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

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

by Alan Wolfe


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Has America, in its quest for goodness, sacrificed its sense of greatness? In this sharp-witted, historically informed book, veteran political observer Alan Wolfe argues that most Americans show greater concern with saving the country's soul than with making the nation great.

Wolfe castigates both conservatives and liberals for opting for small-mindedness over greatness. Liberals, who at their best insisted on policies of national solidarity, have convinced themselves that small is beautiful, prefer multiculturalism to one nation, and are mistrustful of executive political power. Conservatives, who once embraced strong, active central government and an ideal of national citizenship, now support huge tax cuts that undermine America's future ability to undertake any ambitious, long-term project at home or abroad.

No great society, in Wolfe's view, has ever been built on the cheap. Wolfe notes that neither the conservatives' call for small-scale faith-based initiatives nor the recent embrace on the left of a grassroots "civil society" can provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans or ensure national security in an age of terrorism.

To find better solutions, Wolfe looks back at specific moments in our national experience, when, in the face of sharp resistance, aspirations for the idea of national greatness shaped American history. He demonstrates how a bold and ambitious political agenda, championed at various times by Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts, steered the country toward periods of national strength and unity.

Steeped in a colorful, panoramic reading of history, Return to Greatness offers a fresh take on American national identity and purpose. A call to action for a renewed embrace of the ideal of an activist federal government and bold policy agendas, it is sure to become a centerpiece of national debate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691119335
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/20/2005
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Alan Wolfe is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Practice Our Faith (Free Press), An Intellectual in Public, and One Nation, After All (Penguin-Viking).

Read an Excerpt

Return to Greatness

How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It
By Alan Wolfe


Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-11933-3

Chapter One

The Good and the Great

Its military supremacy greater than that of the rest of the world combined, its economy the envy of even its enemies, its culture irresistible, the United States entered the twenty-first century as powerful as any nation in the history of the human race. Powerful did not mean invulnerable, as the world learned on September 11, 2001. But the willingness of George W. Bush to use military force in response to that horror evoked for some the era of Theodore Roosevelt, a president who, as William Kristol and Robert Kagan put it, "implored Americans to look beyond the immediate needs of their daily lives" and, in so doing, "aspired to greatness for America."

