Nowadays I run across two groups of intelligent people who feel they understand why the United States seems to have lost its mojo. One group of people (typically on the right but invariably libertarian) believe that the US political class has cared more for making grand gestures on the world stage than securing the prosperity of its inhabitants. Thus, the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented squandering of human and material resources on a seemingly endless trail of wars and proxy wars. The other group of people (typically but not always on the left) believe that the problem lies with special interest groups (‘lobbyists’) capturing the mechanisms of politics, either by buying them outright or perverting their normal function.
At issue here is the America to which people across the world – not least Americans themselves — grew accustomed over the past hundred years: what the journalist Walter Lippmann dubbed the ‘American Century’. This self-understanding arose from a high-minded, cross-party coalition of self-styled ‘Progressive’ politicians who played a very strong foreign policy hand in order to consolidate public opinion and strengthen state power in ways that served to professionalise the political process and eliminate most of the key sources of corruption in the conduct of public affairs. The names of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson loom large in this context, with the supporting roles played by the nation’s emerging intelligentsia, including William James and John Dewey. These were the people who started America down the route of what by 1970 sociologist Alvin Gouldner had branded the ‘welfare-warfare state’. The greatest triumphs and disasters committed by both Democrats and Republicans over the past hundred years are traceable to some version of this vision, which is popularly captured by the idea that the US has a moral obligation – more than any other nation – to right the world’s wrongs.
What we’re seeing now is a rollback of this grand sensibility and a reversion to the much more fragmented self-understanding that Americans had as late as the start of the First World War. A seasoned American politician who wanted to win elections even in the first decade of the 20th century would cut deals with the people who mattered and promise not to endanger everyone else, say, through foreign entanglements. Corrupt isolationism was the norm back then and is becoming the norm once again. And certainly the two diagnoses of America’s malaise at the start of this piece suggest evidence of just such a reversion to type.
Nevertheless, however one wishes to judge the American Century, it massively transformed the fortunes of a nation that for the first 125 years of its history had been of no greater international significance than Australia is today – that is, a country whose pursuit of peace and prosperity (the latter somewhat more successfully) had been largely confined to its own coterminous land mass. Things changed only when Americans started effectively (and perhaps even half-consciously) to take Hegel seriously that the world-historic spirit’s movement westward meant that it was time for the United States to take charge of safeguarding ‘the future of civilization’.
To be sure, unlike Hegel, this ‘civilization’ was not humanity’s cumulative ascent from its origins in China but something of distinctly ‘Western’ provenance. Moreover, it happened gradually. At first, Americans were led to believe (by Lippmann and the founder of public relations, Edward Bernays) that they owed it to Europe to save the continent from itself, given the steady stream of displaced Europeans who managed to flourish on American soil. Here America was portrayed as the peacemaker and powerbroker in an inherently conflict-ridden Europe, where old enmities never seem to be forgotten. This line persuaded Americans to enter the First World War and then broker the peace but not to enter the League of Nations.
Despite that final setback, the academic establishment – of which Wilson was himself a distinguished member (both as a scholar of political administration and as President of Princeton University) – followed through on the idea of Europe ‘passing the torch’ to America by establishing ‘general education’ programmes at the university level, such as Columbia’s in ‘Contemporary Civilization’, from which I benefited sixty years later, in the 1970s. Nowadays it is easy to mock such programmes as having encouraged dilettantism and ‘middle-brow culture’, because they were organized a bit like today’s course packs, in which students never really read a complete work but only strategically selected excerpts. But the people who most strongly believed in these general education programmes also believed that the world may be engulfed in a war of such devastating proportions that the bases for all the hard-fought yet normally taken-for-granted liberal values must be understood properly, in the unfortunate event that civilization needs to be built from scratch after one such war.
Columbia’s ‘Contemporary Civilization’ programme began in 1919 under the rubric of ‘War and Peace Issues’. Once Winston Churchill forged with FDR what is still known as ‘the special relationship’ between the UK and the US in 1940 (it’s easy to forget that the US generally regarded the UK as a potential meddler in its affairs until that time), the US became not only a diplomatic but also a military broker of the world’s great conflicts. With the end of the Second World War, the US also became the world’s financial broker, as dollar reserves replaced the gold standard. And the advent of television in the 1950s completed the Americanisation of the world as the emerging suburban lifestyle was successfully sold as a global quality of life indicator, the downstream effect of which is the climate change crisis that we experience today as the rest of the world still tries to meet the mid-20th century American standard.
American detractors of the ‘American Century’ regard it, in National Review editor Jonah Goldberg’s damning yet best-selling phrase, ‘liberal fascism’. At one level, they’ve got a point: On this basis, Americans came to be subjected to regular federal income tax, unprecedented regulation of the private sector, military conscription and loss of life in foreign wars, not to mention various adventurous medical regimes (ranging from mass vaccination to mass sterilisation). Such was the dark side of the so-called ‘welfare-warfare state’. At the same time, however, the United States kept its borders open to people from all over the world, providing all its inhabitants with unprecedented educational and economic opportunities to substantially improve their fortunes, albeit fitfully and even as the difference between rich and poor increased. To be sure, the American Century’s balance sheet is far from ideal, but to my eyes it appears unequivocally positive. Indeed, if it constitutes ‘liberal fascism’, so be it. We probably need more of it today, once again with science and technology becoming more closely wedded to the projects of government – but this time allowing the maximum feasible freedom for those willing to participate in those projects.