Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy
by Eric Alterman
Cornell. 224 pp. $25.00
In 1992, Eric Alterman, then a left-wing scourge of right-wing pundits, published Sound and Fury, a vitriolic if often funny assault on such conservative luminaries as George F. Will, William Safire, and Charles Krauthammer. Today, as a columnist for the Nation, an occasional contributor to Slate and the New York Times, and a commentator on MSNBC, Alterman has himself become a member in good standing of the “punditocracy” he once blamed for “the collapse of American politics.”
Despite his recent success in the sound-bite business, however, Alterman clearly still craves intellectual respectability. His new book, Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, is crammed with footnotes, freighted with citations from the works of heavyweights like John Dewey, John Stuart Mill, and the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and anchored by dust-jacket endorsements from sympathetic scholars. The result is a book that, lacking the gossipy verve of Alterman’s earlier work, manages to be both leaden and superficial at once.
Alterman’s thesis in Who Speaks for America? is that our diplomacy has become the exclusive preserve of a “foreign-policy establishment” made up of an arrogant, internationalist elite that is shielded from scrutiny by a collusive media. The members of this establishment regard ordinary Americans as ignorant, irrational, and irresponsible. At its direction, the United States has been following a course that reflects neither the public’s true wishes nor its underlying values.
A truly popular foreign policy, Alterman claims, would minimize overseas involvement while vigilantly defending the jobs of American workers. But the problem is that while the American people “do not accept the foreign-policy establishment’s definition of the nation’s priorities,” they “do not know how to force a reassessment.” And no wonder. Major media outlets are increasingly controlled by a handful of like-minded corporate giants, and both the media and the electoral system have become hopelessly subject to special interests. Of these, among the most effective manipulators and special pleaders are “pro-Israel American Jews.”
How did this happen? In Alterman’s retelling of our diplomatic history, expansionism and the progressive destruction of American democracy have long gone hand in hand. When Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana purchase without consulting Congress, he fatally cast aside the principle of limited government he himself had done so much to articulate. And if Jefferson could at least be said to have acted in a noble purpose—he believed more territory was necessary to the preservation of a virtuous republic of yeoman farmers—his successors were driven by simple greed for land and power. By the end of the 19th century, long after the North American continent had been subdued,
expansion and abuses of presidential power continued to escalate, leading to foreign wars of conquest, entangling alliances, the creation of a large standing army, and the trampling of the very republican values . . . expansion had been intended to protect.
This process reached its tragic culmination in the 20th century. After using force repeatedly in Central America without congressional authorization, Woodrow Wilson led the nation into war in Europe, brushing aside demands for a referendum and jailing those who opposed his wishes. Franklin D. Roosevelt, though he acted in a good cause, was no bargain, either. Steering the United States onto a collision course with fascism, he “compromised Americans’ constitutional freedoms,” attempted to control information, and even went so far as “deliberately [to] mislead his citizens.”
The cold war put the final nail in the coffin of democracy. As the “secrecy virus” multiplied, “paranoia prospered and debate fizzled.” Americans were marched off in lockstep to war in Korea and Vietnam. Bad as was the damage wreaked abroad, moreover, it had “incalculable” consequences at home, in the form of a mindless anti-Communism that quashed all debate and rendered all opposition illegitimate. As things stand today, the vast majority of Americans have been left “with no voice whatsoever in foreign policy-making.”
In Alterman’s opinion, restoring that voice will require radical, even revolutionary, measures. His own favored solution is to place control over foreign policy in the hands of a “citizens’ jury”: an elected body of 500 or 600 “ordinary people” serving one-time, six-year terms. Only thus can the stranglehold of the special interests be broken, and the executive be forced to respond to “legitimate democratic currents.”
What can be said about all this? The idea that our foreign-policy system is somehow insulated from the give and take of democratic politics can be sustained only at the cost of ignoring more than two centuries of fierce controversies over every aspect of American engagement abroad. Especially odd is the notion of a dearth of serious debate during the cold war—either in the Korean conflict, when fierce attacks on U.S. policy came from the Right, or during the Vietnam era, when fiercer and ultimately more influential attacks came from the Left.
