Return to Greatness: An Interview with Alan Wolfe

Goodness isn't good enough, says Alan Wolfe. America is best when it strives for greatness.

| Tue Apr. 19, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

"We needed, in the wake of September 11, something tangible to hold us together. Instead we got an economic policy, soon to be followed by a cultural and moral one, that drove us apart." Thus Alan Wolfe in the preface to his new book, Return to Greatness, in which he argues that America has lost its sense of purpose and outlines a strategy for national renewal.

In Wolfe's view, we go wrong as a nation by pursuing an agenda of what he calls "national goodness," a cramped, exceptionalist, moralistic vision that assumes the worst about people and institutions and seeks to lrelegate government to a marginal role. America is at its best, he says, when it commits to a vision of "national greatness," a vision premised on an affirmative, activist conception of government and capable of uniting the the country in the pursuit of the quintessential American values, liberty and equality, both at home and abroad.

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Return to Greatness draws deeply on American history to argue that Americans have been capable of greatness in the past, and can be so again. True, greatness is always the harder path: it requres strong leadership, fidelity to core American values, and a willingess to make sacrifices. But many more Americans are up to the common challenge--are eager for it, even--than the cartoonish vision of Red/Blue America would lead us to believe.

Wolfe is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and the author of numerous books, including The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice our Faith, An Intellectual in Public, and One Nation After All. He recently talked by phone with Mother Jones.

Mother Jones: Let’s start with some basic definitions. You are an advocating a return to American greatness–national greatness. What do you mean by that?

Alan Wolfe: Well, I have a three-part definition of greatness. I think it involves an articulation of one but hopefully two of America’s great founding ideals—the ideal of liberty and the ideal of equality. That’s absolutely essential, it’s at the heart of the American experience, it’s what makes us different from European countries that we rebelled against in the 18th century. I think, secondly, you can’t just assert those things as ideals. You’ve got to realize them, you’ve got to put them into practice, and the only way you can do that is through a conception of national citizenship, that we all belong to the same nation, that we all have equal rights in this nation – which, frankly, requires the active use of government to promote equality and citizenship. And then thirdly, it means that these ideals of liberty and equality, which I think are great ideals, shouldn’t just be for Americans alone, that we have an obligation to think about helping others in the world to realize their objectives as well, if they want to.

MJ: You contrast greatness with something you call goodness. What’s the difference?

AW:Goodness has also been a big part of the American experience. In fact, in my book I argue that we kind of have a default toward goodness rather than greatness, other things being equal. We’re afraid of greatness because it imposes on us an active government and taxes to pay for it and so on.

What I mean by goodness is really embodied in this notion of America as the exceptional nation, that we are put here to embody certain kinds of virtues, and that we carry this burden of proving to the world how goodness and virtue operate. It’s essentially a religiously inspired notion--we are different from everybody else. Europeans, they are corrupt and cynical and worldly and we are innocent and pure, and so on. You can hear echoes of this goodness really going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and coming up to the present time, in George W. Bush, especially in his second inaugural jest.

MJ: Who in American history would you put in the greatness camp? Who’s made this a priority?

AW:Well, for the first hundred years of the existence of our nation-state, the greatness idea was essentially a conservative idea. So its great advocates were Alexander Hamilton, at the time of the constitutional convention; John Marshall, very conservative US Supreme Court Justice; Abraham Lincoln; and, into the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt. I also argue that, in the 20th century, the mood shifted, and greatness swung in the direction of the Democrats, and of liberals. So that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin, and the Kennedy-Johnson years really embodied the idea of greatness in the 20th century.

MJ: And greatness and goodness as visions stem from very different conceptions of human nature, right?

AW:You know, ideally, why not be good and great at the same time, they’re both good things, but in fact they really do require a choice. We’ve had politicians and thinkers who’ve tried to embody both – Woodrow Wilson as someone who wanted to be both good and great, and just got torn apart in the process, proving how difficult it is. And one of the reasons is because the underlying philosophical conceptions behind them are very different. Goodness advocates tend to be very suspicious of human nature. They think that the good is always being threatened by the bad, and most people are born bad. We require strong checks on them – for example, the notion that runs throughout American history that politicians are grasping and corrupt, and they need things like term limits or separations of powers. That’s a constant fear. If all men were angels, James Madison said, then no government would be necessary. But men aren’t angels – people aren’t angels, so you have to have all these kinds of checks. And that’s been a kind of really inherent theme, the theme of suspicion, in the goodness side.

