Politics

What It Really Takes for America to Do Big Things

Decades of angry disagreement and sometimes civil war, for starters.

A man in a Make America Great Again sweatshirt and oversized Make America Great Again hat is pictured alongside the photo of Bernie Sanders wearing mittens at Joe Biden's inauguration and an image of the liberal yard sign that begins "In this house we believe ..."
Your three options. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Barbara Alper/Getty Images, and Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images.

One assertion that is frequently heard from pundits of a certain age and disposition is that the United States lacks the kind of purpose and values it had during World War II and the Cold War, when it promoted democracy, human rights, and prosperity across the world.

This complaint can be a shallow one: the U.S. also has a history of destroying democracy, human rights, and prosperity abroad, and national unity in the post-war era was arguably made possible because so many people were excluded from participating in public life.

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On Wednesday, conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens made a more historically accurate and novel version of the argument. Stephens asked what the U.S.’s position on the Ukraine crisis should be, and whether it has the moral standing to object to Russia’s invasion given its own “domestic record of slavery and discrimination” and “foreign record of supporting friendly dictators.” He noted that Jesus Christ, who was the original pundit, said to “cast out the beam in our own eye before we cast out the mote in the eye of another.” (I gather that by beam he meant splinter—carpentry talk. Incidentally this is the same order of operations that airplane passengers are instructed to follow in event that oxygen masks are deployed—secure yours first, then help others. Jesus was also the original flight attendant.)

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But Stephens also points out that “self-belief” can be powerful, even if it is not entirely based in fact, and that U.S. history includes accomplishments that are not made any less useful for being built in part on a foundation of propaganda and self-delusion. Self-belief, he says, can be powerful in a catastrophic way, as with Russia justifying its invasion of Ukraine on fantastical historical grounds, or constructive, as in the cases of “Yorktown and Appomattox; the 13th and 19th Amendments; the Berlin Airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Marshall Plan and PEPFAR.”

The point of the column is that the U.S. “used to have self-belief,” but no longer does, rendering it unable to do anything useful about the invasion. (It may be a weakness of his argument that he doesn’t say what that would be. Not a situation in which a lot of great options are evident!)

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Stephens is probably correct that “negative partisanship” and pessimism are more prevalent in U.S. civic culture now than they were on, say, VJ Day. But he is wrong to conclude that this also means its residents lack for animating visions of what the future could and should look like if they cooperate to build it.

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Consider Donald Trump and the MAGA community. It is a hypercritical and angry group of folks, no doubt about that! But as one can see right there in slogan, its fury derives from a constructive underlying concept: That “America” used to be great and could soon be great again. The narrative is that the U.S. was once a place that valued hard work and toughness, and where everyone who played by the rules had a house, lawn, and pickup truck, before it was overrun with “carnage” because of its elite leaders’ enthusiasm for free trade, immigration, “wokeness,” and so forth.

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Its voters like to think that by building a border wall, supporting law enforcement, and taking critical race theory out of the schools, they can recreate the imagined communities of the 1950s and earlier, as captured in the summary of American history in Trump’s 2020 Republican National Convention speech.

When opportunity beckoned they picked up their Bibles, packed up their belongings, climbed into their covered wagons and set out west for the next adventure. Ranchers and miners, cowboys and sheriffs, farmers and settlers, they pressed on past the Mississippi to stake a claim in the wild frontier. 

Legends were born. Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill. Americans built their beautiful homesteads on the open range. Soon they had churches and communities. Then towns. And with time, great centers of industry and commerce.  

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Joe Biden also has a big-picture vision of what the U.S. was and should be. It’s the one Stephens describes, in which white small-town Americans also play a role, but are joined by immigrants and civil rights activists and others who asked the country to live up to the ideals expressed at its founding. In Biden’s narrative all of these people collaborated to do big, inspiring things through public investment.

This was all demonstrated in his not-technically-the-State-of-the-Union February 2021 address to Congress, which depicted a bygone, thriving middle class built on collective projects like the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, the Moon missions, and universal K-12 public school. Biden wants to restore this state of affairs by launching new projects of similar scope. (Unfortunately for him, Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin have not gotten on board.)

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Then there are democratic socialists and leftists. It’s true that this group is the most critical of what the U.S. has traditionally been and it is alarmed about what it currently is. But it is not purely negative. It, too, finds heroes in the past, but where Biden would celebrate Abraham Lincoln and Trump would celebrate, uh, Buffalo Bill (?), it celebrates anti-slavery radical John Brown. It has its own inspiring vision, perhaps stated most memorably in the Oct. 2019 speech Bernie Sanders delivered in Queens after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed him:

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I want you all to take a look around you and find someone you don’t know. Maybe someone who doesn’t look, kind of, like you, maybe somebody who might be of a different religion than you, maybe they come from a different country. My question to you, now, is: Are you willing to fight for that person you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?

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Contra Stephens, all three of these movements can motivate Americans to have positive feelings about (parts of) their country and participate in collective action. They even basically have the same goal (a big ol’ middle class). The problem is that they disagree vehemently on how that goal should be achieved and who should get to share it.

But this isn’t a historical anomaly either. Let’s look again at Stephens ’ list of national triumphs: “Yorktown and Appomattox; the 13th and 19th Amendments; the Berlin Airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Marshall Plan and PEPFAR.”

Yorktown, Appomattox, and the 13th Amendment were the results of actual wars in which Americans fought on both sides. The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote—in 1919, a cool 79 years after the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. PEPFAR is a global AIDS relief program, but for years before its launch AIDS research and mitigation was slowed by the bitter domestic conflict about whether it is morally wrong to be gay. And the Cold War accomplishments—Berlin and the Marshall Plan— followed a period of multiple decades in which there was an internal stalemate about whether the U.S. should risk the lives of its citizens to enforce international order. That question was only answered by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

What each has in common is that they came after, or even during, intense periods of conflict over what America should be, or whether it should even exist, after which one side decisively won the argument, if only temporarily.

It’s not quite good news that brutal, years-long ideological combat, and sometimes outright war, has occasionally ended in triumphs of common national purpose. But in the current moment it’s probably the most good the news is going to get.

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