Although Kristol and other "national greatness conservatives" originally hoped that Senator John McCain of Arizona would carry out their program of strengthening American power, President Bush's ambitious foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq quickly won their support. They were not the only ones who felt that way; former White House speechwriter David Frum and former chairman of the Defense Policy Review Board Richard Perle wrote a book urging Mr. Bush to apply his big stick in places other than Iraq, such as Syria, Lebanon, and North Korea, making, along the way, explicit comparisons between TR and GWB. The president, as it happened, liked the comparison; Mr. Bush keeps a copy of TR's speeches on the coffee table of his ranch in Texas and fills his remarks justifying his foreign policies with Rooseveltian words such as "resolve," "courage," and "sticking the course." Little doubt exists over whom George W. Bush would like to be compared to when historians ultimately make their comparisons. Theodore Roosevelt was not quite the hero that Americans often make him out to be; ever conscious of his image and his place in history, he stage-managed his claims to greatness as much as he actually accomplished them. Still there is enough achievement in his case-his recognition that regulation of business had become essential; his commitments to a form of meritocracy that, in the context of his time, enabled him to appreciate the contributions of immigrants; his understanding that divisions by class undermined American ideals; his appointment of Gifford Pinchot to manage the nation's forests; and his willingness to use American power on behalf of peace as well as war-that conservatives have reason to identify him in the camp of national greatness. What is less clear is whether Mr. Bush should be viewed as following in his footsteps. At first glance the comparison seems to make sense: both men were children of the East Coast who discovered their true selves by moving to or spending considerable time in the western portions of the United States; became adults who never tired of demonstrating their masculinity to all and sundry; were not above heaping furious scorn on the enemies each of them all too easily made; showed little hesitation in convincing themselves of the inherent rightness of their views; once in office discovered that people in the countries to which they were so quick to bring the presumed benefits of American power were not, in the end, especially grateful for their actions; and, despite their political achievements, left divisions in the body politic behind them that fueled the wrath of their opponents. As correspondences go in history, this appears to be a fairly close one. Yet Roosevelt and Bush can be also distinguished in a number of crucially important ways. Appalled by the greed of the wealthy, Roosevelt became an avid reformer willing to use government to create conditions of fairness for all, turning his back on the Republican Party's inclination to reinforce the privileges and power of the already well off. Conservation-today we call it environmentalism-was, as TR once put it, "the great fundamental question of morality," not a question of increasing the profit incentives for drilling and logging. Roosevelt's vision of war, however imperialistic, included compulsory military service, which President Bush opposes, and the former president, unlike the latter one, put himself all too frequently in harm's way. Roosevelt's allegiance to the Republican Party was always a bit shaky and he bolted from it in the end, while George W. Bush has been among the most partisan Republicans in modern memory. From time to time in the course of his career, TR would look back with a skeptical eye toward some of the imperialistic ambitions he supported earlier in his life, while GWB has shown no propensity to question any of the decisions, but especially the foreign policy decisions, he made during his presidency. We know, in short, that Mr. Bush claimed the mantle of TR, but we have reason to doubt whether TR would be pleased to see his ideas appropriated by Mr. Bush. He would likely admire President Bush's firmness, just as he would be appalled by the fact that Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's closest political advisor, models himself on Mark Hanna, who played the same role for arch Republican William McKinley, hardly TR's favorite politician. Despite the gulf that separates Theodore Roosevelt from George W. Bush, neoconservative intellectuals were correct to insist that the time had come to take ideas of American greatness seriously; September 11 made clear to the world how central the United States is to its hopes and fears, and after September 11, whether or not one agrees with the decision to go to war in Iraq, the United States has no choice but to engage directly, using military force if need be, enemies prepared to fight a war against it. Like other transformative events in our history such as the American revolution, the firing on Fort Sumter, the 1929 stock market crash, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, September 11 will be remembered as having stimulated a wide-ranging inquiry into the question of whether America's traditional ways of carrying out its public affairs are sufficient for dealing with the new realities imposed upon it. We live in Shakespearian times, in which evil stalks the globe, matters of statecraft, high and low, take center stage, and all too many people die. Before we can evoke ideas of American greatness, however, we need to ask some questions about it. What exactly is national greatness? Should the United States aspire to it? What are the costs of doing so? Does the fact that George W. Bush's decision to go it alone in Iraq backfired so spectacularly mean that all dreams of a Rooseveltian foreign policy should be discouraged? Can the United States develop an ambitious agenda for reconstructing the world, as at least some contemporary conservatives insist it should, while retreating, as many contemporary conservatives also advocate, from ambition in its domestic life? Conversely, can liberals, generally fearful of war and suspicious of foreign entanglements, be true to their commitments to freedom and equality of opportunity at home if they refrain from fighting for them abroad? If American greatness is so important, why have so many presidents stood for what the decidedly un-Rooseveltian Warren G. Harding called "normalcy"? Something valuable will have been lost if, having begun to discuss whether America should aspire to greatness, we stopped the discussion because a president who claimed the mantle of Theodore Roosevelt did such an imperfect job of bringing into contemporary politics some of the ideals for which Roosevelt, as well as many other politicians and thinkers in American history, stood. In their fantastically evil way, America's enemies perceive a greatness in America that Americans themselves had somehow overlooked; denouncing us, as the Ayatollah Khomeini so frequently did, as the "great Satan" gets at least half of the equation right. Because of September 11, we now know that we are larger than life to nearly everyone in the world. We have not put the question of American greatness back on the table; it has been put there for us. It is up to us whether we take our country and its potential as seriously as everyone else in the world does.