The greatness side talks about what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It talks about that human beings can aspire to do great things, that they have the capacity to do so, that really the purpose of government is not to chain people against their own sinfulness, but to liberate them, that people can use government and use their collective resources as a nation to expand their potential and expand their capacity.

And there are other things as well. I try to show how goodness people tend to approach the world as if rules exist and are fixed and never change. So the Constitution has to be interpreted exactly as it was written, the Bible is the literal truth of God, whereas the greatness people are much more experimental. Rules are there to be taken advantage of, you don’t necessarily have to follow them out of strict principle.

MJ: And also there’s a difference in how the different camps value history.

AW:It is a strong theme in American history that history itself is not that important. Henry Ford said history is bunk. And running throughout their way of thinking of the goodness camp, right from the beginning, there’s this notion that you can always start again, you can always start anew, you don’t have to be bound by history. Whereas the greatness people think more about the kind of stream of history that has run throughout our traditions, and that you build on your predecessors in order to make the country greater. And so you see yourself as part of a process of historical continuity. John F. Kennedy’s life was cut short, we don’t know what he would have done, and he may have never been a great president, but he certainly had that sense of locating himself in history. Theodore Roosevelt himself was a great historian, who wrote books about American history that were bestsellers. That’s kind of one attitude that history… and not just the history of this country, but the history of its environment, the history of its people, really motivates one camp, while the other camp doesn’t want to be bound by history and sees history as kind of corrupt.

MJ: Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, George W Bush is no historian, and yet, as you write, it’s pretty clear that Bush would like to be compared as a historical figure to Roosevelt. Where does he fit in the taxonomy?

AW: I think there’s almost nothing in Bush that aspires to the greatness camp. Yes, he has now developed very good rhetoric for talking about freedom, but let’s remember that this is a fourth or fifth go-around to find a justification for a disastrous war, which began with a whole set of other justifications, and it’s only at the end he discovers the power of this language, and he gives this wonderful speech about it while allying the United States with some of the world’s most repressive dictatorships. I’m not great fan of George W Bush, as any reader of my book would see.

MJ: So you don’t buy the stuff about transforming the Middle East?

AW:Not at all. This party that he leads is a party with a strong isolationist tradition and is in fact more isolationist now than it’s ever been in its history. Right now, their support of Bush is strictly for perks and on ideological grounds. I don’t think there are any deep roots in the Republican Party for a foreign policy that would take ideas of American greatness seriously. The man who really embodied that tradition, Senator McCain, went nowhere in the Republican primaries. This is a party that is xenophobic, nationalistic, and cheap. Cutting back the size of government, cutting back on the funds needed to support our troops, not taking any intelligence work seriously that would be required for the US to promote its ideals effectively in the world. And Bush sits on top of that.

The Republicans much prefer to see their ideology strengthened than to see the country strengthened. They much prefer to see the power of the privileged strengthened than to see the rights of everyone strengthened. And so in foreign policy, it seems like a Wilsonian agenda, and it seems like Bush is taking on the mantel of Teddy Roosevelt, but I believe that if Teddy Roosevelt were here live today, even in foreign policy, would look at this administration and he’d scratch his head and say, Well they talk these big ideas, but they’re cutting taxes. I mean, who in heaven’s name is going to pay for all these ambitious programs? Bush is a tax cutter, that is the rock bottom principle. You recall, and your readers will recall, that he changed the reason for a tax cut every week but he never changed the basic idea, because the tax cut is the symbol of what a great society, you cannot build a great society and cut taxes at the same time.

MJ: You see the tragedy of Sept. 11 as having presented Bush with an opportunity to reach for greatness.

AW: [When he came to power] Bush was insecure, incompetent, and uninterested in the world, but he happened to be President during one of the great crises in our history. It was a great opportunity for him to transform the country and to transform the world. In fact, what he did was to use that horrible event for the most narrow, partisan, ideological purposes imaginable, to try to create an almost stealth-counter revolution in the US toward abolishing some our most important programs that embody the ideal of American greatness, like Social Security, without ever acknowledging that that’s what he’s doing.

To me, it’s highly symptomatic that if I were to say what has been probably the greatest embodiment of the ideal of American greatness in our history, it would say the Social Security system, which created a fundamental idea of equality in the United States and used the federal government to give every individual in the US a basic minimum in their old age. It is the most beautiful idea, and it’s almost by instinct that Bush understands that if SS stands, his vision of tearing apart great America would be prevented. So he’s determined to do away with SS because the idea of American greatness absolutely destroys his vision of what the world should be. He wants to go back to a 19th century social Darwinist world, in which the richest and the most powerful would have an enormous amount of privilege.

