Website powered by Blogger
Designed by Rebecca Starr
Photo by Olivia Starr

January 16, 2007

Reclaiming the idea of American greatness

What is liberalism’s relationship to America--to its traditions and to the vision of the United States as a great nation that can be a force for good in the world? For the past several years, these questions have been at the heart of a debate among American liberals about how they see themselves and what they stand for.

In a recent article in the Nation arguing that liberals need not just intelligent policies but a compelling story of America, Bill Moyers calls my forthcoming book Freedom’s Power “a profound and stirring call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.”

Moyers is alluding to a theme that runs literally from the opening to the close of the book. In the first paragraph of the Introduction, I write: “The proposition that each of us has a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ remains as good a definition as anyone has ever come up with of liberalism’s first principle and America’s historic promise.” And the final paragraph ends:
The story of America is of a nation that has grown greater and stronger by becoming more diverse and inclusive and extending the fruits of liberty more widely among its people. American liberals do not have to invent something new or import a philosophical tradition from abroad. They have only to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.

The idea that liberal purposes are closely tied to “the promise of American life” has been a recurring theme through American history. The leaders of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the New Frontier—TR and Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, as well as many other public figures—conceived and framed their ideas about the future with a keen sense of how to ground them in America’s traditions and build on its achievements. And not all of our politicians have forgotten how to do this: Barack Obama’s June 4, 2005 speech at Knox College is a brilliant and inspiring contemporary example.

But for a long time American liberalism has seemed to distance itself from a vision of America as a great nation. In the opening salvo of his effort to formulate a national greatness conservatism—a speech at the Library of Congress, published in The Weekly Standard in March 1997 as “A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed”—David Brooks implicitly threw down a challenge to liberals.

“For much of this century,” Brooks wrote, “liberals possessed high aspirations and a spirit of historical purpose. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier—these were efforts to aim high, to accomplish some grand national endeavor. Liberals tried to use American preeminence as a way to shape the world, fight communism, put a man on the moon. But then came the 1970s, and suddenly liberalism became a creed emphasizing limits. Small became beautiful. A radical egalitarianism transformed liberalism, destroying hierarchies and discrediting elitist aspirations. An easygoing nihilism swept through academia, carrying away any sense of a transcendent order.”

Brooks was so dismissive of contemporary liberalism that he said that it should not even be expected to propose any vision of national greatness. And he criticized conservatives too for being so hostile to the federal government that they were unable to conceive of it as an instrument to carry out important national missions, which historically had included “settling the West, building the highway system, creating the post-war science faculties, exploring space, waging the Cold War, and disseminating American culture throughout the world.”

There was nothing in Brooks’s article, nor in a September 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed with William Kristol, that pointed to foreign affairs, much less war, as the avenue for reasserting American greatness. Indeed, Brooks was a little vague about the mission he had in mind: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself,” he wrote, “as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.”

The fate of national greatness conservatism shows that, in fact, it does matter “what great task government sets for itself.” With Brooks and especially Kristol cheering him on, George W. Bush has certainly set a great task for America: promoting democracy in Iraq and throughout the world. Rather than inspiring “confidence and vigor,” however, the Iraq War has backfired against the nation, his own presidency, and the Republican Party.

Originally, national greatness conservatism was identified with John McCain and his campaign for the 2000 presidential nomination. But the very notion of a national greatness conservatism—like McCain’s own political career—has now become inextricably linked with Bush’s disastrous, missionary foreign policy.

In using the phrase “national greatness,” I am not suggesting that liberals ought to adopt a belligerent nationalism or the aggressive promotion of democracy favored by neoconservatives and some liberal hawks. In a 2005 TNR article, “The Case for National Greatness Liberalism,” Noam Scheiber writes that Democrats have to “convince voters to trust them on national security,” which I agree with. But Scheiber then goes on to say, “We’re not just talking about calling for a larger military, but something dramatic to signify the shift—like a plan to strike an Iranian or North Korean nuclear facility if need be.” The last thing Democrats ought to do, however, is to show that they can be just as reckless as the Republicans have been in starting wars.

Other liberals have responded more sensibly to the intellectual challenge of restoring greater energy and ambition to American liberalism. In a short 2005 book, Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton University Press), Alan Wolfe distinguishes between two ways of thinking about common purposes. On the one hand have been those who have been deeply distrustful of national power and conceived of a good society primarily in local and voluntary terms. On the other are those who have embraced the nation as a positive force and conceived of America as capable of advancing freedom and equality both at home and in the world.

My view of liberalism falls into the second category. I believe that liberals ought to aim high: to set ambitious goals in reforming our society and in seeking to uphold liberal values internationally. That requires a strong and capable national government, bearing in mind, however, that America achieves its strength partly through the protection of our liberties.

Conservative leadership has not only recklessly plunged us into a failed war but weakened those liberties at home and done incalculable damage to America’s good name in the world. And it has utterly defaulted on the problems of climate change, rising inequality, stagnant or declining incomes for the middle class and the poor, increased health costs, and a long-term fiscal crisis threatening programs Americans want to preserve and seeming to rule out new measures in their common interest.

A new leadership will need to confront those problems instead of denying them. At home its program ought to concentrate on creating a shared prosperity and restoring the respect for our freedoms, the integrity of our democracy, and the competence of our government that the Republicans have abused or neglected. Internationally, it ought to rebuild a broad democratic partnership with other nations based on mutual recognition of our shared fate and common interests in prosperity, security, and survival. The Republicans have had their shot at a “return to greatness,” and they have blown it. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to settle for a politics of small ambitions. Liberalism has provided the high aspirations that have galvanized America in the past. America needs that leadership again, and the rest of the world needs that leadership from America.

Paul Starr

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home