American Greatness

Alan Wolfe was the speaker for the second in the January Series at Calvin, discussing the topic of “American Greatness.” Starting off with some well placed comments on the disgraceful response that followed Jan Egeland’s criticism of western countries’ ‘stinginess’, Wolfe aptly built his thesis that more fundamental than the liberal/conservative divide within American politics is that between those who are focussed on America as ‘good’ and those who think the nation should strive for ‘greatness.’

He certainly expounded his thesis well, displaying his immense grasp of political history as he drew the division between the proponents of ‘goodness’ who argue for devolved power, a focus on ‘morality’ in the personal sphere, and living out values of liberty and equality internally, and the proponents of ‘greatness’ who want to see the American ideals embodied in the world, with a stronger national government leading a nation deeply involved in the rest of the world. The divide between federalists and republicans has existed as long as this country has, but his analysis wasn’t simply a retread of those old arguments but instead a compelling analysis of the modern state of the country.

Woolfe suggested that the ‘liberal’ sphere of American politics has increasingly become interested in the local more than the global, and that this is displayed in the works of Gore Vidal, the political ideology of Ralph Nader, and through many other outlets. Ecological conservatism and a suspicion of the Vietnam War were for him the instigating factors in this shift, but he made it abundantly clear that he considered this shift in the American left an example of losing the baby with the bathwater.

The retreat of the left from this ‘greatness’ mindset does, I feel, need to be viewed in the context of some broader questions. Wolfe owned the fact that sometimes ‘greatness’ can only be achieved at the sacrifice of ‘goodness’, that in the pursuit of higher aims, mistakes will be made. What needs to be borne in mind when considering that, however, is that while the US has the luxury of making those mistakes, other parts of the world may not be able to bear their impact quite so well, as Wolfe did hint at with his response to a question about the current war in Iraq.

Nuance is also vital in understanding shifts within the left regarding local/global issues. There is a clear ecological need for an increased focus on local modes of production, and I would argue that recent falls in political involvement can be somewhat addressed by more localisation in decision-making. But that does not mean sacrificing a global vision.

A few years ago George Monbiot toured the UK outlining his vision for a mode of government that took more seriously the concept of subsidiarity — decision making devolved to the lowest practical level. In doing this he wasn’t rejecting the concept of global action, he was rather suggesting ways of ensuring democratic checks and balances in an increasingly pan-national system of government (the context was a look at ways of making the WTO, IMF and World Bank democratic). It would be fascinating to hear Wolfe’s opinions on that concept.

You may also want to check out Brandon’s take on Wolfe’s talk. Most of the talks are available as RealAudio streams at the January Series website.

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