Rachel Maddow and conservatism, the new liberalism

The ‘prominent liberal’ misses the point that it is not politicians, but the system itself, which is corrupt.

Rachel Maddow
TV presenter Maddow's latest book speaks out against war, but not the system which makes wars inevitable [AP]

Washington, DC – Once upon a time – say, three years ago – your average Democrat appeared to care about issues of war and peace. When the man dropping the bombs spoke with an affected Texas twang, the moral and fiscal costs of empire were the subject of numerous protests and earnest panel discussions, the issue not just a banal matter of policy upon which reasonable people could disagree, but a matter of the nation’s very soul.

Then the guy in the White House changed.

Now, if the Democratic rank and file haven’t necessarily learned to love the bomb – though many certainly have – they have at least learned to stop worrying about it. Barack Obama may have dramatically expanded the war in Afghanistan, launched twice as many drone strikes in Pakistan as his predecessor and dropped women-and-children killing cluster bombs in Yemen, but peruse a liberal magazine or blog and you’re more likely to find a strongly worded denunciation of Rush Limbaugh than the president. War isn’t over, but one could be forgiven for thinking that it is.

Given the lamentable state of liberal affairs, Drift, a new book from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, is refreshing. Most left-of-centre pundits long ago relegated the issue of killing poor foreigners in unjustifiable wars of aggression to the status of a niche concern, somewhere between Mitt Romney’s family dog and the search results for “Santorum” in terms of national importance. So in that sense, it’s nice to see a prominent progressive at least trying to grapple with the evils of militarism and rise of the US empire. It’s just a shame the book isn’t very good.

For one, Maddow, a self-described “national security liberal” who is “all about counterterrorism”, writes more like a politician seeking to flatter her US audience than a teller of tough, uncomfortable truths. While at times briefly alluding to its war-filled past, Maddow repeatedly paints a picture of the US as, at heart, a peaceful nation, one with a government structured by its noble founding founders with a “deliberate peaceable bias”. It is only recently, she maintains – post-World War II, but especially since Ronald Reagan – that war and a gargantuan military-industrial complex have been deemed “normal”.

“Jeffersonian prudence held sway in this country for a century and a half,” Maddow claims. When politicians did start wars, they did so after a thorough public debate and with the explicit approval of Congress. One person, the president, couldn’t just cite their “inherent” but unstated constitutional power to start a war and kill people with military force. Or so the story goes.

Anti-unilateralism, not anti-war

Though many might perceive it as an anti-war work, Maddow’s overriding concern seems to be not so much the wars themselves – certainly not the non-American victims of them, who are never once mentioned – but the modern, unilateral way in which we go about fighting them. Reagan, for example, invaded Grenada without first seeking approval from Congress and armed and funded right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua despite a congressional prohibition, facts she holds responsible for the creation of all that “‘imperial presidency’ malarkey”.

It wasn’t always this way, we’re told. Even as recently as the early 1990s presidents occasionally felt compelled to acknowledge Congress’ constitutional war powers. Before launching the first Gulf War, Maddow notes, President George HW Bush first sought the consent of the Senate, which – as it is wont to do – gave it. Sure, the bombs dropped just the same and thousands of people died, but before that happened we talked in public about doing it and let a group of mostly old male millionaires vote on it.

“Agree or disagree with this outcome,” Maddow writes, “the system had worked. Our Congress had its clangorous and open debate and then took sides. We decided to go to war, as a country.” The problem today, she laments, is “there isn’t enough debate, there isn’t enough chivalry toward the virtues of the old system we’re killing for efficiency’s sake”.

But if the system was working as late as 1991, albeit in fits, that raises a pretty big question: is it really worth saving? The history of the US is characterised by near-constant military action and threats of war, including during the first century and a half when all those constitutional checks and balances were purportedly operating at full capacity. With “Jeffersonian prudence” holding sway, the US government fought major wars with Britain, Mexico and Spain. It militarily occupied Haiti, Nicaragua and the Philippines. Long before Reagan purportedly created the imperial presidency, US presidents were authorising the killing of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Koreans. And then there’s the whole matter of the people who lived here first: The United States didn’t exactly expand from 13 colonies to a continent by asking politely.

These are hardly aberrations, mere pock marks on the country’s greatness that only a Frenchman or a blame-America-first professor would dwell on. These are defining episodes reflective of the institutions this country’s fawned-over founders built. Perhaps there was more debate a few decades back over whether to kill this group of poor people or that one, but the debate then, as now, was a faux one, based on official falsehoods – “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” – and involving the input only of moneyed interests and their elected representatives.

