We spend so much breath, air time and ink exploring the differences between the Left and Right in America that too often we neglect those critical areas on which there is unquestioned agreement. And it’s these areas in particular that deserve far more attention, since they reveal more than anything else the shared ends of our polity. The discrete debates, more often than not, are over means to achieving an implicitly shared end. If we were more reflective, we might raise questions about many of those ends.

We catch a glimpse at one of those shared ends in a column today by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, entitled “Biden, off message, and spot-on.” The column discusses a recent interview with Biden, taking as its point of departure the unanimous applause that President Obama received during his State of the Union address when he stated “I do not accept second place for the United States.” Such unanimous applause lines are often the most revealing.

E.J. perceptively notes that both the Right and Left in American politics agree with this aim – to keep America “number one.” Where the disagreement lies – and much discrete policy debate arises – is the appropriate means of achieving that shared end:

For Republicans, American power is rooted largely in military might and showing a tough and resolute face to the world. They would rely on tax cuts as the one and only spur to economic growth.

Obama, Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.

Now, there may be some truth to this, as a matter of emphasis. But, truth be told, Left and Right alike depend substantially on a powerful economy and powerful military to maintain American preeminence. And notice that both means require an increase in the size and role of government, and that see-sawing party control of Administrations inevitably results in respective increases in government activity in the economy and military budgets, without either really decreasing the growth that the other had previously effected. While debates rage over the way in which the economy should be organized and the military deployed, there is no debate over the end. But – to ask a strange and perhaps discomfiting question – why is it necessary to be Number One?

Alexander Hamilton stated the reasons long ago: to avoid being pushed around by everyone else, and to get our way in the world to the advantage of those who would otherwise be taking advantage of us. A Machiavellian or Hobbesian world is posited: either one is getting ahead, or one is falling behind. Better to be the one getting ahead.

What goes unstated in this scenario are two interesting features: 1) This is a story of historical inevitability, in which the dynamics of history force a nation either to be on top or to be pushed around. It’s interesting that those who most loudly declaim our “freedom” also make the argument that we have no real choice. 2) By being forced always to out-compete the competition, we’re not actually in command. We are forced to make decisions that compel us into conditions of dependence and even fealty. One small example: to maintain our economic and military supremacy, Republican and Democratic leaders alike must ingratiate themselves to the King of Saudi Arabia. Our military is forced to occupy land and to engage in combat in places of strategic significance over which we have little choice.

Being “Number One” endlessly forces one – whether an individual, team, or nation – to seek negligible forms of advantage by whatever means necessary. We see its consequences in athletics all the time – the rife corruption of college sports, the pervasive doping among athletes, willingness to sacrifice athletic fodder for the sake of status and rank. We see its evidence in our colleges, where the race to maintain or gain position means sacrificing unique cultural identities in favor of conformity to a standard whereby “academic excellence” is judged in narrow terms, such as the amount of government funding for science projects or citations in leading academic journals (read, and readable, by almost no-one). We see its consequences among students on college campuses, where every subject and activity must be construed in terms that can be placed on a job application, and where cheating has become a norm at many institutions. We see it in the race to the bottom in the media, where to be Number One means to appeal to the basest instincts and the lowest common denominator. We saw it recently in our financial industry, where the race to stay ahead meant to embrace the deepest forms of corruption and short-term thinking.

Does being “Number One” make us a better society – even a good society? Does it help to form good characters among the citizenry and in our families? It brings great power – as well as great dependence – but thrusts us in the scramble for power after power that ceaseth only in death, and finally becomes an object for its own sake, and for no better end than being Number One. And that life – as Hobbes once eloquently described – is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

20 COMMENTS

  1. The root cause of many of our problems is the absence of understanding by individuals that the very process of competition can and does drive people narcissistic and sociopathic especially with market capitalism and politics. Striving for pole position by continuously adapting to change keeps you a player but often at great cost for others. To paraphrase a recent comment in the Financial Times, We, the People in Western democracies, are like passengers in a train being driven by an unresponsive and self-perpetuating market state elite. The train has become a roller-coaster and the only way we can make it run smoothly again is to thoroughly understand the benefits and disbenefits of competitive processes and take back power in order to better control these processes.

