Liberals, Think Big

    Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It by Alan Wolfe (Princeton University Press, 224 pages, $22.95)

In recent years, the sociologist Alan Wolfe has emerged as one of America's most astute thinkers about religion, politics, and society. Unlike so many generalists who aspire to the label “public intellectual,” Wolfe's ideas have roots in his own continuing academic research; where clever controversialists like David Brooks and Christopher Hitchens wear poorly, as their endless tossing off of opinions lays bare a core shallowness, Wolfe draws from a deeper well, and his books and essays are the richer for it.

One of Wolfe's most important crossover works, One Nation, After All, appeared in 1998 amid the so-called culture wars. Based on a survey of middle-class Americans' views on affirmative action, immigration, and other divisive topics, One Nation held that beneath their surface differences, Americans shared common values such as pragmatism and tolerance. Admiringly, Wolfe wrote of his subjects' “quiet faith” and “mature patriotism.” Published as Bill Clinton's approval ratings were soaring in the face of a Republican-led, media-abetted sexual auto-da-fé, One Nation won kudos for hitting upon an overlooked condition of our public life: that while the moralizers might rule the debates, a silent majority had sided with the forces of change on the major referenda of the 1960s. In the culture wars, liberals had -- mostly -- won.

Seven years on, the squalidness of our current politics calls this bright portrait into question. If he were to repeat his survey today, would Wolfe find a middle class just as quiet in its faith and mature in its patriotism? Are pundits again mistaking the stridency of a vocal few for the dominant temper of the many? Or have September 11 and its aftermath -- along with George W. Bush's jackboot politics -- repolarized America?

Last July in The New York Times Book Review, Wolfe acknowledged the intensifying war between the red and the blue. Writing about a dozen-plus election-year polemics, he lamented the deafening shrillness. Still, he cautioned that such jeremiads had precedents in the blustery pamphleteering of the Revolutionary era and clung to his battered optimism, concluding, “If the only choice we have is between no politics and vituperative politics, the latter is -- just barely -- preferable.”

In Return to Greatness, Wolfe expands these ideas. The book suggests how a political essay, rather than driving Americans apart, might help us “overcome the culture wars and return to the business of achieving something for which [we] can be proud.” Like a 1995 New Republic essay by John B. Judis and Michael Lind calling for a “new nationalism,” Wolfe contends that the United States should again pursue what he calls “national greatness” -- a concept whose unfashionably grandiose ring he deems precisely the ingredient that liberalism and conservatism today both sorely lack.

Wolfe uses the term “greatness” quite specifically. By his definition, a great vision must include a commitment to both liberty and equality and a willingness to use government to guard and promote those ideals. Greatness for Wolfe also requires a focus on a national (as opposed to factional or local) interest; a hardy confidence that makes bold planning possible; and (perhaps counterintuitively) a cold realism, because only by accepting the flaws of any agenda and scuttling high-minded dreams of purity can leaders actually get things done.

Today, Wolfe says, conservatives and liberals alike recoil from greatness. Although the Republican Party claims an august tradition, exemplified by Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, of using the state to pursue unifying goals (think of the Gettysburg Address or Roosevelt's conservationism), the party's current bosses have discarded this magnanimity for a cramped, knee-jerk worldview that favors “shrinking government to the point [where] it can be washed down the bathroom drain” (in the imagery of right-wing activist Grover Norquist) and a foreign policy based on what Wolfe wittily calls “dogmatism without dogma.”

Liberals for their part, burned by the Vietnam War and the backlash against the Great Society, flinch from any agenda that might smack of grand designs. Wolfe faults various currents in recent liberal thought -- the romance with civic republicanism, the environmentalists' shift from prioritizing people's needs to a “pastoralism” that prioritizes nature itself, the denigration by some academics of the very idea of an American nation -- for elevating “the good over the great, the small over the big, the local over the national, and the particular over the universal.” As for America's role abroad, there, too, most liberals want for confidence. No sooner had September 11 helped them rediscover the need for an activist foreign policy, Wolfe notes, than Bush's invasion of Iraq produced “an extreme case of … whiplash” -- leading many to revert to their neoisolationism.

More a ruminative essay than a rigorous argument, Return to Greatness ranges, despite its brevity, over wide swaths of intellectual terrain, dispensing insights and making novel connections. Wolfe trenchantly critiques such diverse thinkers as Robert Bork, Eugene Genovese, Christopher Lasch, Michael Sandel, and Juliet Schor. As a result of this breadth, it's both hard to gainsay the wisdom of his general thrust and easy to quibble with particulars. I would have liked to see him work out more thoroughly a key distinction he posits between “greatness” and “goodness.” In contrast to the champions of the bold agendas that Wolfe favors, advocates of goodness, he says, are risk-averse and sentimental, romantically seeking to cleanse society instead of exploring new frontiers.

Defined in Wolfe's precise way, this dichotomy makes sense. But it's also possible to conceive of goodness not as small-minded moralism but as a becoming modesty, a pledge to avoid the hubris that dreams of greatness can foster. Wolfe argues, for instance, that the Bush administration's pious rhetoric and ungenerous spirit place it in the camp of goodness. Yet one can also view Bush & Co. as a gang of self-styled bad boys, sneering at the norms of political fair play and international law, which they deem obstacles in the path to the historic role they imagine for America (and themselves). Conversely, Wolfe sees Franklin Delano Roosevelt as an exemplar of greatness, but one could interpret FDR's smorgasbord of experiments for beating the Depression -- his absence of an overarching scheme -- as a prudent quest for “merely” the good. The point isn't to detour into hedgehog-versus-fox taxonomies, but to suggest that a more refined argument about goodness and greatness would have bolstered an appealingly suggestive thesis.

A larger question about Wolfe's enthusiasm for greatness arises with his sympathetic take on such books as James MacGregor Burns' The Deadlock of Democracy (1963), which bemoaned how a minority of reactionary southern and rural forces were blocking progress. At that time, when the landmark civil-rights laws of the 1960s remained unpassed, Burns was right to fault the American political system for allocating power disproportionately to these minority interests -- and to hope that the 1964 elections would yield a Democratic supermajority that could effect change.

Yet for all the achievements of the 89th Congress, single-party government looks very different when the other guys hold power. Today, with ultraconservatives running the White House, Congress, and the courts, liberals celebrate the Founders' prescience in creating those systemic restraints that Burns and “greatness” liberals once rued. I agree with Wolfe -- and argued in these pages [see “Action Liberalism,” January 2005] -- that liberals suffer from what he calls a “fear of ambition.” But Return to Greatness doesn't address (nor did my essay) how to achieve the kinds of sweeping reforms Burns urged without risking abuses of power by overzealous presidents.

Wolfe acknowledges the pitfalls of greatness, and the ways that Bush has made majority rule a fearsome thing. In his conclusion, he bastes the administration for privileging special over national interests, for its secrecy, for its systematic misrepresentations. Still, ever the optimist, Wolfe finds a silver lining even in Bush's re-election, which he postulates may yet lead the left to reject “utopian pastoral visions” and nostalgic communitarianism and rediscover nationalism and global engagement. Moreover, Wolfe writes hopefully, “Mr. Bush's way of governing has put the Democratic Party in the position of overcoming the divisions between its ideological wings.”

Many readers will view the current situation more grimly. But at a time when many liberals are speaking of the American public as either fundamentalist kooks or manipulable stooges, Wolfe deserves respect for reaffirming the promise of liberalism and for placing hope in the possibility of restoring common dreams.

David Greenberg is a professor at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.

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