Treat China Like the Old Soviet Union: E. J. Dionne’s Awful Solution to America’s (Perceived) Decline

E. J. Dionne, in a recent piece at Truthdig, gives a tart and accurate summary of the past decade:

[I]n the first decade of the new millennium, our country squandered its international advantages, degraded its power with a long and unnecessary engagement in Iraq, wrecked the federal government’s finances—and then saw its economy devastated by the worst financial crisis in 80 years. All this happened as China especially but also India began to challenge American pre-eminence. Americans feel something is badly wrong, and they are fully justified in their alarm.

E. J. Dionne calls this the spectre haunting America, the spectre of national decline, and sees Herderian Tea Party nationalism as a rational response to that decline:

[T]he rise of right-wing nationalist movements—and the tea party is as much about an assertive nationalism as it is about liberty—speaks to the country’s longing for reassurance that it can maintain its leading position in the world. So does the insistent talk of his [President Obama’s] potential Republican rivals about America as an exceptional nation.

And E. J. Dionne’s solution to this crude and nostalgic nationalism? He wants President Obama to legitimate it—to meet the far right’s bid for greater nationalism as a solution to America’s problems and raise it. And how might President Obama raise it? By putting China in the position of the old Soviet Union!

I kid you not. Look at what Dionne, a person supposedly offering the president liberal advice, says:

Obama should be even more insistent on using the contest with China as a prod, much as John F. Kennedy used competition with the Soviet Union to “get the country moving again” domestically as well as overseas.

This, I must say, is absolutely inane. The only thing that will get moving if we start thinking of China in the terms of the old Soviet Union is the military budget, and that upward, along with the federal deficit. The Republicans would love a new arms race. And they are, of course, chomping at the bit to go there—to solidify a conservative political agenda via a Manichean “us v. them” struggle (either with China, Islamic civilization, Putin’s Russia, or all three). But free people don’t need these large Hegelian national missions to feel alive or locate purposes for their lives. Sane liberals needn’t follow the right wing into such ruinous and intolerable psychological, diplomatic, and financial territory. It is the politics of fear, scarcity, and disgust that the right salivates to—the politics of the zero-sum—and they can have it.

And, anyway, on a calm analysis there’s actually little to fear. There is not a single problem that America faces that it doesn’t already have a good solution for:

  • For the federal deficit, we can raise taxes or cut spending (or do a bit of both).
  • For immigration, we can encourage white-collar professionals and international students to come in. The other “immigration problem”—the porous border—is a phantom problem that demographers say is already taking care of itself.
  • For freedom, we need only stand by our Bill of Rights and the country will always be a rich mind well (as opposed to a brain drain), gathering people around the world to our cities, entrepreneurial hubs, and universities.
  • For banking reform, we can get in and regulate (create structures that police what is being done within banks).
  • For jobs, we can continue with free trade capitalism and encourage higher education for the country’s citizens. Our mind wells—such as Silicon Valley, U.C. Berkeley, and M.I.T—are the keys to America bringing down longterm unemployment, and they are all fully functioning.
  • For the environment, we can follow California’s lead (and the rest of the world’s, including China’s) and nudge, via regulatory law, the auto, energy, and building industries toward greater efficiencies.
  • For foreign policy, we can play nice with others, keep trade open, and where others are hostile, we can exercise policies of containment (not invasion).
  • For nuclear proliferation and terrorism, we’re probably already doing everything we reasonably can to reduce these dangers.

The Herderian nationalist card needn’t be played to solve any of these problems. Indeed, playing that card undermines our chances of solving a number of them. Herderian nationalism is just the blue pipe smoke blown into the room to obscure the difficult choices that adhere to these problems.

America has plenty of human intelligence, energy, and talent to propel it economically through the 21st century, and, thanks to our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we’re still far ahead of other countries in our prospects for the future. The future, afterall, belongs to the free. And that foundation is already solid. Just look.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Treat China Like the Old Soviet Union: E. J. Dionne’s Awful Solution to America’s (Perceived) Decline

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    (Your recent post on California’s budget woes and the impact on education reminded me to come back and comment on this post)

    You allow that Dionne’s summary of the past decade is “tart and accurate”, but decry his advice to Obama.

    I don’t think you’re being fair to Dionne, however, when you leave out this part of his comment –

    ‘Obama sprinkles his rhetoric with talk about competing and winning in the 21st century, and he often suggests that China is doing things (in energy, mass transit and education, for example) that we are not. What’s lacking is a coherent call for reform and restoration that is unapologetically patriotic and challenging’.

    -before you quote what he then says about Kennedy’s use of competition with Russia as a spur to action.

    I was a youngster at the time, but I’m pretty sure that Kennedy was responding to the fact that Russia was ahead of the US in the ‘space race’ at that time and a perceived threat (possibly realistic and scary) that it would overtake the US militarily.

    I doubt that there is any real prospect that China could (or would try to) match the US militarily in the next 50 years. Nor do I see any suggestion in Dionne’s post that his China/Russia parallel extends to military considerations.

    I suspect that Dionne shares your perception that the strength of the USA lies in its ‘mind wells’ and that he is seeing that it is these that will be challenged by China over the next 50 years.

    Especially if your economy forces you to compromise your education standards even further than has happened over the past 30 years. (Australia has been just as delinquent in this regard)


    • santitafarella says:


      In American politics, if Obama speaks of competition with China, the right will use this to push military spending and zero-sum thinking. The right has really boxed in liberals in the United States (at least for now). I don’t know what we do. You can barely have a sane conversation about anything related to Obama—the American right is not, in general, really in vulnerable dialogue. They’re just interested in achieving a one party state in the United States in which people in the middle and the left are marginalized. Fortunately, as the demographics of the country shift over the next decade, it becomes ever more difficult for the right to play the game that they are now. I do think a resurgent authoritarianism is a real possibility in the United States (at least in the near term). I just hope that the recovery gains some traction and that no terrorist manages to get a nuke and put it on a city over the next decade. It’s the kind of trigger that Herderian authoritarians in the United States are gaming for. I don’t know if we’re living in Weimar or just in the midst of a very noisy time in which the far right is amplifying its power in an illusory way.


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