‘So, when we talk about existential threats — the last time we had a really major existential threat to this country was around World War II,” then-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained at a town-hall meeting last fall, making her case for a “Green New Deal.” Referencing the way America mobilized for war against the Nazis, she granted that “none of these things are new ideas” and that World War II provides a “blueprint of doing this before.”
Putting aside the temptation to dwell on the question of what a minor existential threat might look like as opposed to a “really major” one, we should find it a remarkable argument in several ways. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has been lionized and vilified as a socialist radical by the Left and the Right respectively (treatment she brilliantly encourages on social media and elsewhere), and yet by her own admission her ideas are not new. And she is right.
Some might object that the U.S. effort to rev up domestic industrial capacity to produce more guns, tanks, and ships in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as impressive as it was, didn’t leave behind a lot of off-the-shelf blueprints for how we might eradicate the fossil-fuel industry in just over a decade. But that’s a discussion for another day. The true significance of her argument is how perfectly it conforms to the central organizing principle of American liberalism, going back a century.
As I have argued at length elsewhere, such as in my book Liberal Fascism, ever since the philosopher William James gave his lecture “The Moral Equivalent of War” in 1906, the agenda of 20th-century liberalism has been an exercise in trying to decouple the benefits of war from the bloody bits.
James, the philosophical godfather of progressivism (along with his disciple John Dewey), gave the lecture at Stanford in 1906. He proposed that war is “the only force that can discipline a whole community.” As a pacifist, James wanted to find some new way to inculcate toward productive ends the social solidarity and unity of purpose that war provides. “Martial virtues,” James ventured to say, “must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.”
His preferred substitute for bloody battle was a war to conquer nature. He suggested the “conscription of the whole youthful population” as part of an “army enlisted against Nature.” This idea became the intellectual basis for many New Deal endeavors, from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The CCC was run as a literal “forestry army” in which enlistees wore World War I uniforms, woke in barracks to bugle reveille, mustered in formation, marched off to battle the trees, and returned to bed at the call of “Taps.” There’s a certain irony here. The first New Deal was partly understood as a war against nature and the Green New Deal is proposed as a war to restore nature.
But the more important point is that the New Deal, that great lodestar of the liberal imagination, was itself pitched as “the moral analogue of war,” in the words of the dean of New Deal historians, William Leuchtenburg. And while James’s ideas helped build the intellectual framework for an entire generation of progressive policymakers, there was a more immediate blueprint available: the First World War. Throughout the 1920s, progressive intellectuals pined for the days of “war socialism” under Wilson, repeating the mantra “We planned in war.” But the booming economy of the 1920s and the live memory of wartime rationing didn’t make for a climate conducive to the militarization of society.
The crash of 1929 improved conditions markedly. Roosevelt served in the Wilson administration and campaigned on a promise to bring the same methods to bear in the war on the Great Depression. When he signed the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933, he said, “The challenge of this law is whether we can sink selfish interest and present a solid front against a common peril.” Roosevelt specifically invoked the memory of the First World War: “I had part in the great cooperation of 1917 and 1918, and it is my faith that we can count on our industry once more to join in our general purpose to lift this new threat and to do it without taking any advantage of the public trust which has this day been reposed without stint in the good faith and high purpose of American business.” He concluded: “It is the most important attempt of this kind in history. As in the great crisis of the World War, it puts a whole people to the simple but vital test: ‘Must we go on in many groping, disorganized, separate units to defeat or shall we move as one great team to victory?’”
I have also chronicled elsewhere how — under the National Recovery Administration (NRA), run by General Hugh Johnson, the director of the draft in World War I — the New Deal militarized vast swathes of American society. The Blue Eagle was the insignia of service for businesses in this new moral equivalent of war. “In war, in the gloom of night attack, soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure their comrades do not fire on comrades,” FDR explained. “On that principle those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance.” Johnson sought to reorganize the American labor force as vast industrial armies of the kind that intellectuals had imagined since Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. But he also believed mobilization begins at home: “When every American housewife understands that the Blue Eagle on everything that she permits to come into her home is a symbol of its restoration to security, may God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird.”
