That there is something wrong with the United States – its politics, its economy, its culture, its interactions with the rest of the world – seems to be widely acknowledged by most Americans today. Poll after poll indicates a profound discomfort with the direction of American society, for myriad reasons. While people on the Left and Right will disagree about what exactly is wrong, and particularly what might be done about it, there’s a lot of consensus that the United States has hit a rather rocky patch, and that our venerable two-party system isn’t doing a very good job of ameliorating what’s going wrong. Indeed, our political system seems to many Americans, including this one, to be one of the larger aspects of the problem.
My colleague Tom Nichols has highlighted how the spreading disdain for actual experts and their expertise undermines public efforts at debating knotty problems, where the views of bona fide experts ought to help. Online freedom, which is supposed to stimulate ideas and discussion, instead too often winds up being hijacked by fools, knaves, and auto-didacts who have read a stunning amount of Wikipedia entries, and not much else. Here, Professor Nichols is entirely correct, as my experience with extensive online abuse over the Snowden Operation continues to illustrate. Per Colonel Jessup, some people really can’t handle the truth.
But I also worry about the tendency to dismiss the American people as a bunch of idiots. In truth, I find that average Americans are often more aware of what’s wrong with our country than the better educated are, though they are frequently unable to exactly articulate our national problems. But they get, deeply, that something just ain’t right here, and it hardly furthers debate to portray such common people, who unlike our cautious-lipped elites are often willing to state obvious truths fearlessly, as idiots. Which is exactly what both Left and Right do. There has developed a near-universal hunt for false consciousness among one’s political opponents, and it is cancerous.
The Right has developed the loathsome habit of stating that groups supporting the Left broadly and the Democratic Party particularly – here they cite blacks, women, gays, et al – are residing “on the Democratic plantation.” If only they woke up and looked at their real interests, the FoxNews logic goes, they would suddenly become the “natural Republicans” that they actually are. It seems not to have occurred to the Right that African Americans, single women, LGBT people, and increasingly Hispanics too, support the Left because the Democratic Party is a better vehicle for their collective interests than the GOP, in its current guise, will ever be. Moreover, the use of “plantation” rhetoric, with its enormously freighted historical baggage, indicates how out of touch its rightist purveyors are. At best, such talk is deeply, unacceptably patronizing to vast swathes of the American people.
But the Left does the exact same thing. Rather than accept that there are lots of Americans, mainly white, often religious, many of them traditionalist in their views, who reject the progressive agenda, it’s easier for the MSNBC set to mock them, while more erudite progressives will explain at great length how they are well-meaning but stupid people who sell out to corporate interests. This view has become so commonplace on the Left that back in 2008 then-candidate Obama felt it wise to talk about clinging to Bibles and guns to describe such fellow citizens, while more recently leading celebrities have told them they need to hurry up and die already, so the golden progressive future can be realized. As a historian, I can affirm that when such hatred for your fellow citizens becomes normative, your republic is in deep trouble. Yet, as I said, it’s become entrenched on both the Left and the Right, the only difference I can tell being that if you’re on the Left you can make a very lucrative celebrity career out of it, while doing the same on the Right makes you Larry the Cable Guy.
This really all comes down to ideology, meaning the substitution of preset cliches over actual thought. I’m not here to knock down the notion of ideology altogether, since all of us have some sort of one (and if you don’t realize you do, the more powerful a hold over you it has), rather I want to point out the hazards of letting that framework shut down genuine thought, discussion, and debate, because you know the answer already. The German word Weltanschauung (worldview) comes closest to what I’m discussing here, and in 21st century America lots of people get their designer worldview, pre-fab, off TV and the Internet, without ever thinking critically about what it might actually mean. Contrary evidence is ignored, out of hand, as lies or propaganda – which of course only the other side has – and perhaps “hatred.” The problem isn’t that Americans have ideologies, it’s that so many of them have embraced a worldview based on self-deception. Simply put, they devoutly, unshakably believe things that simply are untrue.
This is a question of Zeitgeist more than naked partisanship, per se, as Americans both Left and Right seem equally devoted to beliefs that, upon close examination, turn out to be false. The failure of American education explains some of this, but by no means all of the problem. There are many examples I could cite, but I shall limit myself to only a few. The Left and Right get themselves into an equally formidable, if diametrically opposed, lather over guns and their role in our society. The Left will not acknowledge that lots of law-abiding Americans have perfectly legitimately reasons to have guns, in no way contributing to crime rates (and in some cases actually helping them), while the Right will not admit the basic fact that America’s appalling murder rates – which make our inner cities look more like war zones than developed countries – are such because so many people are killed by….guns.
