rules. Generally speaking, the concept of cooperation is what's missing from the "Trumanite" world-view.

Ok, but I have no idea what a "liberal world order" means, especially since the rallying cry of the hawks since 2001 has been that they are out to create a liberal world order. Besides, isn't talking in terms of "world orders" so Condi Rice circa 2005? Any suggestions on how to wrest "liberal" back from the hawks? If I am not mistaken, it was precisely because the hawks were so firmly in control of the word that the term "progressive" became so popular. Yglesias thinks that it is sufficiently clarifying to say that one is a liberal when one joins the International Criminal Court since that kind of stuff demonstrates the sort of "cooperation" he believes is missing from the Truman Democrat worldview. Well, if that's the case, then Yglesias is a Truman Democrat because it just so happens that the Truman Democrats are backed by such people as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is one of the foremost proponents of an internationalist legal regime. Not only that, but her recent work has involved talking about "soft-law" (the kind of legal relations between judges and lawyers from various first and third world countries which help promote, oh, what was that, oh yes: cooperation. (In fact, my 6 part definition of what is a Truman Democrat comes from her definition). So either Truman Democrats are liberals, or the self-styled left liberals are Truman Democrats. Point is: the ultra-Left needs to take a breather each time they see the word "exceptionalism" and "hegemony" because they will often find that not everyone is out to use these principles in a way that Bush used them in Iraq.

Truman Democrats do, however, believe in the use of force, and that is, to me, where the crux of the matter lies. I think the rank and file in the American Left today are very wary of any foreign policy position which takes the use of force as a given -- this is due to Iraq. This is understandable. However, Truman Democrats have to honestly say that the use of force that they would engage in would be a) circumscribed by international norms, b) in line with American tradition pre-Bush's pre-emptive war ideology and c) in line with Western natural law theory. What Truman Democrats are very clear about is that even if a, b, and c are satisfied, the use of force may still be necessary. It may, for example, be necessary to put gunships in Iran's mouth if it makes a strategic bid to cut off the Persian Gulf. Just as, it would be (and is) necessary, to send troops to Darfur. Power is a fact. If our foreign policy presumptively discounts the use of power politics, we will be outstripped by the illiberal Chinese and the protectionist Europeans.

With respect to the Middle East, Truman Democrats are driven by the idea that building institutions in the Middle East, with a diplomatic and hardheaded push for democracy, an activist engagement in the human rights regimes, and a resolution to the issue of Israel are of utmost importance to our American security (since it is accepted that the absence of freedom creates the conditions for fanaticism and terrorism).

With respect to Iraq, for the most part, Truman Democrats are of the opinion that what was a war that we didn't support, and was a war that exceeded acceptable human rights norms, has, due to our -- American -- hubris, now set the stage for a potential human catastrophe if we withdraw without giving the Iraqi government adequate tools to fend for itself. I fail to understand why the ultra-Left would not support a strategic presence in Iraq for the simple reason that the alternative is a human catastrophe potentially like Darfur (except with suicide bombers instead of machete-men). Truman Democrats want to create the conditions -- by using resources and man power -- to help create civil society. Ultra-Left/Isolationists/Cooperationists/Left-Liberals think that if you leave people alone, they can do these things on their own. It is true, people can. But they can do these things faster when they have backing. Neo-Cons wanted to back them with guns. The ultra-Left wants to back them with spirit. Truman Democrats want to back them with resources. 

Leadership often requires fixing the errors of our predecessors. The War in Iraq was an erroneous war, and to make matters worse, the predecessors were not ones we chose. But the fact is, with the Left in charge of the House and the Senate, it has to exhibit the leadership qualities which ameliorate the errors of the predecessors. And it has to do so by working with the people available to it in the real world, not the people it imagines could exist once everyone else got their house in order. It is for this reason that projects like Eteraz and Conflicts Forum get political importance by Truman Democrats but get only symbolic importance ("good for dialogue") by the ultra-Left.

