Much has been said about the failure of bipartisan comity in America’s last decade. Today it feels like our political parties are as polarized as they have ever been, and each side has retreated into a walled garden, free of any data or influence from the other.
I believe this is a direct consequence of the United States winning the cold war.
From the 1940s to the late 1980s, the US had an adversary with a particular vision for the world. The USSR wanted to spread communism all over the planet. In order to counter the “communist threat”, the US had to bolster and reinforce the liberal aspects of its democracy. There were many major strides made in US politics during the cold war, and much of it had to do with putting on appearances. Obviously, the US did a lot of crazy stuff against communism (including overthrowing countries), and made many major civil rights mistakes, but there was a check on the government in the form of an alternative model. That is, if the US government got too far out of line with the people, we could take up communism and challenge the whole structure.
This threat was enough to get FDR and the industrialists to create the New Deal. Support for the free press, civil rights, public schools and the rule of law were agreed to by blatantly undemocratic and elitist allies to keep communism in America at bay. No matter how liberals and conservatives disagreed, they could always say that we weren’t like the Soviets. This was especially acute because of the whataboutism of the Russians and their global aspirations.
After the fall of the USSR, everything began to shift. The US — and indeed the West — believed they emerged victorious in the battle for ideas. Communism was dead, and what had replaced it was US-style liberal democracy. Never mind that China, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea had not abandoned their statist communism. Never mind that fascism in the West never really went away. Never mind that former Soviet apparatchiks continued to rule the now splintered Eastern Bloc.
Many concepts long-espoused by the United States (a free press, open immigration, a check on leadership power) have been eroding as those in control realized there was nothing to retard their ambitions. There were no global institutions worth supporting, there were no enemies that we couldn’t beat with our giant military. Therefore, what were the consequences of bad behavior? This is probably most evident in Mitch McConnell’s stonewalling of Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland. Had this been 1985, anti-communist Republicans might have quashed anything that smelled like autocracy.
All those years of anti-communist brainwashing have also taken their toll. The word “socialist” is an epithet in modern American discourse. The notion of “redistribution of wealth” is posited as a flawed, anti-individualistic ideal. The need for free and fair elections began to collapse under the weight of partisan gerrymandering, voting restrictions, a reduction in civil liberties and an economy that had far outstripped its ability to repay its debts. We didn’t have anyone to impress or convince our way was the right way, so why bother with democracy?
America has never been unified, except when faced with an threat to its liberty, values and aspirations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the US to win the world’s hearts and minds? China, with its seemingly backwards, inward-looking economy? A Russia that lay in ruin and with deeply entrenched corruption? Iran, with its theocratic bloodlust? There were no other options and no real checks on American power that could marshall widespread, earnest support.
I think the American people quickly came to the conclusion that they had won the cold war fair and square, and that American values, ideas and morals would now be the standard against which all other countries were measured. It was a kind of extreme political hubris that is embedded so deeply in our culture that we don’t even consider other political and economic structures; it’s always about how to fix the system, rather than reimagine it entirely. This gives the holders of that artificial standard — today’s billionaire class — carte blanche to do whatever they want. To the victor, go the spoils regardless of the cost to society.
While the US and USSR were locked in ideological battle backed by nuclear weapons, China and the US (and Russia and the US) are not really ideologically opposed any longer. In fact, since the Trump era began, the US and Russia/China have seemed closer to us and each other than ever before. As the Republicans erode our democratic norms, it makes it much more difficult for the US to exercise moral authority and for us to distinguish between our culture and that of others who actively seek our demise.
And that portends even more trouble ahead. One of the most galvanizing concepts in sociology is called ingroups and outgroups, commonly known as Us Vs Them. Every group uses others to create a sense of identity and behavioral constraint. For example, Canadians (of which I am one) don’t agree on everything, but we are all unified in the idea that we are “Not American”. As the US shifts to the right, Canada is shifting to the left — and it is no coincidence. Every culture that defines itself in opposition to the United States will likely reap the rewards of Trump’s war on democracy.
This is also the reason for the major polarization along ideological lines. In the absence of an external foe, Republicans and Democrats have identified the other as the “The Other”. The natural human desire for affiliation can be necrotic if focused inside the castle walls. It is like a cancer that eats away at the ability of a society to come together, find common ground / shared purpose and make sacrifices for the greater good.
Unfortunately, the big loser here is US global power. Our authority was largely based on two things: other countries wanted to be more American, and other countries wanted America’s protection. The former was a product of the Marketing of capitalism undertaken by the US after WWII. The latter was a product of the US’s position as defender of the free world and its willingness to protect other countries because the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Now that communism has ceased to be a threat, and the US slips towards autocracy, wholesale defections from the US’s global power structure are very likely. This will have direct geopolitical, economic and cultural costs — most of which are only hinted at in the salvos of the 2018 trade wars. New alliances are likely, as is the erosion of American power across the board.
The Russian and Chinese threats have never been more grave, actually. China’s economic and military power is ascendant, and all of Asia is trying to figure out the calculus for the next 50 years. Russia has demonstrated that it can annex a European territory and interfere in an election without many repercussions. These and other emergent powers (Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria) would benefit tremendously from a neutered USA, and they will do everything to wrestle her to the ground.
This problem started before the current administration, and it will likely outlast this government. Unless Americans can define themselves and create unity without resorting to unnecessary wars, the writing is on the wall: Pax Americana — and the country behind it, is over.