Similarly, the Left pretends that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, Obamacare to normals) is a radical step forward to justice, when actually it is a very modest reform of the existing – exceedingly, unsustainably expensive – system, based largely on onetime GOP proposals, while the Right is in high dudgeon mode over this allegedly vast expansion of state power, when really it’s a huge gift to the insurance industry (a Republican stalwart). Moreover, the ACA manages to do the nearly impossible, namely increasing access to healthcare only very modestly, at considerable taxpayer expense, while doing essentially nothing about controlling spiraling costs, not least because that would upset trial lawyers (a Democratic constituency). If you’re detecting a pattern here, you should.
However, foreign policy is where the confusion-masquerading-as-thought we call ideology really gets going. The Left seems to think – here President Obama bears his share of the blame – that mere words, especially dramatic speeches, can compensate for a lack of strategy or definable and implementable policy. Words, themselves, count only modestly. Churchill’s inspirational “we shall fight on the beaches” speech in 1940, as Hitler stared with ill intent across the English Channel, would have been irrelevant had not the British military been up to the job, barely, to repel German efforts to subdue Britain by air. Additionally, many Democrats believe that hashtags can change the world. Hope is not a strategy, as I teach my students, and neither is Twitter.
Yet the Right is besotted with equally powerful delusions, namely that what hashtags cannot do, the application of firepower can. This is not to malign the transformative effect of military force – I teach at a War College, after all – rather to observe that, in 2014, there are distinct limits on what it can achieve. The blow-it-all-up approach that prevailed as late as 1945 is simply not on the table anymore while the world is watching; even the Russians have toned down their mayhem, and their soft-touch aggression in Ukraine now, what I term Special War, bears little resemblance to the high-explosive horrors that Moscow’s forces inflicted on Chechnya as recently as the mid-1990s. Moreover, the failure of U.S.-led forces to subdue frankly third-rate insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, thanks largely to a basic political illiteracy about those societies, has seriously eroded the prestige of American military might around the world. Only American right-wingers, who continue to fantasize about using kinetic force to fix problems everywhere on the globe, seem to have missed that memo.
Political illiteracy, misguided by ideology, is the core of the problem. When they look at the world, Left and Right in America today both see several billion people who are either very much like us, or want to become just like us as soon as possible. This, of course, is the WEIRD conceit I’ve discussed before, and it seems to be second nature to Americans in 2014. The only real difference is how we want to help the world to become just like us. While the Right prefers using American capitalism with periodic injections of UAVs and TLAMs – drones and cruise missiles, that is – the Left likes employing “values,” which in most places boils down to dispatching platoons of activists pushing present-day American views on race, gender, and sexuality. It seldom occurs to either Left or Right that both approaches generate considerable push-back around the world. My family is more European than American, and over the past decade, I’ve watched many of them transition from strong support of America in the world to various forms of discomfort and worse, thanks to policies enacted by Washington, DC. And if Europeans, who share enormous political, cultural, and historical ties with the United States, feel this way, you can imagine what poorer countries around the world, who have much less ability to tone down U.S. policies they dislike than Europeans do, must feel.
To many people on our planet, the USA in 2014 looks like a broken society pushing itself on others, often aggressively. While this depiction sounds ridiculous to most Americans, we must understand that is widely held by billions of people over the globe, including by many who are not congenitally anti-American. We cannot see this because we believe our ideologies so deeply that we never question their basic assumptions, Left or Right. One of the best things about getting out of the country is noting how, from abroad, the political divisions at home that seem so powerful appear trifling to foreigners, who note that beneath the Left and Right talking points there lie surprisingly common views of the world and America’s supposed place in it.
If you want to be a serious student of strategy, you need to see the world as it actually is, not how we might wish it to be. A reality-based assessment of all players, including yourself, must be the first step in developing effective strategy and policy. That is always a challenging undertaking, yet ideological blinders make it far harder than it ought to be. If you cannot get out of the country, read more. Talk to foreigners, see the world through their eyes for a bit. Get out of your comfort zone. If you think either FoxNews or MSNBC has a monopoly on truth, you need to diversify your mind. If you believe the flaws in our foreign policy can be explained by just one word, and that word is either “Bush” or “Obama,” you’re part of the problem. The decade ahead will determine whether our planet can transition from waning American hegemony to a peaceful multipolar world – or not. American military power will remain important, particularly to deter troublemakers, but it must be used judiciously, as our top brass well know, while how Washington, DC, interacts with foreigners in all domains – political, economic, social, not just military – will determine our place in that emerging multipolar world. Letting our ideologies blind us in domestic matters has serious consequences for America, but refusing to see the world as it actually is endangers far more than our domestic tranquility.