Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs To Do to Recover It by Alan Wolfe
Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs To Do to Recover It by Alan Wolfe

Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It

Apr 19, 2005

In a candid discussion of American politics and ideals, Alan Wolfe looks to the future and how the U.S. can keep liberty and equality alive and available to others around the world.


JOANNE MYERS: I'd like to welcome Alan Wolfe to our Books for Breakfast program.

It isn't often that a book title tells you exactly what the author is thinking, but in Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It, our guest this morning, Alan Wolfe, does just that. In recent times, many Americans have expressed a feeling of discontent with the direction that our country has been moving towards. Liberals and conservatives have been reluctant to agree on important policy concerns or to demonstrate flexibility on some of the more pressing issues of our day. Real political debate is absent, or minimal at best.

Some say that our country lacks vision. Others argue that our leaders are too concerned with saving the country's soul rather than in making our nation great. But no matter what their view is, few have tackled the issues with such moral authority as our speaker this morning.

In searching for a different direction and what Professor Wolfe sees as a needed correction in our country's domestic and foreign policy, he reaches back to specific moments in our national experience when, in the face of sharp resistance, aspiration for national greatness shaped America's history. Using the past as his guide, and with the firm belief that American values of liberty and equality can be used more constructively, he outlines a program which he argues will steer us in the right direction and once again make our nation great.

With his command of history and critical analysis, Professor Wolfe writes about an America which in previous trying times rose to greatness through the leadership of such figures as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and both Roosevelts. Professor Wolfe would like this heritage to be the one that inspires us at this time.

In recent years, Professor Wolfe has emerged as one of our country's most thoughtful public intellectuals, as well as a chronicler of our moral compass. He is a contributing editor of The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly. In addition, his writings have appeared in Commonweal, The New York Times, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post. As the author or editor of ten books, I would like to call to your attention to two that have been selected as The New York Times' Notable Books of the Year: One Nation After All and Moral Freedom.

Currently our guest is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religious and American Public Life at Boston College.

Many of you may not be aware that Professor Wolfe was scheduled to speak to us on September 11, 2001. Therefore, we are extremely pleased that, three years and six-and-a-half months later, he has finally arrived. Please join me in welcoming our very distinguished guest, Alan Wolfe.


ALAN WOLFE: Thank you so much for that introduction. I shouldn't say this, but I wish The New York Times book reviewer had asked you.

This is indeed a great pleasure for me. On September 11, 2001, I woke up and was on my way to Logan Airport to get the plane down to New York, and I thought I would just call first to make sure everything was all right. I learned that it wasn't, and that in fact it was one of the worst days in our history. So it is an especial occasion for me to return after these intervening years.

This book, Return to Greatness, was inspired, like so many things I think, by the strange oddity called the 2000 presidential election in the United States. You all of course remember that election, with the hanging chads and the Supreme Court breaking all precedent to reach a decision, and, for the second time in our history, a president occupied office with a minority of the popular vote. We don't need to go through all those things again.

Actually, what started me on this book was none of those events, but something that happened before all of them took place, something that happened before Florida became so much part of our national consciousness. That was the decisions that resulted in the election being a contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, because they were not the only candidates for president that year. In fact, both of them had to defeat strong competitors within their own parties. The person who challenged Al Gore was Bill Bradley and the person who challenged George W. Bush was John McCain. I think the most interesting thing about that election is not that we had the hanging chads but that the election wasn't between Bill Bradley and John McCain, because, speaking historically, it probably should have been.

Bill Bradley, of course, was from New Jersey—well, from Missouri, but made his career in New Jersey—and New Jersey is a state that has produced its share of great national political leaders, none more so perhaps than Woodrow Wilson. New Jersey is a state in the northeastern part of the United States, which is where the Democratic Party has traditionally turned for its presidents, and some of the greatest Democratic presidents in our history have come from this part of the country. But it seems as if we are now in a pattern where no Democrat from the northeast can become president of the United States. In fact, all of the Democrats in recent years who have been successful in national politics have come from the south. And so, by choosing Al Gore, who was primarily a southerner, in the sense that his original home was Tennessee, the Democratic Party was in a sense turning its back on the traditions that had produced its great presidents in the past. I think that in itself is interesting and significant.

