We Don’t Need Grand National Projects
David Brooks is worried about our lack of zeal for national greatness:
I’d say that in America today some of the little loves are fraying, and big love is almost a foreign language. Almost nobody speaks about the American project in the same ardent tones that were once routine.
One reason that no one speaks about “the American project” in this way is that it has become outdated. What Brooks refers to was an artifact of the postwar era in which institutions were highly respected, political authorities were viewed as competent and trustworthy (whether they were or not), and the experience of a major war drastically altered the relationship between the government and the people. We still have smaller wars of choice that demand almost nothing of all but a few Americans, but those wars are fought by a volunteer force for bad or dubious causes under the leadership of at best semi-competent politicians that we didn’t trust very much in the first place. On top of all that, our most recent experience with “ardent” rhetoric about “the American project” left Americans with ashes in our mouths thanks to the debacle in Iraq (among other places). If this is where that sort of thinking leads (and it is), most Americans would rather avoid it. This isn’t a bad or unhealthy thing. If most Americans didn’t distrust failed leaders and institutions after the last twenty years, there would be something seriously wrong with us.
Brooks’ classification of “big” and “little” loves gets things backwards. For one thing, a person loves his country in large part because of his experience of and affection for the “little” personal and local attachments that he has at home. The “big” love of patriotism isn’t even possible without all of the other “little” ones, and in terms of how important it is to us that “big” love is the smallest, least significant love that exists to encourage us to protect all of the things that actually matter. The large institutions and political constructs that Brooks identifies with “big” loves are the things to which people have the fewest and weakest attachments, and it would be strange and worrisome if it were otherwise. If those attachments are weaker than they used to be, that isn’t necessarily something that needs to be fixed. Most people don’t love “grand historical projects,” because it is not normal to love something so abstracted from ordinary experience. More to the point, we have no need for such large-scale, ambitious projects today, and pursuing them for their own sake serves no purpose except to bloat government budgets and create white elephants to drain our resources in the future.
Brooks’ anxiety about Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for large national projects (and he often talks about them explicitly as projects) is a longstanding one. He started arguing for the importance of national greatness for the last twenty years, and ever since he keeps coming back to the theme that Americans need a big enterprise to which they can devote themselves so that they aren’t preoccupied by living their lives in peace. It hasn’t caught on, and I don’t think it will anytime soon. More to the point, we shouldn’t want Americans to become more nationalistic, more supportive of activist government, and more inclined to subordinate their local loves to some grandiose scheme. Nothing good can come from any of that.