© Princeton University

America’s Two Visions: The Good and the Great

From the reactions to British rule during the colonial era to the administration of George W. Bush, Americans have argued over two competing visions of their sense of national purpose. Different from Europe, special in its destiny, virtuous in theory if not always in practice, some of our leading politicians and thinkers have argued that America should be as good as possible. National in outreach and global in ambition, others have argued that greatness ought to America?s purpose, even at the cost of losing its innocence. In this lecture, I will address who should belong in each category; analyze their contrasting positions on human nature, the role of theory, and the place of history; try to explain why goodness nearly always prevails over greatness; and conclude that the election of 2004 represents one more choice between these competing outlooks on what America should be.

How Conservatives Came to Think Small

Although most of the nineteenth century advocates for greatness were conservative in their political views, American conservatives today are split between those who support the costs in both money and national purpose that greatness requires and those whose vision is shaped by a profound hostility toward big government, national citizenship, global leadership, civil rights, and immigration ? all of which have been part of the historic agenda of American greatness. Contemporary conservatives like William Kristol and David Brooks were right to put national greatness on the table, but the objectives they support are unlikely ever to be realized so long as today?s version of Republican Party conservatism is in ascendancy.

The Liberal Retreat from Ambition

Although liberalism inherited the mantle of American greatness during the Great Depression and World War II, a significant number of liberal intellectuals are attracted to eighteenth century visions of goodness. In this lecture, I will discuss this liberal retreat from greatness and examine its implications for contemporary American politics. I will then discuss whether and how liberals can fill the gap in American public life left by the conservative abdication from greatness. In the ideal world, goodness and greatness ought to be combined, but if a choice has to be made, as it often does, liberals would do better politically and morally by standing for greatness rather than goodness.

Alan Wolfe’s work in recent years has focussed on cultural and religious issues in American politics. Wolfe’s One Nation, After All (1999) argued that the “culture war” was largely the work of intellectuals; most Americans were not deeply divided over moral issues. His book The Transformation of American Religion (2003) uses ethnographic data to argue that American religion has been shaped by American culture more than the other way around.