And very much the same thing happened in the Republican Party. While John McCain is from Arizona, which is one of the most recent states admitted to the United States, everything about John McCain resonated with that wing of the Republican Party that had produced people like Theodore Roosevelt and other great national leaders. Their military background, their courage under fire, their more moderate positions on issues—all of those things spoke to a Republican Party, or at least a wing of the Republican Party, that no longer seemed to produce national candidates of the stature it had in the past.

Instead, the Republican Party rejected McCain and rejected his war record and rejected his clear aspirations for national leadership in favor of again a southerner—a transplanted southerner, but a southerner—whose primary experience had been governor of a state and who seemed to have little national and international experience.

So that to me is the real story of 2000. Why was it that both of our major political parties chose the particular candidates they did, neither of whom represented within each political party the tradition of national greatness that had characterized those parties for a very, very long time in our history? After those two were selected, it almost didn't matter in some sense who won, because the real decision had been made before the hanging chads ever appeared on the scene.

My book is an attempt to explain why this happened. It is an attempt to explain why both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, or more generally liberalism and conservatism, our two reigning ideologies, both turned inwards, both turned against aspirations toward greatness that each of them had aspired to at different points in our past.

I define greatness in the book as consisting of three essential elements:

1) One is a credible, understandable commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality that have shaped our national existence. Liberty in the sense of the original rebellion against Great Britain and the sense of national independence that this carried with it, as well as the sense that is embodied in such classic American documents as the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights more generally. Equality as understood in the really magnificent rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address and other documents. A commitment to ideals of liberty and equality is the first of what I see as the essential characteristics of national greatness.

2) The second, and even more importantly, is not just a rhetorical commitment to those ideals, but an understanding of what it actually takes to realize them in practice, to create what is the only agency that is capable of realizing them, and that is a very strong sense of national citizenship, a very strong sense that we belong to one nation; that this one nation, the United States of America, guarantees those ideals; and that the way to realize those ideals is through the strength of the American nation and the strength of the American people, because the people constitute the nation.

It has actually been an enormous struggle throughout our history to create the idea of a nation. There have been many people, and many great Americans, who have opposed the idea of creating an American nation, either out of loyalty to a section or out of loyalty to a market rather than a government. And so the idea of an American nation has been a highly contested one.

Just to give you one brief example, in a 1991 decision involving term limits, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that we are "a collection of individual states and not a nation," as if we had never fought a civil war, as if these issues had not been resolved through blood and violence throughout our history. So the idea that we are a nation and that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of this nation, and that we realize that citizenship through our national government, the second element in American greatness, has actually been somewhat difficult to achieve.

3) The third idea is that we are not only committed to liberty and equality and to strengthening them at home, but we understand that we have a role in promoting them abroad. That these American ideals are universal ideals, that people look to us to honor those ideals and to promote them, and that within the limits of reasonably prudent foreign policy we have obligations to ensure that when people aspire to those ideals outside of our country, we will do our best to help them in that realization.

As I try to explain in the book, if you talk about national greatness or American greatness, it seems like, you know, a shrug of the shoulders—"of course these are things that everyone believes in." But as I have already hinted, the greatness party, so to speak, the political party or the political ideals that stand behind this, has actually been a minority case throughout most of American history.

There has been another position, another set of ideals, that has been the dominant feature of American political history and American political culture since the very start. I call this strain, this competing strain, the search for American goodness, rather than greatness. I see goodness and greatness as constituting two different sets of ideals about what kind of country we should be.

For many in our history, greatness is in fact suspect. Greatness carries with it implications—for example, an active American role in the world that many Americans have opposed. Greatness carries with it a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, a certain kind of sense of civilization and the advancement of civilization through great cities and great civilizations, that many Americans have traditionally opposed.

The idea of goodness implies not that America should be strong but that America should be pure, that America has been blessed by God with certain obligations, and that among those obligations is to stand as a kind of "city on the hill," as a beacon to the rest of the world. Our mission is to get things right. If we do that well, then other nations may decide to copy us, which is fine. But it is not our business to tell other nations how to run their affairs; our business is to live up to the ideals of goodness, the ideals of virtue, that have been so central to our experience as a country.

For people who believe in the ideal of American goodness, going all the way back to the 18th century, what defines America, and what always defines America, is essentially that it is not Europe. Europe is seen as a kind of cosmopolitan, almost quasi-decadent part of the world, in which power becomes an end in itself, in which people become corrupted by their taste for power.