But Maddow doesn’t tell her readers any of that. Nor does she advocate a radical break from the system of hierarchical power that allows a few people in Washington – one if you’re a unilateralist, 535 if you’re not – to have the literal power to destroy the world. Rather: “The good news is we don’t need a radical new vision of post-Cold War American power,” she says. “We just need a ‘small c‘ conservative return to our constitutional roots, a course correction.”

That’s a comforting thought; flattering even. We were good before and we can be good again. But it relies on a whitewashing of American history. It depends on bizarre assertions like the claim that, “in 1895, the US had enjoyed peace for more than a generation”, which ignores more than a century of war against North America’s indigenous population, including the murder of more than 150 members of the Lakota Sioux – men, women and children – by US troops during the Wounded Knee Massacre, in 1890.

A militaristic bias

To be fair, America was indeed once a more peaceful place, the idea of permanent war once as foreign as the European colonisers who landed there. But that was before the time of Christopher Columbus, not Ronald Reagan. Yet, cheerfully whistling past the real history of America – and revising it to mostly cast Democrats as reluctant imperialists, ignoring Harry Truman’s never-declared war in Korea while dwelling on Reagan’s comparatively less bloody invasion of a Caribbean island – is crucial to Maddow’s Bad (Mostly Republican) Presidents theory of American history. It’s not the system, it’s Dick Cheney.

As Maddow puts it, in order to get back on the peaceful path bequeathed to US citizens by their country’s slave-holding, indigenous-peoples-killing founders, we just need to “vote people into Congress who are determined to … assert the legislature’s constitutional prerogatives on war and peace”. Rinse and repeat every two to four years.

If the country is to break its addiction to war, however, electing more and better politicians to the same system that’s brought us to where we are today doesn’t seem up to the task. Whether the constitution authorised the permanent war national security state or not, this much is true: it sure didn’t stop it.

What’s needed is not the same old tried-and-failed remedy of electoral politics but, as Martin Luther King Jr remarked during a speech on the war in Vietnam, a “genuine revolution of values”. That means not returning to our “constitutional roots”, but striking at the root of our problem: the country’s penchant for violence, particularly when waged against the foreign “Other”. What’s needed, in other words, is a social revolution, not political reformism. War will end the day the average US citizen learns to love the Afghan people more than they love their iPads – and is willing to do more than sign an online petition or vote for a promise-filled politician when their government murders them.

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism,” King told that audience at New York City’s Riverside Church back in 1967. “All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

Defending the system, ceding the debate

But Maddow, representing the far left of acceptable televised opinion in the US, is explicit that she does not want a new system. She doesn’t even want a particularly liberal one. Embracing “small-c conservatism”, she’s loyal to the system she thinks we’re losing. And like a lot of her fellow progressives, she’s unwilling to so much as challenge the assumptions made by the national security establishment she decries, preferring instead to regurgitate them with a liberal veneer.

After all, writes Maddow, the hawks are right when they say non-America is terrifying. “We can cede their point that the world is a threatening place,” she writes. “We can cede their point that the US military is a remarkable and worthy fighting force.” Indeed, says Maddow, “We all have an interest in America having an outstanding military.” The only thing she isn’t willing to cede is that using that outstanding military is always “the best way to make threats go away”. A stirring anti-war manifesto Drift is not.

In fact, Maddow’s book contributes to the very culture of militarism that makes war possible, elevating the soldier to the status of the Ideal Citizen, never mind their role in making unjust wars of aggression possible. Instead of tragic figures, members of the military are cast as heroic. “There are no Americans more impressive or more capable than the post-9/11 generation of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers and veterans,” she writes. Indeed, “they are a huge part of why I’m bullish on America’s capacity to adapt, lead, and succeed in the the twenty-first century”.

Let’s hope no impressionable young people read that. They may be left with the idea that there’s something honourable in serving the US empire, that helping invade and occupy places such as Iraq and Afghanistan is something to be proud about, not something for which to seek forgiveness.

Maddow is right to bemoan the influence of the national security establishment in Washington. She makes a strong case that stockpiling thousands of nuclear weapons is not just costly and dangerous, but really kind of insane. But her liberal faith in the essential goodness and “peaceable bias” of the institutions of US power, including the military itself, leads her to overlook the root problem causing all the wars she at times decries: not a few bad presidents and misguided policies, but the system of state power – and the violence-worshipping culture – that enables presidents and their policies to decide who lives and who dies.

Charles Davis is an activist and writer who splits his time between Washington, DC, and Nicaragua. He is a contributor to the newswire Inter Press Service and his work has aired on public radio stations across the United States. To read more of his work, visit his website.

Follow him on Twitter: @charlesdavis84