Campus & Community

Beinart sees new life for liberals on Web

4 min read

But says progressive bloggers strong on tactics, weak on ideas

New Republic editor Peter Beinart says that Howard Dean’s campaign Internet strategy launched a whole new sphere for liberals to prevail. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

A new generation of liberals, galvanized by Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, are using the “blogosphere” to generate support and formulate tactics, and may soon make their impact felt on national politics.

This was the message of Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic, who delivered the Theodore H. White lecture Oct. 27 at the Kennedy School of Government. The lecture was sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

Beinart, author of a forthcoming book, “The Good Fight: Why Liberals and Only Liberals Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” spoke on “New Media, Old Media, and the Future of Liberalism.”

Beinart, who has edited the New Republic since 1999, six years after earning his bachelor’s degree from Yale, said that there were important differences between his generation and even younger activists who dominate the world of political blogs.

“We were shaped by the Gulf War, which was not another Vietnam. Neither were Bosnia and Kosovo. That’s why we’re more supportive of military intervention. We didn’t have the formative experience of having our government mislead us. The defining event for the newer generation of liberals is the Iraq war. We thought it would turn out well like the Gulf War, but it didn’t.”

The unsuccessful Dean campaign was the turning point for young liberals because it showed what could be accomplished through the use of the Internet, Beinart said.

“The Internet did for Dean what the primary system did for George McGovern in 1972. Dean lost the battle for the nomination, but he’s winning the battle for the Democratic Party.”

While Beinart was enthusiastic about this new wave of young liberal activists, he also expressed concern about their lack of focus on ideological issues, remarking that as political journalists, bloggers tended to have a cramped, narrow outlook.

“What is striking to me is that the new generation is focused on organization and tactics, on what the Democrats need to do to win elections. They’re not focused on what Democrats and liberals believe. If the Democrats win, it could produce a false dawn. They have to know what to do with power once they get it.”

During the question-and-answer period Beinart was queried about his own thoughts on liberal ideology. One important task, he replied, is formulating a response to terrorism, an issue he saw very differently from the Bush administration.

“I think that the best moral tradition holds that America is a great country because it recognizes its own capacity for evil, because we recognize that we’re not inherently better than others, as opposed to the idea that America is always good. If we make that assumption, we can promote freedom around the world in a different way than Bush.”

Beinart said that one of the Bush administration’s basic foreign policy errors was to rule out poverty as an underlying factor in the spread of terrorism. He said that even in a relatively wealthy country like Saudi Arabia, lack of jobs may encourage young men to turn to extremist movements.

“In Saudi Arabia, GDP has dropped 50 percent since 1980. People may have college degrees, but the society does not give them the opportunity to do anything with them. The answer is to bring these countries into the world economy, which is what the 9/11 Commission recommended.”

In addition to Beinart’s talk, the evening was also devoted to awarding the first David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism. Nyhan, a liberal political journalist and columnist who wrote for the Boston Globe for more than three decades, died of a sudden heart attack in January. The Nyhan Prize was established by friends and family of Nyhan and by the Shorenstein Center.

The prize went to David Willman, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, whose articles on corruption at the Food and Drug Administration showed how new, more lenient policies led to patient deaths.