Since we broke away from Europe, we should stand for some other notion of what a political system should try to embody. And so the ideals of American goodness in this sense look upon what would be required to make the country great and immediately express a certain skepticism about whether if we were to go in that direction we would lose our soul, we would sell ourselves to the Devil in a certain kind of way, and we should avoid doing that at all costs.

Now, I try to suggest in the book that this conflict between goodness and greatness has run periodically throughout American history, and that really, even more than terms like liberalism and conservatism, or even more than agencies or institutions like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, the real fundamental conflict in American politics is between goodness and greatness. It would be wonderful if we could do both simultaneously, but that has actually never happened.

A figure who appears almost as a kind of tragic figure in my book is the aforementioned President from New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, who I think came closest to trying to do both goodness and greatness simultaneously and was torn apart by it. Woodrow Wilson, a serious religious figure, a distinguished Presbyterian heritage, fully conversant with the American religious language of virtue and having been chosen as God's people in the world; and yet a person who also had to confront the realities of European power politics and World War I, and tried to in a sense do both, and was just torn apart by it.

It seems to me that these objectives cannot really be reconciled; that the costs of one in terms of the high taxes that greatness involves, along with the idea of centralized political authority that greatness involves, runs inherently in conflict with the other that talks about the virtues of the agrarian life or the special benefits of the small town and the small city.

And so we have a choice. We have had it since Jefferson and Hamilton expressed these two different visions. It really runs throughout our history. What I try to show in the book is that for roughly the first hundred years of our history the notion of greatness was associated with most of the conservative elements in American society, that the great figures who embodied the ideals of greatness as I have tried to describe them were people like Alexander Hamilton; John Marshall, the third Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, who did so much to try to create the idea of a nation and of national citizenship; Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to be President in the United States; going all the way up to Theodore Roosevelt—that the idea of greatness for this long sweep of American history was usually identified with conservatives or the Republican Party in various guises.

And that the opposition to the idea, the people who stood for goodness, were frequently, although not always, understood as being more on the left end of the political spectrum, such as Thomas Jefferson; or one of my favorite examples of a person who embodies almost all the ideals of American goodness, the great Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau, suspicious of power, worried about corruption and so on; and portions of the anti-slavery movement and so on.

So, in a sense, for at least half of our history greatness was seen as a conservative idea and opposed by more progressive forces in American life. But for the last hundred years of our history that has been fundamentally reversed, and the idea of greatness was adopted by Democratic politicians, primarily by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; in rhetoric, if not always in deed, by John F. Kennedy; and received really its last full expression in the famous Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. These notions of standing for liberty and equality, or standing for the principle of national citizenship as realized through the nation-state, and representing those ideals throughout the world, really becomes part of the core of the Democratic Party and is increasingly opposed by conservatives and Republicans.

But now I think we are essentially at a standoff in which both our dominant ideologies and both our political parties are retreating from the idea of greatness. I wrote the book to do whatever little bit I could do to try to reverse the conversation to some degree. So I go after both in the book.

Since conservatives are in power these days, I probably have more to say about them. But I am distraught by a number of expressions on the left end of the political spectrum that I see as having much more in common with the goodness strain in American life than the greatness strain.

By the way, if it sounds like I am against goodness, I am. I am not necessarily against it for individuals and how they lead their lives, but I am against it as a way of embodying a national ideal. I think it gets us into a lot of trouble.

I see on the left end of the political spectrum a kind of retreat from ambitious ideals. One of the things that I particularly enjoyed doing in the book, was going back to the 1950s, when liberals stood for ideas of national greatness, and picking what to me was a representative text of that era, a book that actually came out in the early 1960s, called The Deadlock of Democracy, by James MacGregor Burns, who is still alive and with us. In this book, James MacGregor Burns talks about how we have a Constitution designed by people like James Madison, and to some degree even John C. Calhoun, with all of its checks and balances and so on, and he worries that, because it gives minority voices so much influence, it doesn't allow us to assemble the political power that would be necessary to realize national objectives.

I compare that book to another book written about exactly the same subject, which makes reference to all the same people—to Madison and John C. Calhoun—and that book was called The Tyranny of the Majority, by Lani Guinier, who President Clinton had appointed Assistant Attorney General, a job she eventually withdrew from. She looks at exactly the same problem as James MacGregor Burns and concludes that all of these checks and balances are a good thing, that we shouldn't have concentrated political power, that minorities can do best when the majorities are prevented from realizing their will.