Whatever one’s judgment of this ongoing ferment, it is symptomatic of Alterman’s own shallow analysis that he brushes past the question of whether good foreign policies are necessarily popular, or popular policies necessarily good. He seems completely unaware, for example, that the 19th-century expansionism he deplores enjoyed widespread public support. Nor, on the other hand, does he inquire whether the cause of democracy would have been better served if Franklin Roosevelt had narrowly adhered to the isolationist impulses of a majority of his constituents and bent every effort to keep the U.S. out of World War II.
Since then, to judge from their electoral choices and their repeated responses to public-opinion pollsters, the American people have been broadly supportive of an activist foreign policy. The current period is no exception. If anything, it is Alterman’s isolationist and protectionist predilections that are today distinctly a minority view. In excoriating the American impulses toward economic openness and vigorous diplomatic and military engagement, he, and not the foreign-policy elite, is the one who is at odds with the American people.
As for what Alterman jauntily refers to as his “immodest proposal” for reform, one is minimally curious to know more. How, exactly, would his people’s committee do its work, and what would be the scope and limits of its authority? Would the citizens’ jury rule on every jot and tittle of diplomatic detail, or merely set the broad outlines? Would it make its decisions by a simple majority vote? By unanimous consent? In the event of a “hung jury,” would the United States simply not have a policy? But to raise such questions is already to treat with too much seriousness an essentially frivolous proposal for scrapping the constitutionally ordained procedures that have governed American statecraft for two centuries.
Which brings us at last to Alterman’s accusations against the malign power of ethnic groups, and especially of American Jews. Not only, he writes in Who Speaks for America?, do Jews “contribute enormous sums to political candidates,” but they enjoy “tremendous access to the highest reaches of the punditocracy.”Jews, and Jewish influence, are everywhere. According to surveys, “26 percent of reporters, editors, and executives at major print and broadcast media are Jewish and therefore, one may fairly speculate, likely to be sympathetic to Israel” (emphasis added). In addition, “Martin Peretz owns the New Republic. Mortimer Zuckerman owns U.S. News & World Report. . . . The American Jewish Committee publishes COMMENTARY”—three influential publications among many that, as Alterman sees it, are convinced that Israel can do no wrong.
This is hardly the only passage in Who Speaks for America? that bids fair to qualify Eric Alterman as the Patrick J. Buchanan of the Left; both fear free trade, foreign entanglements, and elite conspiracies. And it was Buchanan, the right-wing columnist and quondam presidential candidate, who, in the debate before the Gulf war, loudly referred to American Jews in Congress and the media as an “amen corner” for Israel’s interests; Alterman is here merely echoing that scurrilous charge.
The idea that it is somehow illegitimate for American citizens to express their views on foreign policy would seem rather to undercut the main thesis of this book concerning the lamentable voicelessness of “the people”—unless, that is, Alterman means to imply that American citizens and American Jews are to be understood as two distinct categories. Be that as it may, it is ludicrous to conclude that the Jewishness of many journalists predisposes them in Israel’s favor; the evidence on this point is at best mixed, else one would have a hard time explaining the fact that the attitude toward Israel in the elite media these days is better characterized as skeptical or even hostile than supportive. On this point, Alterman’s real quarrel is, again, not with the elites or the “special interests,” Jewish or otherwise, but with the American people, who continue stubbornly to register high levels of sympathy for Israel, and to regard our support for it as a national priority.
In the end, Alterman’s self-proclaimed eagerness to reinvigorate our democracy, and his willingness to jettison our fundamental institutions in the service of that goal, may reflect nothing more than a frustrated recognition that the country has not been going in directions he favors. Like many radical reformers, he claims to speak for “the people”; but the people, thankfully, have ideas of their own.