  2. Competition, against myself, gets me up in the morning.

    This is the essential problem of our clapping cheerleaders in Congress. They do not foster policies encouraging competition amongst ourselves toward a better Republic, they identify all manner of bogus and not so bogus competitors “out there” that we shall compete against for the pleasure of excessive debt. They are clappers for the crapper…constantly blathering about being top dog but strapping a fine iron ring around our necks to pay the vig to foreign buyers of our debt. In the process , they virtually insure our accelerating decline after a protracted period of befuddled resentment. Washington is, in effect, snowed in with us like the new Donner Party, barbecuing our consumerist arses and the FED’s blithe attachment to “irrational exuberance” was our Salt Flats. Cannibalism is the new patriotism. The triumphalism will likely only increase as the carcasses get more threadbare.

    Make no mistake though, they have the best of intentions by and large. They tell us so with vigor every 3-1/2 years and now, given the egalitarianism of the Courts, the Blandishments will have only the highest of production values. Still though, whether an ad campaign has only $25,000 behind it or half a cool million, cannibalism never seems to get any prettier.

  3. And by the way Deneen, I hope you got the Estate of my Uncle Walter’s approval for the use of his portrait. He always was real good with the “Hawaiian Peace Sign”.

  4. I don’t think Bruce Smith’s contention is quite right, at least about this being a problem for ‘Western Democracies.’ Contemporary examples abound of countries that have forgone the international version of “King of the Mountain” and live more quiet, prosperous, educated, sustainable–in short, more happy–lives than we live. For instance, Norway, where the median income is less than five percent less than ours, has world-class universal health care system, a 99% literacy rate, three weeks paid vacation for every adult, a 35 hour work week, and a national piggy bank worth over $75,000 for every Norwegian citizen–a marked contrast to the $43,000 that every American citizen owes.

    All of which is simply to say that the narcissism and sociopathy you refer to seem to be largely American phenomena.

    And Dr Deneen, although I know that Rawls doesn’t do much for you, even he would object, I think, to the current manifestation of post-veil state. That is, if the government’s purpose is to bring the people into compliance with justice, either Rawls had a very unusual notion of what justice means, or the state is not fulfilling its purpose.

  5. The point I was making about competitiveness in market state capitalism is that it has this dark side which is cannibalism, a sociopathic disorder. Competition in capitalism automatically turns a business into a beast that is under constant pressure to eat or destroy other businesses of its own kind to survive. Maintaining position and attracting investment are self-reinforcing. It is no accident, therefore, that cannibalistic competition has of necessity produced a concentration of capital and this together with trade globalization has resulted in half the world’s wealth being under the control of the CEO’s of just two thousand corporations. This control will continue to get more concentrated. The development of universal political suffrage seemed to offer the opportunity of arresting the Fascism that invariably accompanies competitive capitalism but the use of money to corruptly capture politicians has shown the increasing failure of this development. The recent electoral “Silence of the Lemmings” in Massachusetts is a sad example of this. Despite having witnessed the Vampire Squids of Wall Street’s corporate cannibalism gone wrong in the Financial Crash the electorate then chooses to get “devoured” by the Tea Party “Libertarian” Fascists financed by the same and similar health care Vampire Squids.
    In other Western “democracies” and Western “style democracies” things are no different. For example, the European Central Bank like the American Federal Reserve is controlled by financial corporations and unaccountable to the electorate. So too is the Bank of Japan. All these countries are vulnerable to control by their corporations who will take advantage of the pegged currencies trade protectionism of countries like China and low tax regimes and tax havens to kill off volume manufacturing in these democracies for the sake of profits from subsidized imports. Norway as David has said is currently a special case with its income from oil revenues but it is still vulnerable to subsidized imports and when the oil runs out will be no different in its plight than other “democratic” countries.

  6. From a reader, via email:

    Your post today reminds me of one of the many perceptive passages in MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

    “[M]odern societies…recognize that acquisitiveness is a character trait indispensable to continuous and limitless economic growth, and one of their central beliefs is that continuous and limitless economic growth is a fundamental good. That a systematically lower standard of living ought to be preferred to a systematically higher standard of living is a thought incompatible with either the economics or the politics of peculiarly modern societies….But a community which was guided by Aristotelian norms would not only have to view acquisitiveness as a vice but would have to set strict limits to growth insofar as that is necessary to preserve or enhance a distribution of goods according to desert” (p. 112).

  7. “We’re Number One” is the new version of manifest destiny. Like the original version, the new version is justification to invade nations and kill thousands of people because we believe that God wants us to have their stuff.

    Loved your essay.

  8. Thinking of competitiveness and how we lost our ‘will to power,’ it is funny to think that we dictate foreign policy or that our agenda is imposed on others when often we react and play right into the hands of those that rejoice in our failings.