And so to me it represents a kind of classic expression of a transformation in American liberalism away from some of what I believe to be its more ambitious visions of national purpose, and in favor of what I see as a much more defensive way of thinking about politics that has much more in common with people like Thoreau and John C. Calhoun than it does with thinkers like Abraham Lincoln or John Marshall.

But most of what I have to say does concern the other party, the one that currently controls the presidency, both houses of Congress, and may indeed get to realize more of its vision on the U.S. Supreme Court over the next few years. I view George W. Bush a something of an unmitigated disaster for the idea of American greatness.

I realize that Bush himself doesn't. We are told that at his ranch in Crawford George W. Bush keeps the speeches of Teddy Roosevelt very close by. And there are people who talk seriously about national greatness, such as The New York Times columnist David Brooks or Bill Kristol and others, who believe that Bush embodies those ideals, and who certainly see the President and the response to the events of September 11th as taking the United States to war against our enemies in an aggressive way—that perhaps will even work, for all I know, although I certainly think we won't know for some time whether his foreign policy has been successful in its objectives.

So all of those things are true. And yet, the notion that this President is one who is in line with the ideals of national greatness that shaped conservative thought and the Republican Party in the past seems to me to be on its face preposterous. This political party and an ideology that currently governs us is as suspicious of national citizenship and national political power as anyone could imagine, as I already alluded to in the reference to Clarence Thomas. One can see it in the prominence of groups such as the so-called Federalist Society—which is actually misnamed; it actually should be called the Anti-Federalist Society—which questions national power.

If any of you read Jeffrey Rosen's piece in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, one of the leading thinkers he features, Michael Greve, is also prominently featured in my book as someone who is essentially so hostile to the idea of a nation, so hostile to the idea that we are a national society with national obligations to all of our citizens, as to really put him in the 18th century camp, as to identify him with all of those forces that opposed the centralization of political power in the United States. So there are people like that.

There are, of course, religious conservatives that are currently quite visible in American politics. In my book I talk a lot about Christian conservatives and their understanding of America, which resonates so much with traditions in our past, who talk about the United States as a special, virtuous nation, blessed by God. We are, according to people who think this way, the Protestant Reformation, which put the purity of individual souls and the purity of individual salvation over the institutional requirements of the Catholic Church, who thought that the Protestant Reformation would inevitably fail in Europe, where it started, but would succeed in the United States because the United States would be unencumbered by the trappings of Catholic and monarchical privileges that existed in Europe. And so this notion that America was blessed by God to embody the principle of virtue and to carry it out with its special mission in the world seems to me to be very much present in current Washington politics.

Many of the congressional leaders of the Republican Party, who of course are strong supporters of the actions that the President of their own party has taken in the world, were equally as critical of any actions taken by Bill Clinton to promote human rights in other countries, and I think would be, and fundamentally are, unilateralist, quasi-isolationist, and very, very nationalistic in spirit, a tradition that has enormously strong roots in the United States but is not a tradition that has been associated with the idea of American greatness as I tried to describe it in the book.

And so it is almost as if a whole series of different elements have come together in the current crystallization of our political parties and of our ideologies. We are frequently told that, because the United States is a relatively new nation, we don't pay that much attention to history, we are not as conscious of our history as other countries. In a sense, that is true. In fact, I argue in the book that if you want to really understand what puts people in one camp rather than another, the "greatness" people are very, very conscious of history. Theodore Roosevelt was a historian himself; John F. Kennedy aspired to be a historian. These are people who take history very, very seriously, that think of themselves as part of the stream of history. Whereas the "goodness" camp generally believes that everything starts anew with each generation, as Thomas Jefferson put it, and that history ensnares you and corrupts you and entraps you, and that we need to reject our history. "History is bunk," as Henry Ford once put it.

So these contrasting attitudes to history run throughout the way we think about history. But, whatever we think about it, we are in fact guided by our history. We are not a new nation anymore. We are a couple of hundred years old. We have one of the oldest democratic societies in the world and one of the oldest constitutions in the world. And we are very much products of our history. I see our history speaking through us at the present time as our political parties and ideologies. It is almost as if they revert to a certain kind of type.

These two types of goodness and greatness are the ones they revert to. As I suggested, I think we are reverting much too much to the goodness strain and less and less to the greatness strain.