The New Deal took other World War I blueprints off the shelf. The NRA was modeled on Wilson’s War Industries Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission modified the wartime Capital Issues Committee of the Federal Reserve, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was a rehash of the War Finance Corporation. And so on.
It should go without saying that the New Deal has remained the ideological idée fixe of American liberalism, and from Truman’s Fair Deal to Kennedy’s New Frontier to Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty to Barack Obama’s “New Foundation” and Cold War–nostalgic rhetoric about “Sputnik moments” and “economic patriotism” to Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, American liberalism has been recycling the same motif over and over again, often without realizing it. Even the mantra of the early Obama administration, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” depends on the logic of the moral equivalent of war.
In 2001, shortly after the terror attacks, Senator Chuck Schumer wrote in the Washington Post that “the era of a shrinking federal government has come to a close.” This new challenge proved we needed a “new New Deal.” Last year, when Schumer and Pelosi unveiled their new agenda for the midterms, they called it the “Better Deal,” though Pelosi tellingly slipped and called it the “New Deal.” Schumer explained that the phrase was intended as a double entendre referring “to both the New Deal and a better deal than Trump.”
From Woodrow Wilson to JFK, liberalism’s attachment to war was organically bound to nationalism, which is why liberal presidents from Wilson to Kennedy found the politics of actual war so congenial to their agendas. Wilson’s propaganda apparatus fueled the flames of nationalism to the point where vigilante beatings and murders of the less than fully patriotic were horrifically common. The quasi-official American Protective League, a nationalist militia that beat protesters and spied on Americans, had an estimated 250,000 members. Thousands of political prisoners were thrown into jail. The German language was effectively banned. FDR was an avowed nationalist. He sold his economic program as a nationalist endeavor. “We have united all classes in the Nation in a program for the Nation,” he proclaimed in 1936. The goal was to make the nation a “more American America.” JFK wore his nationalism on his sleeve, most famously when he instructed Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
For the first half of the 20th century, liberals kept their hands on statism and nationalism simultaneously, but starting in the 1960s they loosened their grip on nationalism until it ultimately slipped through their fingers. Some of us can recall the way many liberals agonized over wearing flag pins in the wake of the September 11 attacks. While the rubble still smoked, Katha Pollitt wrote her famous essay “Put Out No Flags,” arguing that the American flag “stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” She concluded, “The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that’s wanted now.”
The progressive historian Michael Kazin showed remarkable restraint when he recently lamented in the pages of Dissent that patriotism “is not a popular sentiment on the contemporary left.” Kazin is part of a long line of leftists in good standing who regret this development in progressive thinking. Richard Rorty in his brilliant book Achieving Our Country lamented how the Left had taken a wrong turn in its infatuation with Marxist theory and the cosmopolitanism that informed it. “National pride,” he wrote, “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”
Marxism wasn’t the only, or even the most important, cause of this evolution. Identity politics and the enthronement of diversity as the highest social value made nationalistic appeals seem ever more sectarian. The more radical phase of the civil-rights movement — which under Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership had been admirably patriotic — was one obvious driver of these trends. But the increase in immigration from non-European countries beginning in the 1960s, not to mention feminism and other liberationist movements, made traditional patriotic rhetoric seem exclusionary, at least to some. It’s not surprising that many New Deal and Great Society liberals found what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the disuniting of America” so dismaying. One can credit the sincerity of their patriotic sentiment while acknowledging that their objection to patriotism’s decline stemmed partly from the way identity politics undermines the statist endeavors they valued so highly.
In 1979, Samuel Beer, the liberal political scientist and former head of Americans for Democratic Action, chastised Democrats for abandoning nationalism. “Franklin Roosevelt’s nationalism was, first, a doctrine of federal centralization,” he reminded readers of The New Republic. “The principle of federal activism, which some have seen as the principal dividing line in American politics since the 1930s, was introduced by the New Deal. But Roosevelt called not only for the centralization of government, but also for the nationalization of politics.” Now, however, American politics was being “distracted by a new and destructive pluralism,” Beer’s term for both identity and interest-group politics. “This new pluralism disorganizes public policy and sets group against group. Its paralyzing and disorienting effects challenge citizens, leaders and above all the president to elicit and affirm a new nationalism that will again put us in mind of what makes us a people and again give direction to our public affairs.”
