The Magazine

A Lesson for America

What made us great can keep us great.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Declinist literature about America hasn’t been so fashionable since, well, since the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik, or the Japanese seemed to be buying up every American golf course west of the Mississippi in the 1980s, or China commissioned its first aircraft carrier in 2012. Gloom about the condition of America and its relative ranking in the world certainly seems to be widespread, reinforced by polls reporting that more than 60 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. In the past few years, there has been a roster of declinist books published, from Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? to Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.  

A Lesson for America

At first glance, Rebound might seem to be a recitation of the nation’s woes, followed by a political/social formula for their rapid redress. It is not, however, just a dreary laundry list of all that is wrong with the country today. What is refreshing about Rebound is that it compiles an impressive list of the policies and institutions that allowed the American political, social, and economic experience to prosper from the start. “The very things that once made America great,” Kim Holmes writes, “are not its land, weather, or some other form of nature but its people, its spirit, and its form of government.”  

The American ethos, according to Holmes, was based on the assumption that natural law was universally binding for all human beings. America’s great innovation, he writes, was pairing liberty and equality, and the liberty component of the ethos grew out of the conviction that liberty was not something granted to the people by governments, but something to be safeguarded by the people. The equality component ensured that “America’s fierce dedication to social mobility helped kill the European idea of a permanent class.” The emergence of an elite white Anglo-Saxon Protestant faction went against the healthy class fluidity of American society. Though often gifted and patriotic, WASPs based their emerging elitism not on shared American values but on European-style aristocratic social prejudices.

The golden age of American success and prosperity, according to Holmes, culminated in the 1950s, with the global dominance of the American economy and the prevalence of the idea that the American Dream was a good thing for all societies. This era also helped create the modern version of “American exceptionalism.” Holmes cites the bold confidence of General Motors chairman Harlow Herbert Curtice, whose 1954 decision to invest billions of GM’s own money in new car production in the midst of recession led to a renewed surge of growth across the economy. “America Inc.,” declares Holmes, “was about more than business. Its genius was that it shared a common culture with the country as a whole. The values of people and business were like a seamless web.” 

Holmes readily acknowledges the nation’s failures in its historic treatment of minorities, but he takes issue with those who argue that the defining “narrative” of American life is “the blood of human bondage” as opposed to the “city on a hill” principle, whereby people of all faiths can “practice their religion freely” and the struggle to reverse injustice for African Americans was inspired by (and made possible by) an ideal of freedom and the rule of law: “It is impossible to reconcile these two different images of the American narrative. .  .  . They cannot both be true. But they can both be partly true.”  

The core of what went wrong, in Holmes’s view, was the emergence of the counterculture of the 1960s, the bitter controversies about American global power triggered by the Vietnam war, and the abandonment (by liberals) of the liberal anti-communism of Harry Truman. In one of the more interesting analyses here, Holmes follows the genealogy of countercultural ideas from Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s to Norman Mailer in the 1960s and ’70s to the emergence of what he calls the “liberal internationalism” of antiwar liberals like John Kerry and the social collapse of poor communities through the influence of the self-indulgent “me-first” values of sixties rebels. Those rebels, according to Holmes, no longer storm the American ramparts; they now man them. And in foreign policy, the Obama administration embraces a “liberal internationalism” as its motivation, its policies justified precisely because they are not intended to defend America’s interests.