I realize that, because greatness is the more imposing and the more demanding strain in our history, it is much harder to realize politically, which is probably why it is off the agenda so much, because it would mean an active government; it would mean higher taxes; it would mean doing what President Bush has been so reluctant to do, and that is to talk about sacrifice, to talk about the idea that we have obligations, whether through military obligations or even obligations to reduce our energy consumption, or almost any kind of obligations in the world that would impose on us constraints on this notion that we should be able to do pretty much what we want to do at any time in the world. That way of thinking is very, very foreign to our political culture at this particular time.

But I think we are going to have to rediscover it in one form or another, because the issue is not really whether America should or should not be great. America is great. When the Ayatollah Khomeini called us "the great Satan," he got at least half of it right. I mean we are the world's preeminent power. Greatness is there. The only question in my mind is whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we take it seriously or not, whether we try to live up to it or not; or whether we run against the grain of what we actually are, in favor of an ideological construct of what we should be that has very, very little relationship to what we actually do in the world.

In that context, I think we would make far fewer mistakes, both at home and abroad, if we acknowledged our greatness, and if we accepted our greatness as a fact of life and tried to live up to it. If we, instead, uphold the idea of goodness, I think we come across to the rest of the world as hypocritical, as out of touch with who we are, and as unable to recognize what our very, very basic nature is.

Of course we all remember where we were on September 11th. We also probably remember where we were when we first saw those pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, which indicated the extent to which some horrible things were done by our troops in the name of our country. I remember President Bush's first statement when those pictures were made available. He said, "Americans don't do that." And I actually believe he was sincere when he said that. It was inconceivable to the President that Americans could be bad, that we could do bad things. We are, in his view, a good nation, a good country, a country of good people. The notion that we could violate that is just incomprehensible.

But that is not how everyone else in the world saw it. Everyone else in the world doesn't share our high opinion of our own goodness. Rather than suggest that we are somehow blessed and special and distinctive, and that the things that other people do, like engage in torture, are things we can't do, it seems to me we would be better off, more honest to ourselves and more open to the world, if we acknowledge them.

I try to lay out at the end of the book a couple of ways that we might think about that, but I have probably gone on too long and I should leave that for questions and comments. But that roughly is the major outline, the major themes of the book. I hope you all get a chance to read it. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Since you ended just before giving your prescriptions, let me lead you there. As you mentioned, in the election between Gore and Bush, both parties and their followers walked away from greatness—maybe in search of goodness, but certainly walked away from the candidates that represented traditional greatness. Within this context, I want to ask a question: does a spirit of greatness start in a people and then it forces the leadership in that direction, or does it take leadership to get people so inclined?

I ask it in particular at this time because anybody who spends in China talking to Chinese, whether they be leaders, whether they be underground scholars, whether they be just workers, cannot but come away struck by the fact that China is a nation of people who are dead set on recapturing their greatness. I don't care whether you are a Communist or a Christian or Evangelical; if you tried to lead China today without pursuing greatness, you wouldn't last very long. So there is a spirit there in our age that apparently has waned somewhat here. I guess my question to you is: does it start with trying to revive it in the people, or does it start with a different kind of leadership?

ALAN WOLFE: The Chinese example is really quite fascinating, because it suggests, to me at least, that there is no "one stop fits all" answer to your question, because I believe very strongly that in this country it is the opposite of what you found in China. I don't think it can come from people. I think it has to come from political leadership here. I think we are a country that has been so successful at allowing people remarkable material advantages, remarkable personal liberties, that the notion that the ideas that I talked about, sacrifice and obligation and duty, just will not come naturally. They are not going to emerge from below. In fact, they never have done that in our country.

One of the things I mention in the book—and to me it is still a source of considerable puzzlement—is that when we've had moments of crisis that have brought the nation together, our leadership was often seemingly incompetent for that purpose. Abraham Lincoln himself was a President elected with only 40 percent of the vote. His only successful campaign before he became President was one term in Congress. He was widely viewed as a kind of compromise candidate within a new political party. No one expected him to rise the way he did. And it took him a long time—he made a number of mistakes—to save the Union the way he did.

In a similar way, F.D.R., who of course confronted the Great Depression and World War II, was widely viewed as a gentleman playboy, as not that serious a person, certainly not an intellectual in any sense of the term, and yet he rose to the occasion. So we were very blessed by the fact that in the two greatest periods of crisis in our society's history we had the right people there, even if they seemed not to be so at the beginning.

In September 2001, I think we had a similar moment. There was a feeling—I think we all remember it—right afterwards that we had come together as a nation, that we were now poised to stop fighting over gay rights and abortion and really come together. Of course we didn't have that kind of political leadership. We had a political leadership that eventually thought that dividing Americans was more important than uniting them.