    Aristotle, and many others after him, always focused on moderation – virtue is nothing more than moderation. Courage – virtuous. Cowardice – vice, lack thereof. Foolhardy – Vice, too much. The middle road is the virtuous path. Not sure that bodes well for a nation of excess.

  9. Patrick,

    Interesting post on a subject about which I have given some thought. The quote from McIntyre is spot on. One may want to settle for being poorer but more virtuous. A couple of questions, though, meant to be honest challenges. First, if the US is not “#1,” who would you prefer be #1? Does not the world reap benefits from the fact that the richest and most influential nation is relatively benign and, in fact, quite generous in some respects? What would the world like if China was #1? America’s power has the effect of keeping some of the world’s worst regimes in check. Thoughts?

    Second, one can recognize the value of “poor but virtuous,” but if your kid gets, say, childhood leukemia, there’s an obvious interest in living in a nation the produces great amounts of wealth such that we have the money to do research on this kind of disease. This is a blog comment so I will not tease out all the implications here, but I simply wish to make note of the very real human interest in wealth production so as to buy luxury items. Luxury doesn’t just mean Ipods and big screen TVs; it also means things like modern dentistry, MRI machines and artificial joints. While a proper attitude towards the tragic in life might give one a better appreciation of the inevitability of human suffering, it is not unreasonable that humans wish to escape it.

    Again, I am largely sympathetic to your argument, but these challenges should be met, in my opinion.

  10. Perhaps the tension between Patrick and Jon has to do with this question: Do we deserve to be #1?
    I am tempted to ask if a society where a group of pretty intellectual folk find that an overgrown primate making a sign that would get a high-schooler thrown out of class is a good way to make a point, should be in a position to influence the rest of the world?
    I’m tempted to ask that, but it is beside the point, maybe right beside it, but . . .
    We used to be an 800 pounder with better manners, backed with better morals. I’m glad that 65+ years ago when my dad and his brothers went off to deal with a very ill-mannered fellow who was thoroughly convinced that he was #1, that though they were just farm boys, they breathed cultural air that compelled them to be number 1 in both power, and, I think considering the other players, virtue.
    It is possible in this evil world for a nation to be good and weak, if, and only if, there is a nation that is both good and strong that will come to its aid. Had Hugh, Mac, and Doc not gone to war, how long would nations like Switzerland have been able to survive? Had it not been for M.A.D.–maddening though it was–how long would it have been before Norway became a suburb of Moscow?

    I fear that the question is not one of strength. If any locales are to be preserved in which folk can be localists, without becoming survivalists, there must be a right-power sufficient to resist the will to power untempered by good morals. What I fear is that we may be becoming that unfettered power. If that is the case, I’m not sure who I want to be #1.
    Really, I know who is, but that’s another post.

  11. Eutychus: Perhaps, if you think in terms of holiness. Although the road to holiness is (primarily) one of moderation.

    There is an ascetic tradition in most religions that encourages strict self-discipline and denial. I agree denial and discipline are important in helping us set limits – in hopes of preventing excess. Too much, we have the flagellants.

    There are the hermits, whose only focus is prayer in whatever form they strive – perhaps they are the exception that proves the rule?

    I have read very ‘flowery’ and erudite treaties on virtue – some I admit are above my grasp. In the end, it seems that the simplest definition/understanding prevails: virtue is the avoidance of excess, be it negative or positive.

    I would happily look into any recommended reading that suggests otherwise. As I see it, we are a country of excess. One can only gorge so long.

  12. calling back to mind Thoreau, “…yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”
    Jon and Howard, I wonder if it necessarily true that the configuration of nations and power is fixed, and if/as we decline, it’s simply a matter of figuring out who’s next – Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall. I wonder if instead what replaces a unitary power is something a bit more complex and interesting.

    I do remember the debates, (thinking of D.W. Sabin’s recent post) back in the 80’s centered around the fact the US was ‘forced’ to spend so much money on our military, while other countries were free to spend on education, infrastructure and so on. A good bit of frustration was directed at Japan.

    The two ideas are connected for me – I am thinking the idea that it’s either us or another country may be a false alternative, and that there is a joint responsibility among nations to provide security. That could mean many things, from someone else flying emergency supplies to X, or conducting the bombing campaign or even finally reforming one’s political structure so one’s country is no longer a seething monarchy propped up by a foreign army.