MJ: What would a “great” response to Sept. 11 have looked like?

AW:I know exactly how the speech should have sounded after September 11th, and that is that what a great president should have said, is: “My fellow Americans, for the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve been arguing with each other about gay rights and about abortion and we’ve had the red states and the blue states. Well I guarantee you, my fellow Americans, that Osama bin Laden doesn’t care whether you’re gay or straight, he doesn’t care how many children you have, or whether you’re married and had those children or not, he doesn’t care which state you live in, if you were an American and you were in those buildings, he wanted to kill you.”

To this day, I’m saddened and shocked by the fact that the President of the United States could have done that but didn’t. Even politically, it would have made him and his party the majority party for the foreseeable future. But that is not the party of Tom DeLay, and that is not the party of Dennis Hastert. Their vision of America is entirely different. It’s one in which you try to build the narrowest possible majority in Congress, for the most divisive legislation, the most divisive judges you can find. And you keep the culture war going, and you keep America divided, and out of the resulting hysteria you hope to get whatever you can. It’s a totally different vision than the greatness that I think we’re capable of in this country.

MJ: A few years ago you wrote the book One Nation After All, which argued that, contrary to the notion that Americans divide neatly into red-blue cultural categories based on our viewpoints on wedge issues, we’re far more united than divided. Do you think that premise still holds up?

AW:I think the book is even more correct than it was then. The argument in that book was that the culture war is fought by our political class, but most Americans are tired of it, don’t like it, and want something more inspiring. I think that’s even more true now. And for the evidence, look at the remarkable failure by the Republicans to make the Terry Schiavo case into a culture war issue. They thought Americans were totally divided on this issue. And it bombed! It bombed because Americans are far more sensible than our leaders, which I wrote in One Nation After All, they understand and understood how complicated the whole Schiavo business was, they didn’t politicians posturing about it.

MJ: Do you think there’s a large constituency, in this vast middle ground where people broadly agree about values and ideals, for a greatness agenda,?

AW:That’s right. We heard a lot after 2004 about values. And now we have a big discussion with Jim Wallis’s book LINK and all that, about religion and the Democrats and so on. I think values are enormously important, and I think Democrats are widely perceived as not standing for values, so if I were in the political business, I would hope that the Democrats would understand that within the tradition of American history, we have these figures – the Lincolns, the Roosevelts, that offer a phenomenally powerful set of ideals, which have a religious inspiration but are not in and of themselves religious ideas; they’re also secular ideas. And you could really put together, I think, an enormously powerful and attractive political package, if we have the kind of politicians that are willing to be forward-looking and willing to be optimistic. And it isn’t going to come from the Republicans. It did in the 19th century, it isn’t in the 21st.

MJ: So why is it that the liberals, as you argue in the book, are better placed to advance a greatness agenda right now?

AW:Essentially the way things have developed in American politics, the strength of the Republican Party is now located in the South. The South has always been the one region of the United States, extremely patriotic and very nationalistic, but never in the greatness camp. Because the South, first, for a long period of time had this thing called slavery, that only Civil War removed from our shores, and then for a hundred years after slavery was abolished, the South fought to keep something like it in place, and it’s been the great curse of the South. I’ve lived in the South, and I don’t doubt for a moment that the patriotism and the loyalty of American southerners, their tradition of hospitality and all these wonderful things, but they’ve been cursed by race, by their defense of racial inequality that has never allowed them to speak for greatness, because its implications are that every American has to be treated as equal, and that’s run fundamentally through the South’s history. So as the Republicans rely upon the South for their political strength, they are relying upon a tradition that simply does not allow them to speak about greatness, and that leaves it to the Democrats by default.

MJ: So that’s the negative case for why liberals are better placed. What about the positive case?

AW:I go after liberals in my book. I think that liberals have been attracted to too many ideas that are insufficiently robust in their commitment to greatness, a kind of liberal left-wing flirtation with isolationism, certain 18th century ideas about anti-Federalism that I think are dangerous for liberals to be advocating and so on. Identity politics, multiculturalism—I think these ideas aren’t sufficient for what we need today.