I get asked your question in a different way by a lot of people, because I write about the culture war in the United States. The question is: Is this thing called "the culture" out there, does that sort of percolate up from below; or is it the product of leadership from above? I think bad leadership divides us but good leadership can unite us.

For me the big missing question in American politics is: What happened to leadership? Why are we so driven by focus groups, by all of these other techniques? Why isn't someone looking beyond that, to do what evidently in China they are going to force their leaders to do, but which we won't?

QUESTION: The question of greatness can be defined in many ways. You get national greatness at home; you get national greatness internationally. So I think the whole question of greatness is really defined over time, not necessarily in the era in which we live. When you look back at it, you look at a certain period and say, "Well, that was a great era" or "that was a great President." But when you are there, the messiness of politics takes over and you really can't see what's happening. I think that question also of centralization of power has gone on from the very beginning between those who wanted a strong central government and those who felt that the power belonged in the states. So we have fifty states at this point that make up a central government, and not a central government that has just control over fifty territories.

The other aspect of things is when you talk about the greatness of the parties, those of us who consider ourselves Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson Democrats feel rather appalled at what has happened to the Democratic Party in recent years. Many of the people who were Jackson Democrats have moved over into the Bush Administration, and so they are perpetuating what they saw way back then as their concept of both national power and international greatness. And so many take offense with what they are doing with this Administration, but they have a different view, I think, of what consists of international greatness.

On the other hand, domestically, going back to what you are talking about, some of the new Democratic governors are also seeing—as Joe Manchin did in West Virginia over the weekend, Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, Brian Schweitzer in Montana—the various kinds of leadership taking place at the state level. It is where they can have more ingenuity in government, a little more decisiveness. It is what happens at home, and not everything going to Washington. We have more innovation here. So I think the Democratic Party is returning, not to its roots of that kind, but to the pre-Roosevelt roots, where most of its candidates came from the states and were looking for states' rights, as opposed to national rights. I think there are several definitions of greatness that you have to factor in here.

ALAN WOLFE: It is certainly true what you say about the Democratic governors. There are even some more extreme versions. After the 2004 election, my first reaction was, "Now I wonder which is the first state that voted for Kerry that is going to start talking about seceding." I figured it would probably be Vermont, which it seems that it is. An extreme reaction of taking states' rights. Given the history of secession in the United States, I would not be strongly in favor of doing that, even if a person I don't like becomes President of the United States.

That is a kind of extreme way of saying that while I can appreciate why the Governor of Tennessee Bredesen might be talking more about what Tennessee can do, I think it would be a retreat from the national greatness that I am talking about, because we are this odd country that became a world power so quickly without having established the tradition of a nation-state that was a given in Europe.

I still think that the idea of an American nation-state is precarious in this country. As I argue in the book, I do not believe that we became a nation-state until 1965. I think the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the crucial document in establishing the principle of national citizenship, in which, for the first time in our history, we established the idea that every person has an actual equal right to vote. That is unbelievably late for a nation-state to have been created. And then, by 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, it was almost over. So we had a fifteen-year existence as a strong nation-state.

That always remains to me our primary objective. While I can fully understand why Democratic governors, when Washington is all Republican, might want to talk about the advantages of the states, I think in the long term it is a mistake.

You are also right to talk about the Jackson-Humphrey wing of the Democratic Party. Part of my book tells that story as well. I think the situation with the people who are active in that wing of the Democratic Party who became Republican neo-conservatives is a complicated one. I ultimately think that they are not going to be happy with the Republican Party, which I still believe in the core of my being is primarily isolationist and will resume its isolationism if there is ever a Democratic president again who tries to deploy American troops abroad. Those former Jackson Democrats, not all of whom became Republicans but many of whom did, will be unhappy with that.

QUESTION: Where does the American flag fit into all of this? It is hugely important in this country. Also, politicians here always say, "Americans don't stand for this," "Americans stand for that." They never say "people don't stand for this." The word "Americans" and use of the flag are dominant to this society. Whether it is greatness, whether it is goodness, they are all mixed up. Right or wrong?

ALAN WOLFE: Well, right, although I have one little correction, if I may. As you know, I am married to a Dane, and Danes fly their flags even more than we do. Danes have their flag on their ashtrays, they have their flag on their keychains. And actually, all the Scandinavian countries do that. It may be because they are small and relatively powerless, so their patriotism in that sense is harmless. Even their pastries have the flag on them.