Update I: Some thoughts on why I concur that dropping Truman is wise and Left Realism is better.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Truman Democrat II:


I've said this a bunch of times elsewhere, and its not addressing the totality of your post.

But the problem isn't a lack of democracy in a general sense. After all, there aren't "Burmese terrorists." The problem is the lack of democracy/human rights in important middle east countries that are and continue to be American allies This is the fundamental problem with Bush's policy and I would guess a major reason why all his administrations efforts are for naught. Because the problem was never in Iraq. It WAS in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan. The background of the 9/11 highjackers and of the AQ movement more generally is not an accident - basically all from authoritarian pro-US states in the Middle East. Not from Iraq. Or Syria. Or Iran. But all the states that Bush is now desperately trying to enlist in alliance of "moderates." Sounds awfully like the pre-9/11 status quo.

Again, can't you think of a better name than "Truman Democrats"? Movements shouldn't be named after dead people. Also, as much as there are many things I like about Truman, dropping 2 atomic bombs on cities full of innocent people without first warning Japan with a test showing is not something I want to model myself after. Sorry.


Ali Eteraz,

Your gallant "use of force" is simply a euphemism for "dropping five hundred pound high explosive fragmentation bombs on innocent people, killing and maiming men, women and children indiscriminately and horribly."

You think that's a good idea. I don't.

Have you ever been to Japan? In Japan, it is said that a person who folds 1,000 origami cranes will have a long and healthy life. That's because people believe these graceful birds live for 1,000 years.

On August 6, 1945, when Sadako Sasaki was not quite two, an atomic bomb exploded over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Because her family lived on the outskirts, none of them were hurt and Sadako became a lively girl. She loved running and won many races but ten years after the bombing, she became ill. She had leukemia, which people began to call the A-bomb sickness because many other children like her also got the disease.

In the hospital, Sadako decided to fold 1,000 cranes. It was easy at first but, as she became weaker and weaker, it became harder to make each fold. When she died, she had made only 644 cranes. Just before she died, she held one of them up and quietly said . . ."I will write Peace on your wings and you will fly all over this world."

Harry S Truman ordered the dropping of that bomb.

This and the last post are surely one of the more hilarious and effective parodies I've seen in a while on the Internets. Very well put together. The combination of Valiant War against Straw, utter incomprehension of international relations debates, and out-and-out self promotion is note-perfect. One might, if one read it quickly and carelessly, mistake it for the real thing. It's that good. I only wish that there was a proper marketplace for Grand Strategy Standup Comedy out there. You'd make a fortune, you would.

This is a potentially interesting discussion, and would be moreso if you could avoid attacking the straw version of Yglesias's argument with intentionally inflammatory slurs ("self-centered", "ultra Left", why not just say "dirty hippie?") and actually engage the merits of his argument. The question left unanswered is "who are these Ultra Leftists who summarily reject the use of force of which you speak, and what is their relevance to and influence on the discussion?" Noam Chomsky is not a member of the U.S. House of representatives, nor does he have the bully pulpit of an op-ed billet at a major newspaper.

In terms your six-part formulation of Truman Democratism, those who disagree do so on the basis of the fact that, as you use the terms, "exceptionalism" "use of force" and "hegemony" complete eviscerate the second three ("world community, liberal-mindedness, and helping the least well off") which are the parts which actually represent liberal ideas.

You do not "help the least well off" by bombing them and/or turning their homes into a Hobbesian nightmare. The world community takes a dim view of the vaguely Nixonian assertion that if the USA does it, it must be ok. These are not insignificant contradictions.

Consider the fact that people who disagree with you might do so not out of petty selfishness or naked partisanship, but because they think (rightly or wrongly) that the worldview you are endorsing produces bad outcomes (from both the domestic and international perspective) and does so in a systemic fashion. And then show me why I'm wrong to think the above. Then we can talk.

