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"National Greatness Liberalism" Requires an End to the Culture Wars
A year ahead of Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, The American Prospect magazine published a fascinating special report—“Happy Days Are Here Again!”—laying out several strong center-left arguments for national renewal through a focus on middle-class economics and massive public investments.
In the issue, Harvard scholar Theda Skocpol offered a compelling argument for what she called National Greatness Liberalism—"a brawny brand of politics that makes a tough-minded argument about what it will take from our government and democratic politics to regain our national economic strength and rebuild a broad, secure, and innovative middle class.”
She encouraged then-President Obama to make a forceful case for renewal that would appeal to all Americans:
President Obama should tell us what it will take, really, to rebuild America—and how both public and private investments can intertwine to create jobs and spur innovation.
He can sidestep a lot of the center-versus-left debates inside the Democratic Party about how to carry out the new initiatives by calling for a team of business leaders, responsible public officials (mayors, governors, and former governors, not Congress people) to lay out a vision of public-private partnerships to invest in new and restored infrastructure. He can expand upon their ideas by highlighting the jobs that will be created, even as we spur future growth—traveling around the country to highlight the double gains.
Skocpol also encouraged “key funders and organizers” to unite around a common goal of advancing national greatness liberalism to help reverse the slide into debilitating fears about national decline and the belief that America’s best days are behind it.
This is all great stuff! But what happened to this fighting liberal spirit of national renewal? The culture wars took over—that’s what happened.
The nub of the story is that the end of the Obama era and rise of Donald Trump sent Democrats into a frenzy of culturally based resistance to the sharp populist/nationalist turn in the GOP with its own identity-based obsessions and aggravations about “globalist elites” looking down on others. Both sides of course had valid points: highly educated leftist elites really do look down on the values and lives of many working-class Americans while many right-wing culture warriors really do promote an exclusionary and discriminatory view of American life.
Lost in the partisan Trump wars was any notion of a unifying national project. Common good talk of the Obama years was replaced by blue state and red state social warriors battling it out for control of the commanding heights of culture and commerce on everything from race and gender to abortion and sexuality.
The “key funders and organizers” Skocpol implored in 2011 to build an outside infrastructure to support national greatness liberalism instead readied the forces to fight systemic racism, inequity, fascism, the patriarchy, and climate change destruction with a relentless focus on America’s supposed sins and failures and little optimism about its potential for success. Politics in turn became cultural trench warfare with roughly 100,000 votes in a handful of battleground states determining presidential elections and the biggest states moving steadily to one side or the other ideologically.
President Biden arguably has done as much as anyone in policy terms to build national greatness liberalism—first through important interventions to overcome the Covid pandemic and economic collapse, and second, through a series of measures (several bipartisan) to advance a new industrial policy for America. But none of this legislation has produced large political gains or even stable favorability for Biden since he’s also locked himself into culture war conflagrations that make roughly half the country hate him, fairly or not.
Biden obviously lacks the rhetorical touches and charisma of Barack Obama, but he makes up for it in a policy agenda and basic worldview that is deeply committed to national greatness and opportunity for all people.
In order to make this stick in the upcoming 2024 election and beyond, however, Biden and Democrats will need to strategically pull back from full frontal culture war stances of their own and re-embrace a basic commitment to equality, individual rights, value pluralism, and a “live and let live” spirit for everyone.
As Skocpol argued in 2011, Americans have done this before by making economic advancement the essential focus of national politics:
The history of a delimited yet robust government role in spurring broad capitalist economic growth stretches all the way back to the nation's beginnings. America's federal government spread the world's first national postal network; fostered the proliferation of family farms; encouraged then-state-of-the-art transportation systems such as canals and railroads; and ensured generous support for military veterans and their families. State and local governments spread mass primary and secondary public schooling—putting the United States into the educational lead for much of the modern industrial era.
To do this again, a project of national greatness liberalism will require a big tent approach to voters, sizable legislative majorities with more victories in moderate-to-conservative states and districts, and a willingness to place national projects of economic development ahead of narrower ideological goals.
Whether Democrats today are wise enough to move in this direction—for the good of the country and their own electoral fortunes—remains uncertain.
It doesn’t require undue nostalgia or a huge leap of faith to pull this off, just better short-term memory. After all, national greatness liberalism was the organizing principle of Democrats just a few short years ago under Obama—and of course, served as the philosophical basis for much of the party’s success in the 20th century.
It’s an approach to politics worthy of resurrecting.