There is nonetheless this tradition of American history and American culture upon which liberals can rely. We really don’t know what a full John F. Kennedy presidency would have looked like but he certainly had the language. And other Democratic politicians, like Mario Cuomo, have had the language. And there are serious thinkers out there in the country, the political philosopher Michael Waltzer, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman and others. This is a time of great ferment intellectually, and it’s possible that a more inspiring vision is one that would have political appeal.

MJ: And a prerequisite for this would be that liberals get over their fear of ambition?

AW: Yes. My sense is that Republicans feel that they’re really entitled to govern the country. And there’s this kind of apology that liberals always seem to have. The Republicans have shown how far you can go with a strong set of ideas—a perverse set of ideas, but certainly strongly held. At least in our recent past, Democrats have lacked that kind of confidence. Now I’m seeing increasingly positive signs in this regard, I think the Democratic unity on Social Security has shaken the Republicans. They never expected this, and they’re sputtering. They don’t know how to respond because they viewed the Democrats as just craven and not even really a political party worth speaking of. So we’re seeing the signs for it, and as the Democrats experience the kind of confidence that they begin to get, that should be pretty contagious. We’ll have this huge issue coming up about whether the Republicans will try to change the Senate rules to allow judges to be appointed. That will be a real test of whether the Democrats can use the very effective language of American history and American politics to talk about why we have the constitution we do, why we have the traditions of judicial independence we do, why the separation of powers has really mattered. We’re going to have a little seminar in American history when the next Supreme Court Justice is appointed, and it will be a great opportunity.

MJ: Let’s talk about power on the international level. There’s a lot of interesting talk these days about the need for liberals, Democrats to really get their act together on national security and foreign policy to articulate principles that are going to govern the use of American military power in a post-911 world, and we’re at the early stages of that. What’s your sense of where this conversation needs to head?

AW:My book is not meant to advocate for policy X or policy Y so much, but what we’ve seen with Bush again is what looks like the assertion of American power but is anything but. And I would go back to some of these underlying philosophical premises that I think are so important. The Bush view is a view in which fear rules the world. I think that we’re much better off when a view the world with confidence. America needs to be confident, confident of its power, and confident of its ability to use its power, so that it doesn’t approach other liberal democracies like those in Western Europe out of a sense of rivalry, but out of a sense of we’re powerful enough that we can welcome and support other countries in our efforts. We’re going to need Europe—a lot—and I think a more multilateral policy, one that really grows out of a sense of confidence in who we are, is absolutely essential.

Now there are dangers down that road. There are always dangers of American arrogance, and I worry about those, because we’ve certainly had our experiences with them in the past. But fundamentally, I think we’re better off accepting the world as it is, moving more in the direction of the sort of real politik tradition, than we are with this kind of warmed-over Wilsonianism that we currently have.

MJ: If we as a nation are committed to liberty and equality not just for Americans but for all humans, doesn’t that entail certain obligations to intervene and intercede in lots of places?

AW:I think we should make human rights essential to what we do. Does that mean we intervene every time there is a human rights violation? I mean, all those things have to be decided on case-by-case basis. But I certainly think we should use our power to promote human rights abroad. I would be a little less, in fact considerably more less willing than the present administration to cast our lot with dictatorships. For me, the Clinton administration was moving in a hesitant but nonetheless positive way in this direction. Like many people, I was enormously moved by the Samantha Power book about the genocides, and that doesn’t mean that every single case we intervene, but I think we have to be conscious of those horrifying examples that she talks about, which are still going on in the world now and make it an important part of our foreign policy.

MJ: Turning back to home, a big challenge is going to be to convince Americans that they have more to gain than to lose from a stronger national government. What are the prospects for making that case?

AW:It is difficult, and I don’t pretend otherwise. As I argue in the book, greatness has really been the minority taste, where we seem to be more comfortable with the other tradition generally. Nonetheless, one of the ideas that really emerges from a study of the past is the idea of using the presidency in what TR would have called a tutorial manner, bully pulpit, politicians who are willing to engage with the American electorate in the form of playing an educative role. We’re probably a long way from that. Right now we seem to be in a more populistic kind of mood, where the people just express themselves and politicians run around and try to do whatever they’re articulating at any particular moment. I hope that this mood is one that was produced by the initial shock of 911, and that as we have more time to absorb that into our consciousness, we’ll come to realize how unsatisfactory that way is of responding, and Americans will come to appreciate that politics does involve leadership, and that a leader is one who speaks to our higher ideals and then tries to move us in those directions.

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