Three Princeton authors offer different takes on American values

Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, was traveling in Copenhagen in the days following the disclosure of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib in the spring of 2004. “On every newsstand every magazine had that horrible picture of the guy standing on the box with the hood and the cord, this awful caricature of the Statue of Liberty,” she recalls. “And for the first time in my life, when I showed my passport, I felt a twinge of shame.”

Out of that experience came her book The Idea That Is America, published by Basic Books in July — a “book from the heart,” she says, written with anguish and outrage that events during the Iraq war took place “in the name of values that I believe in,” distorting those values in the process. The book is one of three recent — and very different — works by Princetonians that concern the ideals that animate national life. The others are The New American Story (Random House) a book by former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley ’65, and “The Spirit of Democracy and the Rhetoric of Excess,” an article by Princeton religion professor Jeffrey Stout *76 that was published in the March issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics.

All three authors present stories about the values that tie us together as a nation, what threatens them, and how to save them — even if they don’t always agree on the details of what those values are. While the Bush administration gets a large share of the blame, Democrats and political leaders from years past aren’t let off the hook. The authors share a conviction that getting back on track will require public action at the grassroots level.

“Once upon a time, there was a nation known for its openness and ingenuity. Its power rested on its continental size, its thriving economy, its generous-hearted people, and its fair and democratic government,” writes Bradley. That national myth has been subverted over the last generation, Bradley says, by something more sinister: a sense of helplessness and denial.

“I wanted to show that there are answers to the problems that we face as a country, and that we can afford those answers,” he explains. “I wanted to explain that the reason these obvious things have not been done is because we have been in the grips of an old story that’s basically a ‘can’t do’ story — we can’t give health care to everyone, we can’t make our public schools world-class, we can’t make sure people have stable pensions that maintain middle-class lives, we can’t break our addiction to oil.” Bradley wants to tell a new story, he says, “based upon telling people the truth and putting country ahead of party.”

The former presidential candidate and current managing director of an investment banking firm seems ready to roll up his sleeves and dive into the messy work of governing. He offers solutions to a range of issues, including fixing Social Security, funding pensions, improving public education, providing universal health care, and ending American dependence on foreign oil — all ticked off in itemized lists at the end of each chapter. He explains how these programs could be paid for (cutting defense spending by 10 percent would save $50 billion, for example; making greater use of preventive medicine, another $10 billion; and so on).

Democratic reform, Bradley says, “has to be a commitment over a decade. ... It’s not just a matter of raising money. It’s a matter also of tapping into the ideas of average citizens, it’s a matter of having the party be a place where people can go who want to serve, not just a place where people want to go to slave for little wages to be in a campaign or cause.”

In his article, Stout, whose award-winning 2004 book, Democracy and Tradition, dealt extensively with the formation of democratic culture and its complex relationship with religion, now sounds the alarm that the very idea of democracy in America is at risk, threatened by terrorism abroad and a loss of civil liberties and growing economic inequality at home. “Democracy is a spirited, passionate affair, or it is nothing,” he writes. “Unless citizens wake up and take responsibility for the condition of their society, democracy will be completely eviscerated and the economically powerful will no longer be answerable to anyone else.”

This subversion, Stout continues, has been going on for decades. He argues that developments have been under way since the collapse of the New Deal coalition, the demise of big-city machines, and the end of the civil-rights movement. Stout makes clear that Republicans are not the only ones to blame: “The Clinton administration demonstrated that the Democratic Party is now almost as deferential to economic elites as the Republican Party is,” he says. “The Democratic Party now basically consists of about 100,000 seriously dedicated operatives with almost no connection to the grass roots. It’s mainly experts, lawyers, and bureaucrats.”

It is Slaughter’s book that has received the most attention, particularly among foreign-policy experts and in the blogosphere, to which she herself contributes regularly. To Slaughter, who is spending this year in Shanghai on a sabbatical, the core American values are liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith. In her view, these fundamental values have remained constant through our history, though our interpretation of them has changed. So Jefferson’s conception of what it meant to say “all men are created equal” was not the same as Lincoln’s, which is not the same as our conception today. Slaughter traces the “critical patriotism” that embraced America even while trying to correct its flaws. Martin Luther King Jr., she notes in one example, did not reject America because of racism, but instead called upon it to live out the true meaning of its creed.

The dean set out to write a book that could help teach young people about the significance of those values in American government — an exercise that an earlier generation would have called civics. “I am appalled to find that when I write things like, ‘Every American has read Federalist No. 51,’ my readers come back saying no, it’s not being taught anymore,” she says. “Our founders thought there were universal values and they thought we were blessed, because we had the chance to show the world that it was possible to create a government based on these values that actually worked.”

Nonsense, reply others, who insist that American values are neither universal nor even particularly admirable. Slaughter’s book has generated pages of debate, much of it vitriolic, on the Web site where she writes a blog ( A central question in this discussion was whether America ever could be considered an exemplar of values for other nations.

“Anne-Marie wants dialogue with other nations. She honorably calls for humility. And yet she remains married to a romantic, self-loving vision of the political and moral essence of the United States that seems to me based on confusing a sociological analysis — as she puts it, ‘part of what we think makes us distinctly American is that we hold to a set of values that apply around the world’ — with an historical one,” writes David Rieff ’78, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, on the same Web site. “What a florid romance Americans make of America! Surely, if we are serious about gaining ‘both friends and humility, not necessarily in that order,’ as Anne-Marie rightly calls for, the first thing to do is to once and for all renounce this romance and see the United States for what it is — a great country that, like all great countries, has done many good things and many bad things throughout its history, but also whose national myth about itself is a self-serving fantasy, like all national myths.” What, Rieff asks, would a Latin American familiar with the long history of Yankee gunboat diplomacy say in response to Slaughter’s assertion that the United States historically has stood for freedom and democracy?

Slaughter asserts that her book is neither triumphalist nor intended to suggest American exceptionalism, and acknowledges that the ideals she discusses are not necessarily exportable. “What I think is so wrong about the debate today is that it has gotten framed in terms of exporting American values rather than [saying that] America is one version of universal values,” she explains. “So our definition of equality and free speech and how to have a democratic voting system is one version. England’s is another. Germany’s is another. Turkey’s is another. Japan’s is another. What we ought to be doing is coming together with those countries and talking about the multiple realities of how you implement these universal values. That is a very different debate, but it is one that is much more consistent with what the Founders thought they were doing and one that is much more congenial to the rest of the world.”

Slaughter does, however, criticize liberals for what she sees as their squeamishness about talking about American values in a positive way, something she says has enabled Republicans to convince voters that they are the only party of faith, family, and flag. Her fear, Slaughter says, is that the country will repudiate an idealistic foreign policy in favor of a purely pragmatic, almost Kissingerian, one. “My argument is no, you stick with values but you define them consistently with our history, in a much more self-critical, honest way.” Thus Slaughter quotes 19th-century Sen. Carl Schurz, who said, “Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”