If by the phrase American greatness we include patriotic sentiments fashioned for ceremonial events, then all presidents aspire to it. Willing greatness into existence, however, is a far more difficult proposition. It is not the invasion of a small and defenseless country-Ronald Reagan's intervention in Grenada offers perhaps the best example-that contributes to a sense of greatness, for victories achieved in such one-sided fashion seem tawdry in retrospect, even to those who celebrate them at the time they occur. Nor, shifting to domestic concerns, can greatness be given pride of place when a president decides, as Bill Clinton did after the 1994 elections, to substitute for ambitious reforms such small-scale steps as encouraging school uniforms or discouraging teenage smoking, however important each of them may be. Both Reagan's actions and Clinton's were popular, but popular does not mean great. Greatness is made of sterner stuff than successfully facing the exigencies of the electoral cycle. It takes leadership of a particularly tenacious sort to overcome the inclination of entrenched institutions to place self-interest before the common good, the desires of ordinary people not to be disturbed for purposes larger than those of family and friends, the need, on occasion, to disappoint one's closest allies, and the tendency of public officials to find enemies among their immediate competitors rather than among distant threats. Achieving national greatness involves three tasks: articulating a meaningful vision of the American purpose; assembling the political capacity to transform that vision into reality; and demonstrating a willingness to use force if necessary to protect that vision and that reality from international enemies and, on occasion, to spread it around the world. Oddly enough for a society that so frequently proclaims itself great, all of these requirements have proven difficult to realize throughout the American experience. When Americans reflect on what their vision of national purpose may be, the two most frequently cited qualities are liberty and equality. Yet there has never been widespread agreement in the United States on what those terms are supposed to mean. Whatever the founders meant by liberty, it obviously did not extend to those held in bondage; if anything, liberty in the first half-century of our existence became the rallying cry of Southern politicians determined to protect their distinct way of life against those who would extend freedom to all. By finally ridding the country of slavery, the Reconstruction amendments opened the door to a recommitment to liberty, but-again this is well-trod territory-American courts were more likely to apply those amendments to freedom of contract than to effective freedom for former slaves and their descendents. So confused remains our understanding of liberty that to this day we are unsure whether, in its name, we are powerless to regulate the influence over politicians sought by wealthy campaign contributors or able to protect children from the handguns easily obtainable by their parents. Still, there can be no doubt of the importance of liberty to greatness. One can argue, as Americans have throughout the course of their history, whether an unregulated free market best achieves liberty by allowing for an entrepreneurial spirit to flourish or stands in liberty's way by denying to individuals the capacities needed for self-development. Along the same lines, debates have taken place in the United States for longer than a century over whether such liberties as free speech or the right to privacy come at the cost of insufficient appreciation of the needs of national security or of insufficient recognition of one's obligations to others. There are no easy answers to these questions, and we will no doubt continue to be preoccupied with them indefinitely. The great challenge to liberty in the twentieth century, however, was posed, not by the welfare state, the sexual revolution, or the demands of national security, but from the powerful, if thankfully short-lived, experience of totalitarianism. And that experience teaches that while Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were correct to insist on the importance of free markets and free speech, Immanuel Kant was even more right to remind us that individuals-their needs, desires, decisions, and actions-cannot serve as means to someone else's ends. Liberty today, much as the American founders suggested in rhetoric if not, alas, always in deed, consists of the idea that human beings come attached with inalienable rights to personhood; to the greatest extent possible, they themselves, and not a coercive force speaking on their behalf, should be in command of their fate. Other societies might be able to achieve greatness without committing themselves to the protection and extension of a concept of human autonomy, both at home and abroad, but the United States cannot. Liberty is too much part of its tradition to be sacrificed for any other objective, and if such personal autonomy is so sacrificed, whatever is achieved as a result cannot be considered great. At least we talk frequently about liberty, which we do not always do about equality; to take one striking example, the words "all men are created equal" have been cited only twenty-three times by the U.S. Supreme Court in its history, mostly in dissent. Forced to face the issue of equality because of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln attempted through his magnificent prose to flesh out the promise of equality at which the Declaration of Independence hinted. But as Robert Penn Warren realized when he said that the Confederacy was born on the day Lee handed his sword to Grant at Appomattox, the less attractive meaning of American purpose over which the war was fought-the decidedly inegalitarian one that held that the value of some human lives, based solely on race, was worth less than others-while losing the war, won the peace, and its victory has contributed to a society unwilling to apply the most elementary principals of equality until a century after the fighting stopped. In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we speak more, as well as more favorably, about equality than we did a century ago, but our confusion about what it means persists; we cannot decide whether the equality promised by those landmark events mandates that we practice affirmative action or prohibits us from so doing. Although Americans have disagreed about the meaning of equality, however, they have nonetheless consistently expanded the reach of equality with each passing generation.


Excerpted from Return to Greatness by Alan Wolfe Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I The Good and the Great 1
II From Politics to Philosophy 27
III Conservatism’s Retreat from Greatness 61
IV Liberalism’s Fear of Ambition 117
V Great Once More? 169

What People are Saying About This

Richard Wightman Fox

This is a timely book that will make a lasting contribution to our understanding of the present political and cultural moment. It is a call to arms for liberals to embrace a new vital center that rejects both knee-jerk flag-waving and rigid antinationalism.
Richard Wightman Fox, University of Southern California


In this fascinating and discerning reflection on America's frustrated instinct for greatness, Alan Wolfe suggests the formula and the elements necessary to make our nation the leader of an international community that shares our gifts of liberty, equality, and prosperity.
Mario M. Cuomo, former Governor of New York State

"Publishers Weekly"

In this timely contribution to the literature of American identity and public policy post-9/11, Wolfe argues that Americans both right and left lack sufficient ambition to rebuild America's greatness.

From the Publisher

"Every few years Alan Wolfe writes a book that changes the way we think about the political and social world. This book is provocative and original—another Wolfe classic."—Kathleen Hall Jamieson, University of Pennsylvania

Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Every few years Alan Wolfe writes a book that changes the way we think about the political and social world. This book is provocative and original—another Wolfe classic.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, University of Pennsylvania

Robert Wuthnow

This is Alan Wolfe at his best. Insightful, articulate, concise, slightly contentious, and thought provoking. Wolfe moves smoothly from key interpretations of Andrew Jackson . . . to savvy observations about President Bush and concerns about Iraq. The book offers a strong, original argument about American culture and politics.
Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University

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