National greatness liberalism? Not so fast.

I’m flattered that Mark cites me as the coiner of “National Greatness Liberalism.” But in fact, that slogan was his invention, not mine–and I’m actually troubled that Obama is trying it on.

I’m flattered that Mark cites me as the coiner of “National Greatness Liberalism.” But in fact, that slogan was his invention, not mine–and I’m actually troubled that Obama is trying on something very like it.

My original post on Wesley Clark–alas lost with the defunct blog that posted it, Open Source Politics, but I’ll email you a draft copy if you like–did indeed gloss Clark as arguing for progressive policies on the grounds that they would strengthen the U.S. abroad. (“National Greatness Liberalism” was Mark’s title for his own post citing mine. He had tried to get me to use it, but I’d demurred.) But I regarded this twisty ideological path as something to be forgiven in a military man because it led him to come out clearly in the right place–not something to be endorsed as ideal. The best arguments for progressive policies are the direct ones: a smart welfare state enhances, well, welfare, as well as equality and security. (It also allows for more risk-taking and acceptance of creative destruction: the liberaltarians have that right.) Does it make the U.S. military stronger? Maybe, a little. Is that a good thing? I suppose so, as the least bad alternative to the hegemony of China–but in principle, there’s nothing noble about being able to kill more people than the other country. And it’s both sad and dangerous to feign common ground with the first-person-plural junkies who assume otherwise.

Obama is no military jingoist. His nationalistic tendencies take a different form. The part of Obama’s speech that Mark is presumably referring to (from the transcript here) is actually quite worrying:

We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.

Well, I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders, and I know you don’t, either. It is time for America to lead again.

Actually, I do accept a future in which batteries are made in Korea. Such a future goes by many names: free trade, the division of labor, efficiency through specialization, or the more old fashioned “commercial society.” The idea that “we” can only prosper when every exciting product is made in a factory here rather than elsewhere is stirring but, for pretty elementary reasons, mad. I don’t think Obama believes it. But thanks to his speech, a few more of his fellow countrymen do.

I’ll take the greatness and the liberalism without the national part, thanks. I’ll even take them with the national part, to a point, if that’s the only way I can get them. But if we live in a country that’s too short-sighted or fearful to swallow rational science, energy, and education policies without a chaser of bad ethics, worse diplomacy, and abysmal economics, let’s have the grace to feel ashamed.

Update: Don’t get me wrong. Except for that, it was an exceptionally good speech, with the content more important than the form. Among other things, I now think we may get universal health coverage–though Obama won’t call it that–by the end of the year. It’s refreshing to think that we may someday soon be civilized as well as mighty.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.