"I have been over into the future, and it works."
Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, offered that review of the Soviet Union on his return from a fact-finding mission there. For decades, conservatives invoked that line as proof that a generation of progressives were Soviet fellow-travelers. Conservatives were far from entirely wrong, but the focus on communism obscured a more enduring dynamic: The left loves to press its nose against the window on the world and talk about how things are better "over there."
Indeed, a year earlier, Steffens had gone to fascist Italy and came back praising Il Duce's miraculous accomplishments. Before that, the cream of America's intellectuals were obsessed with emulating the "top-down socialism" of Bismarck's Prussia. Later, the New Deal was understood as part of the "Europeanization of America," in historian William Leuchtenburg's phrase. Liberal economist Stuart Chase, who coined the term "the New Deal," remarked: "Why should the Russians have all the fun remaking the world?"
In the 1980s, some economists, like Lester Thurow, and non-economists, like Robert Reich, Chalmers Johnson and James Fallows, argued that we needed to emulate Germany or, even better, Japan. "The Cold War is over," proclaimed Johnson. "Japan won." American liberalism's infatuation with Japan's industrial policy -- "Japan Inc." -- should be remembered as one of the great embarrassments of recent intellectual history.
But no, like butterflies always looking for a prettier flower, these intellectuals keep flitting to the next "proof" of America's shortcomings. For some, like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, the prettiest flower out there right now is China. For others, it's France or Canada. For the truly demented, it's Cuba.
The problem with all such efforts is that they look abroad solely for what they wish to see at home. For instance, in an effort to push its green agenda, the Obama administration likes to tout the farsighted vision of Spain, which has invested heavily in windmills and other renewable technology. Never mind that today, Spain's economic crisis is just slightly less dire than Greece's, and politicized bets on green technology contributed to their problems.