It was always a bit naïve to hope that the attacks of September 11 stood a chance of changing America for the better. Well, perhaps not always: There admittedly did exist that narrow sliver of time, when Le Monde wrote “Nous sommes tous Américains” and when 85 percent or more of the American public supported the war in Afghanistan, during which a united future seemed vaguely possible. In short order, though, the sitting Administration began the more dubious and divisive operation in Iraq, and our domestic conservative agitprop machinery worked overtime to convert opponents of that Administration’s policies into enemies of freedom. From there, it only got worse: domestic surveillance; black sites; suspiciously timed orange alerts; off-the-books trillions spent on wars that haven’t ended; higher and higher levels of poison pumped into our political atmosphere.
Think, instead, about what could have happened. The invasion of Afghanistan, which was certainly a legitimate response, could have been shorter and more surgical. There needn’t have been a war in Iraq. In a different time, leaders of the party in power would have welcomed debate about how to move forward and tried to forge a consensus with the out party about how best to govern under extraordinary circumstances. It is instructive that in late 1941, less than two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Senator Robert A. Taft—“Mr. Republican” and the leading domestic critic of the New Deal—gave a speech in which he said that “criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government.” If Franklin Roosevelt or any of his consiglieri batted an eye, history didn’t bother to record it. As everyone understood then, Taft was right.
It’s been a lost and squandered decade. Ten years later, where are we? This is the question we put to a formidable array of writers and thinkers whose responses form our cover symposium this issue. Their essays are bracing, ranging from arguments on policy and strategy by Leslie H. Gelb, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Lawrence Korb to reflections on mortality, freedom, and fear offered respectively by Jessica Stern, Orlando Patterson, and Corey Robin. The package is not without its grace notes of optimism and should be read for those, too; but the collective mood of these leading thinkers is a bleak reminder of how different things could and should have been.
Speaking of bad decades, organized labor has had yet another one. Lew Daly, in considering the sorry state of unions, refreshingly doesn’t slay the usual dragons but instead asks a provocative question. Documenting the close historical relationship in the United States between the rise of collective bargaining and the spread of Catholic social-justice teachings, he asks: What if the secular liberalism that has so closely patrolled the border between church and state in this country is partly to blame for labor’s decline? Daly’s is a challenging thesis, one that any progressive who seeks a labor revival must grapple with.
And speaking of alternative worlds that might have been, James B. Rule wonders how our seemingly unstoppable march toward ever-greater intrusions on privacy can be changed. Rule hopes for a future in which citizens have far more control over their own words, actions, and tastes than they have now. The questions he raises about the balance between citizens’ rights and safety in a world in which we’re increasingly being monitored get to the heart of what it means to be a democratic society.
Elsewhere, William E. Forbath responds to the exchange on progressive jurisprudence from our last issue, arguing that both sides in that debate made vitally important points but somehow missed the main point. Lawrence Mishel replies to William Galston by saying that progressives on the left are pro-growth, and that nothing causes growth better than job creation. In the books section, Charles Kenny discusses approaches to combating global poverty that actually work; Lincoln Caplan examines the philosophy of the late Harvard legal scholar William Stuntz, perhaps our age’s most heralded (and iconoclastic) student of American crime and punishment; Daniel Carpenter explains why preventing the next mortgage crisis won’t be easy; and Clay Risen (our former managing editor, now with The New York Times) tells us why it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement started long before 1955.
Finally, with this issue Jack Meserve joins us as associate editor. We’ve lately been doing without one of those. Jack, a recent George Washington University graduate, was our intern in the spring, and he did such a crackerjack job we decided we could use an associate editor, as long as it was him. We welcome him aboard.