What is remarkable is that despite — or perhaps because of — having turned their backs on nationalism, liberals gripped statism ever tighter. Barack Obama, who campaigned — in Berlin! — as a “citizen of the world” and dedicated himself to the tearing down of walls wherever he found them, had no access to the language of nationalism when as president he tried to sell the sort of statist campaign historically peddled by nationalists. Instead he emphasized the more anodyne concept of “unity.” “Unity is how we shall overcome,” Obama proclaimed as a candidate. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama waxed poetic in his State of the Union address about how wonderful it would be if America could be like the military:
At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach.
Obama was particularly intrigued by the idea of using Seal Team Six’s model for America:
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. . . . The mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back. So it is with America.
This spartan construction is the apotheosis of the moral equivalent of war, in which the military is no longer an institution designed to protect our freedoms at home but a model for how we should all fall in line to fulfill the ambitions of the state or whichever faction presently controls it. In his second inaugural address, Obama described his purest political vision. In his telling, America was defined by two entities: the government and the individual, working together to accomplish great things. “Government,” after all, is the word for the things we do together.
In fairness to Obama, there were times when he did draw on traditional themes of American patriotism, but many liberals and conservatives alike discounted those remarks precisely because neither thought he really meant them. Both believed they were boilerplate to sell statism.
Now, under President Trump, liberals tend to find any appeals whatsoever to patriotism (save for those conjoined to denunciations of Trump) to be triggering code words for nativism or bigotry and best avoided. Tellingly, even the very ideas of citizenship — and the rights and privileges that come with them — are hotly contested, with many Democrats furiously insisting that denying noncitizens welfare, education in public universities, or even the right to vote is bigoted and un-American. “Assimilation” is increasingly a fighting word. No wonder it has become difficult to appeal to Americans as Americans.
Senator Kamala Harris, an early front-runner for the next Democratic presidential nomination, defines unity in the most clinical terms possible. “The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us,” Harris says often on her book tour. “When people are waking up in the middle of the night with the thing that has been weighing on them, . . . they aren’t waking up thinking that thought through the lens of the party.” No, what unites Americans is that when they wake up in the night “it usually has to do with their personal health, about their children, or their parents.” “Can I get a job? Keep a job? Pay the bills by the end of the month? Retire with dignity?”
Note how there is nothing distinctly American about these unifying concerns. They are common to everybody in the industrialized world and in some cases to human beings everywhere. But there’s another commonality here: The solution to these problems is to be found in the state.
‘War is the health of the state,” the Progressive Era writer Randolph Bourne famously observed. This aphorism, which comes from an unfinished draft of an essay found after Bourne died, has become more famous than its author in part because it works on so many levels. It has been a rallying cry for doves, pacifists, and isolationists from the anarchist Left to the anarchist Right. But Bourne’s argument deserves closer scrutiny than the bumper-sticker slogan suggests.
Bourne offered both a specific indictment of the nationalist frenzy incited by the Wilson administration and an almost timeless philosophical commentary on the relationship between war and statism. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the state itself is the offspring of war. As Charles Tilly pithily put it, “war made the state and the state made war.” States came into existence as a defensive — or offensive — response to external threats. “While there are many historical examples of competitive state formation, no one has ever observed the pristine version, so political philosophers, anthropologists, and archaeologists can only speculate as to how the first state or states arose,” writes Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order.
Bourne distinguishes between three entities: the state, the government, and the country or nation. The state is different from the government in that the government isn’t representative of all the people, even if the government ostensibly works on everyone’s behalf. By way of illustration: The queen of England is the head of state and the symbol of the whole British nation. The prime minister is the head of government and the leader of a particular party, which makes him or her a legitimate target of partisan criticism.