Your two posts constitute an intellectual disgrace. People who reduce themselves to name-calling demonstrate nothing but the emptiness of their ideas.

You also seem oblivious to the situation of the world today. We are not talking, for example, about whether to threaten war if Iran chokes off the Persian Gulf. We are talking about going to war with Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Is that, or is that not, a good idea? I don't hear too many "Truman Democrats" offering an opinion on that question. Why not?

Finally, it is my impression that, contra your assertion, a great many of those you would label "Truman Democrats" did not oppose the Iraq war at all. That would be why many of us do not trust them to make sound policy decisions in the future.


When you ask what a liberal world order would look like, it makes me question your intellectual integrity. The Clinton Administration gave us a clear view of what such a world order could be. No, they did not succeed in every venture but they tried.

Since I do not wish to believe you lack intellectual integrity, I'm going to choose to believe you are asking for a definition. A liberal world order would be best defined as taking the best parts of various world orders that have been tried before with some success.

From realism, we could take the concept of national interest. If you make it in each nation's best interests to be part of your order, they will join it. There will also have to be some disincentive to discourage the formation of a rival organization.

From Cold War liberalism, we'll take the concept of collective security. We should not be invading other nations without very good cause. Even a war of liberation will cost lives. Even so, there needs to be the available threat of a stick to nations acting against the common good.

From the lessons gained from our own history, we should find a way to implement fairer trade. I have yet to see a fair trade proposal that I have liked. Despite this, I'm sure various international unions could come up with a system that will raise standards of living world wide faster than they are rising now.

There needs to be a new concept grown from what is happening around us. In the age of globalization, we are all citizens of the world to some extent or another. We need to move in the direction of an effective human rights enforcement system. I do not know what this would look like but I believe that the lack of such a system is glaringly obvious.

The effects aren't just felt in Darfur but also in the state of Florida where elected officials can't seem to count the votes. I don't want anyone invading Florida to liberate it so intervention must be proportional. It is all a matter of degree but some people need to calibrate the measuring tools of intervention.

Some of this should be familiar to you, sir. The biggest single problem among various Democratic factions is that we talk past each other. It shouldn't matter what term we use except in elections when using the same words party wide should help.

John S (but not the other J.S. in this thread)

I'll take the Pooh/John S doctrine over the Truman Doctrine any day.

Response to a few comments:

I'm being called a name caller? I find that amusing in light of the stuff I've been called in Yglesias' and Atrios' websites. Go and take a look. If my use of the the term "ultra left" is being considered an epithet, it is because you aren't recognizing my bigger point: that all the terms they would rather use (liberal, anti-interventionist) are either not applicable to them, or irrelevant to them.

I am not trying to burn bridges with any one of the Left. In my first post, I said at least three different times that we all agree on the basics, and we share the domestic agenda. That counts for a hell of a lot. Rachel Kleinfeld, one of the founders of the Truman Project makes this point in comment # 20 of the previous post.

As to whether the name "Truman Democrat" is a good one or not, I am more than willing to change it, and debate it -- but only as a matter of semantics (not to change the principles behind it: I'll explain why below). I know that previously Shadi has used some formulation of Principled Idealist. I'm not sure if I agree with that. Maybe I'll make a post about it as I think people in this group are *not* idealists and realists of the hardest variety (but they might disagree). I certainly am a Realist.

The reason that the first three principles do not eviscerate the latter three is because the first three do *not* exist independently of the last three. Jurists regularly use balancing tests composed of mutually contradictory "elements." I think policy makers live even more in the world of balancing tests. It is not a big deal to expect them to do the same.

John S: I didn't talk about Liberal World Order. Yglesias did. You are imputing his line to me.

I agree many commenters on your statement have been needlessly obscure and complex.

You're a dick. You're a toad. You're a lying fascist enabler of neocons and McCarthyites. You're the enemy of freedom. Fuck you.

Isn't that much clearer and more unambiguous?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use