Not so long ago, it seemed simple. Americans were engaged in a continuing historical enterprise: to tame the land, to establish a democratic society, to industrialize, later to demonstrate that people of different origins can live and work together, and later still to save the world from tyranny. We were bound by the belief that we had a common interest, toward which we would work and for which we would sacrifice. Throughout the nation's history, fierce debates have raged over what the national interest was, notably during the Civil War, but one would have been hard put to find Americans who denied its existence ....until now.
No administration in recent memory has invoked "national interest" as reverently and repeatedly as that of President George W. Bush. Policy decisions, we are told, are determined by our national interest. Signing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming? Not in our national interest. Keeping U.S. peacekeepers in the Balkans? Not in our national interest. Adhering to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? Probably no longer in our national interest.
But as much as "national interest" has become the administration's mantra in dealing with the world, seldom has the idea of a national interest seemed so attenuated at home. Throughout the culture, one can already detect the symptoms of altruism deprivation.
The idea of a national interest was predicated on a simple assumption: The whole of the nation was greater than the sum of its parts, and there were some communal aims that trumped individual interests. America was not just a collection of interests; it had an interest of its own.
Although national interest has become a political cliche, it is more than just high-blown patriotic rhetoric. For the last 20 years, no question may have been more significant than the question of what constitutes the national interest, and no issue may have been more central in framing our political debates. The Republican ascendancy in the 1980s was fueled primarily by the GOP's criticism that Democrats had become a party of special interests--constituencies they had to satisfy like so many bawling children. Implicit in this criticism was that the Democratic Party, in hostage to minorities, unions and women and using government to broker their needs, had lost sight of the larger national interest. By confusing a grab bag of interests with a national interest, the Democrats effectively left us without one.
Ronald Reagan's electoral success may be attributed not only to his ability to persuade Americans that Democrats were no longer capable of serving the national interest but also in convincing voters that there was a clearly defined set of national interests, the pursuit of which would benefit everyone--namely, fighting communism and promoting free enterprise. The bedrock of Reaganism was that government had been corrupted by operating as if it were delivering largesse to clients--that is, operating as if there were just factional interests--when what it should have been doing is, first, getting out of people's way so that the economy could surge forward and, second, funneling more money to the military so that we could put some muscle behind our threats to our enemies. Both of these were purported to be for the greater good.
But there was in Reagan's formulation a poison pill that has come to haunt us now that even Democrats espouse an attitude of laissez faire when it comes to the economy and now that there is no longer a communist threat to build a military against. Since Reagan's presidency, one can detect that dismantling government in the name of empowering individuals didn't create a new national interest. It just turned individual interests into the national interest, so that instead of various groups making demands, every individual is making demands. Where once President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of defense, Charles E. Wilson, claimed that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, now Republicans claim that each individual's pursuit of his own interest is good for the country. Thus was Carl Sandburg's thumbnail analysis of the Civil War--those who believed the "United States is" against those who believed the "United States are"--turned into political philosophy: the "national interest is" versus the "national interests are."
One may characterize the differences between our major parties in many ways. For example, one protects business from the people, the other protects the people from business. But the fundamental difference over the last 20 years may well be this: In a kind of Adam Smith version of politics, the GOP believes that the aggregate of individual interests is the national interest; the Democratic Party does not.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the current Bush administration. When asked recently on "The O'Reilly Factor" what he considered the most important mission of his administration, the president quickly answered "tax relief." Then, apparently realizing how feeble this sounded, he quickly began stammering about education. But Bush's first response was the genuine one. There is no national interest anymore--save maybe protecting the U.S. from North Korean missiles--other than providing people with more money so they can better pursue their own interests. To believe in a national interest, one must believe in sacrifice, in forgoing one's immediate gratification. But the president and his supporters don't believe in forgoing individual needs; they believe in indulging them, on the theory that gratification is what keeps the economic pump-primed, which may make Bush, not former President Bill Clinton, the real president of the pampered baby-boomers.
Although no one wants to refuse a tax cut when it is offered, U.S. politicians, in any case, don't debate the stark choices between public services and tax cuts that were the focus of Britain's recent elections. Instead, we debate whether we are going to pay down the debt or get tax relief. But Americans, nevertheless, do sense that something is missing from their national life; they seem nostalgic for a time when there was some larger purpose than accruing more money, some interest larger than their own. This may be a factor in the president's falling popularity. He calls us to no higher cause.
It may also help explain the current obsession with the "Greatest Generation" that fought World War II. While Bush is bragging about a $600 tax rebate, here was a generation that managed to save the world from Nazism and resurrect the European economy after the war while steering its own economy to then-unprecedented wealth. What they demonstrated was the power of a national interest. Similarly, the popularity of the film "Pearl Harbor," despite Disney's disappointment in its box-office numbers, is certainly a tribute to the last time that the entire nation was galvanized in common cause and with a clear sense of the national interest. In its romantic melodrama, what the film shows, inadvertently or not, is that there are times when personal gratification (love) must yield to the national interest (repelling the enemy).
An even more interesting example of nostalgia for a national interest, however, is the recent rehabilitation of the reputation of John Adams, with a laudatory essay in Joseph Ellis' "Founding Brothers" and the new best-selling biography of Adams by David McCullough. (Although Ellis' truthfulness in the classroom is under fire, his scholarship has not been challenged.) For generations, Adams was disparaged as a pallid hack when compared with his antagonist Thomas Jefferson. As historians have presented him, Adams was short and fat, garrulous, both hotheaded and temporizing, an elitist with quasi-monarchist tendencies and a loyal toady to George Washington. Jefferson, on the other hand, was tall and sleek, enigmatic, a man of principle, a democrat and an iconoclast who marched to his own drummer. Or as Jefferson himself put it, the difference between them was between the many and the few, the people and the aristocrats.
But Ellis and McCullough reveal another, more critical difference that particularly resonates today. Whatever else he did or was, Adams believed fervently in a national interest and was even willing to sacrifice his career in its name. In Ellis' words, Adams felt the "duty of an American statesman was to divine the public interest while studiously ignoring, indeed remaining blissfully oblivious to, the partisan pleadings of particular constituencies." On the other hand, Jefferson, who paid a great deal of attention to particular constituencies, felt that the national government had no interest other than the several interests of its people and its states. If anything, he was afraid of what the promotion of a national interest might do to individual rights.
Presidents go in and out of historical fashion as the contemporary political climate changes, and Jefferson's vogue definitely seems to be waning even as Bush pursues a Jeffersonian agenda. Now, at a time when the best our political leadership can offer is paltry tax cuts in lieu of attacking the country's problems, McCullough and Ellis are extolling Adams, an 18th-century man who, among his qualities of probity and diplomacy, understood that to be a nation a people must have a sense of something other than their own self-interest. It is a message the current president might well heed, for without it, as Adams well recognized, we are not citizens, only consumers.