My Georgetown colleague Michael Kazin wrote recently of the re-ascendancy of Left-wing patriotism and its revival as a “liberal faith.” Long moribund in the aftermath of the Vietnam War – when the New Left especially came to abhor American participation in foreign interventionism, militarism, colonialism and its embrace a crass consumerist free-market ideology – it has taken some four decades for the Left again to embrace the American narrative of liberty, equality and prosperity, helped along by the efforts of aging New-Leftist Todd Gitlin and made finally reputable with the election of Barak Obama. While Michelle Obama backpedaled from her unscripted campaign statement that she was “proud of America for the first time in [her] life,” her admission encapsulates the view of a wide swath of the contemporary Left. Seeing the innumerable flags being waved on the Mall on the morning of Obama’s inauguration, there came the full realization that the Right monopoly on the imagery and language of patriotism had come to an end. Kazin predicts a vibrant set of competing narratives over the meaning of the American narrative, with both Left and Right laying claim to the mantle of patriotism.
Something more significant is taking place on this front, however. A growing chorus of voices on the Right – still marginal to the mainstream of the Republican Party, admittedly (I would have to include myself) – has begun taking up quite a bit of the substance of the criticisms of America made formerly by the New Left, albeit to a different tune and distinct set of goals. Reading Andrew Bacevich’s recent book The Limits of Power, I was struck by – and sympathetic with – not only the often stinging rebukes and criticisms of policies and political actors, but a more sweeping condemnation of the broad sweep of American political history and its basic self-congratulatory narrative.
In a preview of his book published in 2006 in Commonweal (and found in revised form in the first section of his book), Bacevich urged a reconsideration of the basic narrative of American history:
Crediting America with a “great liberating tradition” sanitizes the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale and thereby provides a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.
If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self-evident to the obtuse, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” He spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and to extend their commercial reach abroad.
How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.
Unless one knew this was written by a self-declared conservative, this is the sort of jeremiad that one might have expected to read by a hackneyed Leftist author in the Nation or Mother Jones. That it comes from a conservative makes it both jarring and interesting, but also gives rise to a concern whether this counter-argument against the broader narrative of the American tradition can have any purchase with the broader American public. Are such efforts to criticize the dominant (indeed, liberal) American narrative doomed to political irrelevancy, whether from the Left or the Right? Will some version of the “New Right” now come to occupy the space once occupied by the New Left – vilified by the mainstream, seen as vaguely cranky, out of touch and too deeply pessimistic to be allowed into the American conversation? Will it be a fast-track to electoral irrelevancy, or worse, give rise to self-certain declarations a la Trilling that America is solely and exclusively a liberal nation?
On the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s death, David Brooks wrote of what he regarded to be the single greatest accomplishment of Reagan, which had less to do with any policy achievement or appointment to the Court, but rather with a fundamental redefinition of conservatism from the pessimistic strain of the likes of Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers and Richard Weaver to a more optimistic strain. Brooks wrote,
To understand the intellectual content of Reagan’s optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. It was largely a movement of disenfranchised thinkers who placed great emphasis on human frailty and sin, the limitations of what we can know, and the tragic nature of history.
Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse…. Conservatives looked back sadly to customs and institutions that were being eroded. What was needed, many argued, was a restoration of stability. ”The recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century,” Kirk argued.
Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. As early as 1952 during a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, Reagan argued, ”I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”
Reagan frequently invoked many phrases of none other than Thomas Paine – that opponent of Edmund Burke and sympathizer with the French Revolution – particularly the line, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again,” an invocation that Bacevich rightly subjects again and again to withering scorn. Echoing the analysis of the recently and very regrettably departed John Patrick Diggins in his excellent study, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History – who noted in particular the deeply anti-conservative Emersonian roots of much of Reagan’s optimism – Bacevich instead frequently invokes the words of Reinhold Niebuhr and his constant recollection of the inescapable reality of original sin and the human propensity toward pride and self-aggrandizement.
It may indeed be the case of a rejuvenation of pre-Reagan conservatism, drawing deeply from the works of such authors as Kirk, Weaver, Niebuhr and other “pessimists” (or, I would submit, Realists) may doom any such New/Old/Paleo conservatism to irrelevancy in the American narrative. However, if some of its basic message has remained the same, times have decidedly changed. Faced with a collapsing economic system, the undoing of the American-led Post-World War II global consensus, the growing evidence of environmental and moral depletion all around us, the message of conservative realism may be ripe for a re-hearing and reassessment. Everywhere people are realizing that the message of optimism – don’t worry, be happy, and pay for it tomorrow – was in fact a message of deception, duplicity and fraud. Neither the mainstream Left nor Right appear capable of speaking meaningfully to the import of this moment. Ironically, the very moment that the Left has re-connected to its message of “liberal faith” may be the very moment when that faith is proven to be too much evidence of things unseen. In the meantime, a critique of the American narrative – combined with a reconsideration of “Another America,” a tradition of localism, community, self-government based in limits, a culture of memory and tradition, undergirded by faith and virtue – may have found its moment. For starters, its heroes are more likely to be the likes of the Anti-federalists (see Bill Kauffman’s book on Luther Martin for a start) than the triumphalist narrative of the Founders and their creation of an empire of liberty. Its cultural heroes are more likely to be the Waltons rather than the celebrity flavor of the month (I can’t recommend enough a re-viewing of this series, now more than ever, courtesy of Netflix. We have been watching it with our children for some months, and it is salutary and decent beyond description). I speak here of a revival of patriotism, alright, but a patriotism based in places and folkways, not abstraction and expansion. Thus, perhaps not the sort of patriotism we are used to, but one of noble lineage and one that will need good storytellers to begin to displace an otherwise broken and tinny narrative that now should be discarded.