    It’s important to have strong arms if you’re confined to a wheelchair, but what if one day the doc says you can get up and walk?

  13. Eutychus, I am looking forward to any comments you may have re: the meaning of ‘virtue.’ And, no I have no books to recommend on the subject, I’d just like to read what you have to say.

  14. On Deneen’s comment: McIntyre’s understanding of Aristotelian political economy, while tempting, is probably wrong. And the attempt to apply it to modern-day circumstances, in which the polis is gone and so is widespread slavery, but modern globalist commerce is very present, is quite questionable. That said, while I’m for Kelo-hating property rights and unwilling to chuck the modern corporation, I’m in principle for trying out laws that restrain acquisitiveness around the edges, especially if done more locally. E.g., building codes as morals legislation I’m okay with. But it will be very difficult to get Tea Party type or just standard type Americans to accept such things, even when grounded in local authority. But if you can’t even get rid of the casinos, well maybe you have to accept that while the U.S.A is pretty good as political things go, it is not ever going to be #1 in McIntryre’s (and maybe Aristotle’s) eyes.

    I think another day, Patrick, you should give us your “top ten desirable laws that would restrain acquisitiveness,” beginning the piece by using that McIntyre quote. That would be quite useful. Maybe two lists–one containing laws that could have some chance of being adopted in the next ten years, and another more ambitious.

    BTW, your initial riff in the essay on Dionne’s comment is probably wrong because Dionne is–that is, it is highly questionable that we see more devotion to having a #1 economy in the Democrats than in the Republicans.

    Now to the main dish. The whole #1 thing comes down to the tension between the sin of pride and the cultivation of greatness. At the communal/national level, this tension must play out amid the issue of what sort of patriotism to promote.

    That is, don’t we want a non-imperialistic version of Pericles’s funeral oration? Even that version is going to exaggerate, is going to be taken by some uncharitable persons (within and esp. without) as a bird-flippin’ ape. But isn’t there an FPR vision of what an Athens could be that would justify a leader trying to promote devotion to Athens? So can we really be fully against “#1-ism”?

    AMERICA’S BERRY-NOMICS IS #1! Right? Wouldn’t you pee-in-your-pants for that kind of crowing to become possible?

    And isn’t it cool, right now, for example, when Americans can crow, “HAITIAN AID, WE’RE #1!!” ? I mean it drive the French nuts, but even that is cool, because it shows you that the French nation, unlike some wastelands of Euro indifference, remains capable of pride and shame and competitive spirit and (Christian) charity. A Pericles can still speak to them, for good or ill.

    And of course, I’m with Mr. Merrell on the foreign policy. Yeah, in our day we either have to try for a) military pre-eminence, or b) being a major player in a reliable global balance of power in which our alliance can be pre-eminent. Since b) isn’t possible now, we stick w/ a). And we’re patriotic about sticking w/ a). To the deluded, covetous, and hateful elite opinion and thus media opinion in Germany, Russia, and (less so)in France, we rightly have CONTEMPT.

    As a character said in the great movie Barcelona: “They’re against NATO? What are they FOR? The Soviets storming across Europe eating all their croissants?”

  15. The first sentence should read: “on the reader comment Deneen shares.” I mistakenly thought that was Patrick sharing/endorsing MacIntyre’s quote. I’d still like to discuss laws that might restrain acquisitiveness, though. I believe Tocqueville schools me to be a “two cheers for acquisitiveness” kind of guy, albeit in a less cheerful way than the classic neocons cheered “capitalism.”

  16. This article (among many on this site) reminds me why, although I come from a much more decidedly leftist tradition than probably most on this site, I find it to be a place of reason and thought-provoking discussion — even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything.

    Perhaps a second question needs to be asked, one which focuses outside the mainstream “left” and “right” and instead looks outside the mainstream. One of the things that has repeatedly struck me (and this site is a prime example) is how people on the “right” and “left” who have begun to question the myths that have become accepted as conventional wisdom often arrive at such similar conclusions with regards to many of the problems we face, and the necessary solutions toward solving those problems. The conclusion I have increasingly come to is that the old divisions of “right” and “left” are essentially meaningless, because they offer little more than mirror-images of the same decrepit, bankrupt ideology of neverending growth and expansion in a world of limits. The more effective solutions — based upon individuals acting within an actual community as opposed to a wholly imagined one (as described by Benedict Anderson) — seem to be found in that strange nexus of people from the right and left who have jettisoned those outdated ideologies in favor of something more practical and, more importantly, more human.

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