Home/Daniel Larison/The Return of “The Return of National Greatness”

The Return of “The Return of National Greatness”

I’m optimistic because while our political system is a mess, the economic and social values of the country remain sound.


Like the civil rights movement, this movement will ask Americans to live up to their best selves. But it will do other things besides.

It will have to restore the social norms that prevailed through much of American history: when narcissism and hyperpartisanship was mitigated by loyalties larger than tribe and self; when competition between the parties was limited and constructive, not total and fratricidal. ~David Brooks

So Brooks assumes that America’s social values are sound, but our social norms are in dire need of restoration. That doesn’t bode well for Brooks’ enterprise. What Brooks means when he talks about larger loyalties is greater conformity to a shared American nationalism.

What is it that Brooks wants? He would like a movement that rallies around his particular brand of Hamiltonian nationalism and “energetic” government, which he called “national greatness conservatism” once upon a time, and which he has often enough identified with the political career of John McCain. It was a truly terrible idea when he proposed it 13 years ago, and it hasn’t improved with age.

Perhaps what troubles me the most about Brooks’ proposal is the conceit that he speaks for many of the Americans who are not represented by our current political system, when on every major policy decision and initiative of at least the last decade the government has hardly ever done anything of which Brooks disapproved. As a good Hamiltonian nationalist and meliorist, Brooks has never seen a large federal initiative that he didn’t like or couldn’t support. We have had at least a decade in the which the government has been dominated by something that strongly resembles significant parts of the “national greatness agenda,” and it has been steadily ruining and bankrupting the country. This is all the more remarkable when the main goal of this agenda is “preserving American pre-eminence.”

It’s worth revisiting the original proposal to remember just what it is that Brooks means when he talks about “national greatness” and “preserving American pre-eminence.” The great problem that Brooks saw back in 1997 was that Americans were entirely too small in their ambitions:

American politicians show little evidence of the great national vigor that animates this building [the Library of Congress]. They don’t dare to make great plans or issue large challenges to themselves and their country. At a moment of world supremacy unlike any other, Americans are not asking big questions about their civilization, nor are they being asked anything but the sorts of things pollsters and marketers want to know. And so our politics has become degrading and boring. Political conflict appears trivial, vicious for no good reason.

Essentially, Americans needed to have larger goals and pursue grander projects that would be sufficiently ennobling and impressive to match American supremacy. Brooks’ idea was that the federal government existed to facilitate this. “The national-greatness ideal assigns the federal government another role: It should accomplish national missions.” What missions did he think it should be taking on? It could be anything. “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” That sums up Brooks’ view of the role of government fairly well: I don’t care what it does, so long as it does it well.

Thirteen years later, Brooks’ chief goal is to maintain American world supremacy. While his latest version of the “national greatness” argument is an appeal to create a “broad revitalization agenda” and to overcome entrenched resistance to necessary debt reduction, it is important to emphasize that Brooks does all this to make sure that the U.S. retains global supremacy. That leads him to write things like this:

It will take a revived patriotism to get people to look beyond their short-term financial interest to see the long-term national threat. Do you really love your tax deduction more than America’s future greatness [bold mine-DL]? Are you really unwilling to sacrifice your Social Security cost-of-living adjustment at a time when soldiers and Marines are sacrificing their lives for their country in Afghanistan?

It seems to me that the last thing our political culture needs is another round of hectoring people for being insufficiently patriotic on the basis of their disagreements over fiscal policy. “If you don’t agree to this proposal, you want America to collapse!” A good way to encourage resentment among a great many Americans is to try to guilt them into supporting a proposal through cynical invocations of the sacrifice of soldiers. Brooks’ column today is a good example of the pernicious effect of making fiscal and economic policy debates the subject of a new culture war.

It would be one thing to call on Americans to give up benefits for the sake of their children and grandchildren, who will otherwise be burdened with the costs of our indulgence. That might be something that could inspire people to change their minds. For that matter, the goal of “preserving American pre-eminence” isn’t going to inspire people who aren’t already ideological conservatives or committed liberal internationalists. In other words, the people for whom Brooks’ goal is most meaningful are the people he’s trying to oppose.

13 years ago, Brooks’ “national greatness” argument was to use American supremacy to pursue “some larger national goal,” and by now the larger national goal to which Brooks calls Americans is simply to sustain American supremacy. Hegemony has become its own reward, and it is taken for granted that sustaining it is what is actually best for the United States.

P.S. Greg Scoblete reviewed the history of “national greatness” conservatism during the 2008 campaign. Greg hit the mark when he described “national greatness conservatism” as “one of the late 1990s silliest intellectual fads.”

Update: It also doesn’t help Brooks’ argument that voters don’t care about debt.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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