“In times of peace,” Bourne writes, “we usually ignore the State in favour of partisan political controversies, or personal struggles for office, or the pursuit of party policies. It is the Government rather than the State with which the politically minded are concerned. The State is reduced to a shadowy emblem which comes to consciousness only on occasions of patriotic holiday.” The government is a gloriously grubby thing, for it “is obviously composed of common and unsanctified men, and is thus a legitimate object of criticism and even contempt.” He adds, “In a republic the Government is obeyed grumblingly, because it has no bedazzlements or sanctities to gild it. If you are a good old-fashioned democrat, you rejoice at this fact, you glory in the plainness of a system where every citizen has become a king.”
Meanwhile, the nation or country is something different. “Our idea of Country,” Bourne writes, “concerns itself with the non-political aspects of a people, its ways of living, its personal traits, its literature and art, its characteristic attitudes toward life.” Further on, he adds, “The Country, as an inescapable group into which we are born, and which makes us its particular kind of a citizen of the world, seems to be a fundamental fact of our consciousness, an irreducible minimum of social feeling.” During peacetime, we express that sense of social solidarity ceremonially with fireworks and days of remembrance sanctified by the state that pay homage to those few historical accomplishments we all take pride in, and then we go about our business.
“With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again,” Bourne writes. The government, that arena where partisans and statesmen alike disagree with one another about the best course of action, with few questioning their patriotism, recedes into the background. Everyone must rally to the state and its cause. “The moment war is declared,” Bourne writes, “the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. . . . The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men.”
This is the very phenomenon that William James wanted to hitch to projects other than battle and conquest. Bourne himself had once been a fellow traveler with the Jamesian pragmatists, who passionately embraced World War I in part because they saw it as the best means to realize at home what John Dewey called “the social possibilities of war.” Dewey ridiculed those who failed to recognize the “immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war.” What Dewey wanted was to loosen America’s cultural attachment to limited government and free enterprise in favor of a more advanced form of “democracy” that looked very similar to the sort of socialism — or “social democracy” — that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives champion today.
But Bourne recognized something that James and his disciples did not. For James, war brought out what was best in nations: the decidedly manly martial virtues. Bourne understood that the state, given free rein, will steadily efface those virtues as it strives to make the people conform to its ends. The government is a means to certain limited ends for the people or nation. The state turns the people into a means for its own ends. And it does this by turning them into its dependents. The goal, from Wilson to Obama — and nearly all of today’s Democratic presidential aspirants — has always been to get Americans to define their political identity and meaning not in relation to the nation, never mind the local communities where they actually live, but in relation to the state. What’s different today is that they no longer feel the need to sell their project in the language of the nation.
One of the reasons some conservatives, me included, have been suspicious of the new embrace of nationalism on the right is precisely that nationalism has always been married to statism and centralization. Trump’s nationalist rhetoric (“the blood of patriots,” “Make America Great Again,” etc.), not to mention his relentless attempts to frame immigration as an “invasion” requiring a military response, has more in common with the nationalism of statists such as Wilson than many of his defenders are willing to acknowledge.
Moreover, given the realities of polarization and partisanship, there’s reason to worry that a robust nationalist program from just one party will exacerbate the problems it is ostensibly aimed at healing — by making any talk of patriotism and national pride seem like a partisan cause, or even just another form of identity politics. And there is reason to believe that this is not just a matter of appearances. It’s hard to dispute that much of the Trump agenda is sold with a lot of patriotic bunting and talk of one-nation politics but in reality serves a narrower constituency. Whether a post-Trump nationalism can restore a sense of nationhood beyond the president’s shrinking coalition remains to be seen. But even if it can, there’s little reason to believe that the centralizing statism and entitlement-fueled clientelism implicit in one-nation politics will be reversed.
What both Bourne and James did not understand is that war is not necessarily the health of the state. Rather, commitment of the people to the state is the source of its power — in democracies and dictatorships alike. War is the best means of cultivating that commitment. But metaphorical wars and drummed-up crises will do just fine. And, over time, as the virtues James talked about erode, you won’t even need those to sustain commitment. Dependence on the state will be enough, because once you’re dependent on the state, any attempt to reduce it will bring about exactly the sort of existential crisis the state needs to keep doing what it’s doing.