But of course you are right about the United States. To me it essentially comes down to what the flag means. I had the same experience after September 11th that a number of other people of my generation had, who had been left-wing radicals in the 1960s, opposed to the American war in Vietnam. For example Todd Gitlin, who is exactly my age, wrote after September 11th about feeling proud that the American flag was hanging. I felt very much the same way. It was something of a shock for me to discover that I could look at the flag and feel this sense of pride.

But ultimately it wore off, and I think it wore off because I began to feel that people were putting up the flag as a way of not really being patriotic in a sense, because what I am talking about in the book requires more sacrifice than just going out and buying a flag and putting it up. It means actually trying to embody the ideals that the flag stands for. And so if putting up the flag is just a kind of surrogate, a kind of facile patriotism, I don't think it stands for very, very much. The real question is: what does it mean when we do that?

QUESTION: You described a couple of different strains and the consequences of that way of thinking. I wonder if you could go the other way and look at the roots. Do you have any thoughts on the psychological or sociological or cultural reasons why at various points in time different strains have dominated? Is it purely chance, or are there underlying causes that one might be able to ascribe to why certain periods seem to produce certain types of either goodness or greatness?

ALAN WOLFE: As I think I said in reaction to one of the previous questions, to some degree the answer to that is fortuitous. I think we tend to be relatively passive about these things. But what has made our country work is that when a crisis is forced upon us we become active, and so I do see that we respond more to events than we actually initiate them.

If I say this in Europe, they think I am crazy. They see the United States as a country that only initiates, and the idea that Americans are passive would be just totally out to lunch to them. I have had this experience because I spent the fall semester in Europe. People would ask me what I'm working on, and I'd say, "A book about American greatness." Of course, they either said, "Oh my God, don't ever speak to me again," or "You're going to attack that idea of course, right?"

But I do think that the primary explanation is that when events have been forced upon us, we have been able to respond well. Other than that, psychological/cultural reasons are very, very hard to develop. If it were one consistent pattern all the time, then I could say, "Well, that is due to American culture." But culture remains relatively constant. So if it is an up-and-down thing, culture can't really be the explanation.

QUESTION: I was a little surprised when you said that the era of American greatness ended with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was very much about the assertion of American power in the world. So I was wondering where you felt he stood on the greatness scale. I'm intrigued by your use of the concept, but a little worried that you have defined it in a way that can only be satisfied by liberals, at least in the current era.

ALAN WOLFE: Well, it is a question I have thought a lot about, because I didn't want to write a book that just seemed like an apology for liberals or an apology for the Democratic Party. On the other hand, I think I have got to be honest and consistent with my categories. I just do not see how a society can be a great society and a strong society unless Americans themselves are strong.

Teddy Roosevelt understood this extremely well, and throughout his writings you constantly see that for us to be a great country we need to ensure that there is a decent level of physical health for every American, we need to ensure that every American has a certain amount of economic security, and so on. Now, we call that liberalism today. We call a program liberal that accepts the idea that the federal government has a fundamental obligation to put a floor level of equality there in the form of something like Social Security, or even a system of national health insurance—forbid the term.

To me, those things are so crucial to this notion that you have to have a strong society at home to be strong abroad, that Ronald Reagan, who was opposed to those ideas, just simply cannot qualify on those grounds. If that then comes across as an apology for liberalism, well so be it. It is the way I view it.

Reagan, of course, also embodied the "city on the hill" talk so beautifully and so eloquently. It is very, very inspiring, but it does stand very much in the other kind of tradition. I am not one of those people who say that with the passage of time we realize how much more intelligent Ronald Reagan was than we thought, and how much better a politician he was, and how much more inspiring he was. I simply do not share that. I think that Ronald Reagan, like so many contemporary Republican presidents, had to appeal to a fundamental base in his party that stands against all the ideals that I think are important.

That is just what has happened to the Republican Party. It is not my fault. They had Lincoln. They had Teddy Roosevelt. I can't tell them they ought to go back there. They don't want to go back there. But then I think they lose the mantle of American greatness by that choice.

QUESTION: You mentioned that Jefferson in his pastoral outlook was one of the bases of states' rights and so forth. But in those days the country was 80 percent farmers, and today it is just the opposite. I can't see how a states' rights-oriented government can control multinational companies and international subjects that come up in our world as it is today.

