NEW YORK — Ten years after 9/11, we are still struggling to reconcile two big political visions. More debilitating than our endless partisan warfare is our oscillation between a master vision of sacrifice and a master vision of greatness.
Our political elite can’t seem to decide which way to capture the national imagination. All they know is that their relevance seems to depend on it. But instead of stirring souls, each vision is hitting a wall. All too often, from the mouths of our leadership class, the call to sacrifice sounds like a con, and the call to greatness like a fraud.
Why? It’s not that Americans don’t want to be great, or don’t think of themselves as great already. It’s not that we’ve grown so selfish and cold that we’re unwilling to go without or lend a hand. Don’t call this a malaise.
The trouble is that, in Washington’s hands, the rhetoric of greatness makes national sacrifice sound weak and small-minded — at the same time that the rhetoric of sacrifice makes national greatness sound like an all-too-deliberate delusion of grandeur.
Hoping (audaciously) to square the circle, Barack Obama has made it the hallmark of his otherwise incoherent administration to fuse a sense of national sacrifice and a sense of national greatness into one transcendent vision of American identity. The result? Too successful to partake of any sacrifice and too unsuccessful to impart any greatness, the president strained before a joint session of Congress to read his role in our present crisis into the proud fabric of American history.
What he delivered is an off-putting kind of postmodern patriotism, in thrall to a theatricality far out of proportion to the trivial yet meddlesome policies beneath. Half a laundry list of untimely programs, half a laundry list of unearned exhortations, it was a bill, the American people were told, that must be passed because an unpopular Congress supported its constituent parts back before the present moment proved them as futile as they are.
Our fiercely floundering president is trapped in a paradox that has swallowed all of Washington. To avert national suffering, our leadership class strains to mobilize support by arousing our feelings of shared sacrifice and shared greatness. Alas, what imbues sacrifice with meaning, and what makes greatness possible, is the very experience of suffering we seek to avoid. Without it, we are only playacting. And deep down, we know it.
That’s why it can’t move us. We know sacrificial splurges of spending cannot draw us together the way we’re drawn together by the painful, involuntary experiences out of which true greatness — sometimes — comes. We know that greatness and sacrifice on a national scale are burdens when imposed artificially from above.
We are all the more reluctant to accept that imposition from leaders who lack the personal authority that comes from having suffered and prevailed. Rick Perry’s threadbare childhood is hard to discern beneath his sharp duds and sharper barbs. Mitt Romney has always worked hard, but has his life ever been hard? Barack Obama has not even had to suffer through a Senate reelection campaign. These are hard things to say, but hard times call for men and women at the pinnacle of politics who have struggled through difficult times — not just “personal demons” — as adults.
In fairness, we don’t get them overnight. In good times, and for years after, it’s to be expected that few, if any, leaders bear the scars of a searing social experience. Rudy Giuliani owes his enduring popularity to how close he comes to the mark. But he owes the limits of that popularity to another hard truth. The courage and duty roused in the wake of 9/11 have made their mark nearer to the margin of American life than we are used to in adverse times. In terms of fully national suffering, 9/11 has no parallel to our great wars or our great depression. It is unfair to expect it to. 9/11 did not, and could not, forge the nationwide bonds that take us beyond a longing for a sense of greatness and sacrifice — into the harrowing, fortifying territory of the real thing.
Yet, in all probability, just such a formative experience is right around the corner. It’s beginning to set in right now. The shared pain produced by the failures of our financial system, our economy, our educational industry and our massive public and private debt will be real and inescapable. It cannot be preempted with more stimulus, more unemployment benefits or more targeted tax cuts. We can run, at great cost, but we cannot hide.
Americans must be prepared to take this as the unqualified bad news that it is. But there is good news — and we had better start reflecting on just how good it is. Many Americans have far greater experience with suffering than their political elites. True, some experience that suffering as all the more reason to look upward, to the government, for safety and security. But others know the succor that comes from the bonds formed when you look across, not above, to those beside you. Who is set up for the bigger disappointment?
If we want a real recovery, however slow in coming, it’s up to us. If we are interested in greatness and sacrifice, we must learn to look away from national policies and national plans. Even the best in our political class cannot do enough, quickly enough, to redeem Washington from the judgment Anthony Trollope set down over a hundred years ago: “But the glory has been the glory of pasteboard, and the wealth has been a wealth of tinsel.”
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.