National-greatness liberalism

Mark Thiessen notices that Barack Obama speaks the language of American exceptionalism to forward goals that can only be achieved by activist government.

Sometimes your opponents can see what you’re doing more clearly than your friends can. Some progressives were put off by the rather Reaganesque rhetoric of the State of the Union address, but Mark Thiessen of AEI recognized it for what it was: an attempt to harness “American exceptionalism” to pull the plough of activist government. When Wes Clark tried the same thing either Andy Sabl or I called it “the liberalism of national greatness.” I thought it was a winner then, and I think it’s a winner now.

And – contrary to the more conventional Reaganite rhetoric – Obama’s message is fully consistent with one strand of the Founding. One of the striking features of The Audacity of Hope was Obama’s identification with the thought of Hamilton, carried into the second generation as Henry Clay’s American Plan. From the Louisian Purchase, the Erie Canal, and the transcontinental railroad to land-grant colleges, homesteading, rural electrification, the GI Bill, interstate highways, and the Internet, the Federal government has again and again been the agent of crucial economic innovation. The Springfield Armory was turning out mass-produced rifles when Henry Ford was still in diapers.

Of course the feds have also sponsored boondoggles from manned spaceflight and coal gasification to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and corn ethanol. If you take risks, you sometimes fail, and if you make stupid decisions under political pressure you’re that much more likely to fail. But the notion that the gummint ought to keep its nose out of the economy – or, for that matter, that a monopoly granted by a patent is somehow not a governmental intervention in the market – accords with neither logic nor history.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “National-greatness liberalism”

  1. Mark: " I thought it was a winner then, and I think it’s a winner now."

    Especially when juxtaposed against Ryan's republicanism of defeat and retreat.

    The doom and gloomers got a little too carried away with their ideology of "can't do" last night.

    They've been telling us we have to live within our means for what seems now like a century of exceptionalism.

    No one believes that noise for long.

    It's peaked…

    It's passed…

    It's a trumpet that got overtrumped by Barack's sunrise in America last night.

    Say goodnight Palin.

    Say goodnight Romney.

    Say goodnight Huck…

  2. Obama pulling the plough of activist government is the kind of thing only an AEI hack could see, because Obama's not any kind of an activist. At his best he didn't get in Nancy Pelosi's way; for the current term he has no plan that goes beyond thumb twiddling.

    If Obama's rhetoric were coupled with a plan it would be different. His rhetoric, however, *substitutes* for a plan. His "spending freeze" is his absolute and irrefutable admission to that effect.

  3. I agree, Mark. It's also a way to defuse the standard conservative trick of portraying liberals as pessimistic, America-hating scolds. (Er, it's also a way of keeping the pessimistic, scold-y inclinations of liberalism from coming to the forefront, perhaps…) It's tapping into some of the stuff Reagan tapped into…but for good! An added benefit of this strategy–it might be a way of refining the inclinations and emotions that he's tapping into, directing them in a way that's optimistic and energetic, but not nationalistic or destructive or "exceptionalist" in a bad sense. Those inclinations and emotions are looking for an outlet…directing them for good not only gets good done, it uses up resources that might otherwise be put to bad use.

  4. Mark, how ignorant can you get? Transcontinental railroad?? Don’t you even know that it was Nathaniel Taggart who drilled a tunnel through the Continental Divide all by himself, and Dagny Taggart singlehandedly kept it running even as her brother James betrayed it to the looters?

  5. Reclamation has done some now-well-documented damage along the way, but California as we know it wouldn't exist without the Central Valley Project.

  6. Great point. It was evident in some of Obama's comments about Reagan during the campaign that he admired Reagan's style of governance. Two points though: 1) Reagan had already governed a state and was much better negotiator than he appeared — he was good at being tactically stubborn. Obama seems to lack that skill. 2) Appealing to national uplift doesn't replace the work needed on the policy level. Building national greatness of the liberal sort is much harder than essentially destructive approach to government of conservatives.

  7. "Isn’t the interstate highway system partly responsible for global warming?"

    Never mind all the environmental damage it did.

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