ALAN WOLFE: I can't either. I think that is one of the reasons why this notion of states' rights has been so inspiring to the quite conservative legal scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society and so on. This Michael Greve, who as I said featured in the New York Times Magazine article about conservative legal ideas, says quite explicitly that he does believe in states' rights, but it is not because he thinks that states do things better than the federal government. He says, as a pure exponent of laissez-faire and that the market should rule, he would be just as much opposed to a state regulating business as he would be to the federal government regulating business. The reason why he is in favor of states' rights is because states are less likely to regulate business, because business can have so much more power over a state government than it could over a national government, and a multinational corporation even more.

So there is no attempt to hide the agenda here. The agenda is to advance the market at the expense of the state, and states' rights are a convenient way of doing that.

QUESTION: Do you think we are losing the checks-and-balances system on the national scene?

ALAN WOLFE: I thought someone might ask that question. It is a very embarrassing question for me at the moment, because we are talking now about the notion of the so-called nuclear option, in which the Republicans would use their majority to confirm judges, which would eliminate one of the serious checks and balances.

From where I stand politically, the filibuster is a very bad idea. It is the kind of thing that Lani Guinier defends as a way of protecting the minority, and I am very much interested in creating the potential for majority governments that can get over this system of checks and balances.

Now we actually have a government that can get over the system of checks and balances, and it is almost a British-style government in the party discipline that it has imposed in the House of Representatives, and its sense that judges should not be an independent check on what the popularly elected majority should do. And so, formally speaking, in terms of the structure of government, I have to be very sympathetic to what the Republicans are trying to do. They are trying to centralize power. If Democrats were doing that, I would think that was a good idea.

I also happen to believe that what they are doing is wrong and it will be very bad for the country and very dangerous for the country. So can I be completely hypocritical here and turn against my principles and say that I want to uphold the filibuster to protect? My answer is yes, I will at this point, because I think that centralizing political power in a direction that will ultimately weaken what the country stands for is such a bad idea that, as a temporary expedient, if checks and balances help stop that, I think it is a good idea.

But I recognize, and I am being quite open about it, what your question I think quite rightly exposes here, and that is a certain inconsistency in my argument.

QUESTION: I was the Majority Whip for the House of Representatives, so I had to round up votes. I know, therefore, that we did not have the party discipline characteristic of European parties. Now you see in the House of Representatives, with DeLay and company, that there is that party discipline.

And so I revert to my fundamental rule for politics, which is from Reinhold Niebuhr: that man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. The Republicans now control the House, the Senate, the White House, the Supreme Court, everything, and it is a disaster.

ALAN WOLFE: Spoken like a true diplomat. Thanks for the comment. [Laughter.]

JOANNE MYERS: We'll take one last question.

QUESTION: I admire your courage coming to an organization that concerns itself with ethics and international affairs and coming down on the side of greatness rather than goodness.

ALAN WOLFE: You noticed.

QUESTIONER: I am willing to be persuaded. I will buy your book. But it seems to me that observing that it is okay for people as individuals to be ethical and good, but that it is better for nations to take care of themselves and their own interests more exclusively than they would as individuals—that is a conflict that has always bothered me. So I would encourage you to persuade me that on balance throughout history those who aspire to greatness have done better things for all of us than those who aspire to goodness as nations.

ALAN WOLFE: I was immediately thinking of Niebuhr, who the previous questioner had raised. Reinhold Niebuhr definitely has shaped my thinking on this book. I certainly see him as someone who warned against the dangers of basing a foreign policy on excessive moralism. But I think as a religious thinker he also understood the essentialness of human beings better than probably any theologian of our country in the 20th century. He understood that, while warning against the dangers of moralism, the excesses of national pride would also be sinful. To me he represents someone who understood what the United States needed to do in both the struggles against fascism and then much more so against communism, and wrote about it in a way that I think we ought to pay more serious attention to.

You are right that I came here to an organization concerned with ethics to in a certain sense speak against goodness, but all I can say is there were giants much greater than me who had they been alive today might have done the same thing.

JOANNE MYERS:Thank you very much. I just want to remind you that Alan Wolfe's book is available for you to purchase.

You may also like

MAY 23, 2024 Podcast

U.S. Election 2024 in a Post-Policy World, with Tom Nichols

"Atlantic" staff writer Tom Nichols returns to "The Doorstep" in its penultimate episode to discuss the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation