“The [detainee treatment act] is a way of reaching out to our enemies. The president has said they hate us for our freedoms, so getting rid of them is sort of a peace offering.” Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s weekly news quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” made this jab at Congress’ approval of the administration’s bill on interrogation and trial of terror suspects. (Or non-trial, as it turns out.) President Bush signed the bill into law Tuesday morning. While most Democrats voiced concern about abandoning habeas corpus, the party is again failing to offer an alternative to the “war on terror,” at least in part because of an absence of a set of principles to unify and guide policymaking. To paraphrase Leo Strauss, they tinker while Rome burns.
Leaders and partisans on the left have been clamoring for the Democratic Party to establish a more coherent set of policy proposals. This is easier said than done, especially given the historical and institutional weakness of American parties, and the particular lack of discipline within the Democratic Party. Yet as Democrats face the possibility of once again leading the House or the Senate or even both, the party should have a plan if they do win the chance to share governance with the executive that goes beyond launching investigations — which are necessary — or blocking administration proposals in hopes of holding out for a successful presidential bid in 2008. In order to create new policy alternatives, leaders should consider the party’s historical principles and platforms, debate their merits, and select a few as a first step to formulating policies.
Nineteenth-century party platforms — the Democratic Party issued the first one in 1840 — were not longer than four or five points. They outlined principles with which to approach a range of disparate issues. The recent platforms of the Democratic Party fail to articulate anything to stand on — or aspire to. Take the 2004 Democratic platform: “Strong at Home, Respected in the World.” What does that mean? The three ideals in the 2000 platform — prosperity, progress and peace — are platitudes, not principles. Lately, leaders on the left, notably Michael Tomasky of the American Prospect, seem to be converging on the idea of the “common good.” Yet this tagline seems just as sanguine and vague as the two previous platforms.
In contrast, a platform of liberty and justice would both reclaim the traditional role of the Democratic Party in the extension and expansion of rights, and re-establish the legal tradition central to the country’s identity at home and abroad. “Liberty and Justice for All” would be a pledge to the American people to protect individuals’ freedom while ensuring that all people have equal rights under the law.
“Liberty and Justice for All” is especially urgent in 2006, as the Republican Party has abandoned its historical stance against government encroachment, consistently proposing and passing laws restricting individuals’ personal choices in recent years. The shameful detainee bill that allows torture — or something close to it — and an abandonment of habeas corpus is only the latest example. The campaign to legislate against rights for same-sex couples at the federal level is another. And behind it all is a dramatic expansion of the executive branch under this administration, which has and will continue to undercut checks and balances among the branches of federal government, long central to protecting individuals’ rights in this country. Indeed, it is difficult to connect the contemporary Republican Party to its greatest leader, Abraham Lincoln, who understood that government’s role should be to coordinate free citizens to achieve common goals, rather than restrict liberties.
“Liberty and Justice for All” can also guide foreign policy. The United States needs to recover its status as a promoter of freedom by approaching the world with humility, encouraging debate and exchange rooted in liberty and committed to justice for all. Obviously, abiding by the Geneva Conventions’ guarantees for individual rights and submitting to our own legal safeguards to protect individuals’ freedoms is an important first step in this direction. Embracing such a change would heed a warning in the 1960 Democratic platform: “Our objective … is not the right to coexist in armed camps on the same planet with totalitarian ideologies; it is the creation of an enduring peace in which the universal values of human dignity, truth and justice under law are finally secured for all [people] everywhere on earth.” It is difficult to overstate the lasting impact that the image of the United States as an aggressor, apparently abandoning its traditional principles to the latest threat, will have on generations of people around the world.
New leadership and a commitment to American traditions of liberty and justice, though, could reverse the trend. Consider the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. At a time when European democracies were floundering, radical ideologies were spreading, and the United States faced its most catastrophic economic setback, President Roosevelt resisted policies that would infringe on individuals’ freedom, instead crafting welfare programs to improve all citizens’ access to those freedoms. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin reflected on this legacy in the Atlantic Monthly over 50 years ago: “Mr. Roosevelt’s example strengthened democracy everywhere — that is to say, the view that the promotion of social justice and individual liberty does not necessarily mean the end of all efficient government; that power and order are not identical with a strait jacket of doctrine, whether economic or political.” Today we might add religious doctrines, as well.
The greatness of the United States rests on Americans trusting one another with their freedoms and committing to justice in the world. To be sure, “Liberty and Justice for All” is not an easy set of principles by which to govern — or to live. But these are the principles that Democrats — and all Americans — should aspire to uphold. Democrats should reach out to Americans and people everywhere by embracing these principles and dedicating themselves to creating policies accordingly.
Abbey Steele is a fourth-year graduate student in political science.