American Power and the Future of Democracy

Last night’s State of the Union address was vintage Obama. Soaring rhetoric, wry humor, towering confidence, and unguarded optimism– all the traits that so excited the electorate in 2008 were on full display in his final address to Congress. He covered a lot of ground. Economic development, innovation, environmental preservation, funding for education, and immigration all got their place in the sun. For a man who “hates America” he sure has a lot of positive dreams about it.

There are plenty of places you can go to hear about the viability of his vision, the politics of his policies, his take down of Donald Trump, or a retrospective on the Obama era (it is extremely premature for such analysis, but that rarely stops the press). I’m more interested in shining some light on his remarks regarding the state of American power in the world and the future of democracy in America.

Around the 30:20 mark of his speech Obama transitions from discussing economic development and addresses the state of American military strength:

“Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth.”

He is right, of course. Because we spend more on our military than the next eight countries combined, we are the only power who can project itself on land, sea, and air in every corner of the globe. We effectively stepped into the void created by the fall of the British Empire in the years after World War II. This role, as the global protector of commerce and capitalism, requires taking an active hand in the management of conflicts and crisis that threaten to upset international stability. The world’s economy depends on it.

Obama was at his best in deflating the notion that ISIS (ISIL or whatever else you want to call them) is a threat to our very existence. This rhetoric has become increasingly popular on the right, both here and in Europe. At best, it is an illogical, fear based response to news coverage of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. At worst, it is mindless pandering to the most nasty element of our society. The truth is, ISIS poses no threat to our government, our military, or Western civilization. Yes, they (and other terrorists) can harm individuals. They may succeed in killing hundreds, even thousands of civilians. But in historical terms, this is child’s play. The best they can do doesn’t come close to the sort of death and destruction we have inflicted on ourselves in the last hundred years.

Can they beat the roughly 18 million killed and 20 million wounded from 1914-1918 in World War I?

wwi romanian dead near kronstadt
(Dead Romanian soldiers littering the road to Kronstadt)

Can they top the depravity and horror of the 11 million murdered in the Holocaust?

(The bodies of Holocaust victims piled up at the Bergan-Belsen concentration camp)

These are but a sample of the awful things Western civilization inflicted on itself. We wiped out generations of our own young men. We held other people in bondage for hundreds of years. We nearly annihilated a race of people (two if you include the largely accidental destruction of Native Americans). We toppled our own governments, rose up in armed rebellion against democratic rule, and threatened to wipe each other out with nuclear weapons. Yet, here we stand. It’s going to take a lot more than some bomb vests and assault rifles to take down the global hegemon.

So why do GOP candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz keep harping on the weakness of America’s standing in the international arena? It would be short-sighted to chalk this up to the “oppose everything Obama” movement. In actuality, it is a natural outgrowth of the long running “change has ruined America” narrative.

Dating back to Nixon, the GOP has harped on how social changes are weakening and destroying America. For them, dissent made it impossible to “win” the Vietnam war. Women’s rights and sexual freedom created poverty (ignoring, of course, that poverty existed and was more drastic before these changes). Destroying the segregated world of “separate, but equal” didn’t raise everyone to the same level– it lowered those who had to the level of those who had not. Extending rights to gays was an affront to religious freedom and another nail in the coffin of American morality that abortion had already largely sealed. Their political and rhetorical response to repeated losses in the culture wars has been to stiffen their resolve. Refuse to compromise is effectively their slogan. “Make America great, again” and Trump’s take-no-prisoners, apologize for nothing, “anti-PC” approach is a product of this mindset. And to admit that America is still great undermines the message. To believe that the United States is still the most powerful nation on Earth invalidates the Chicken Little rhetoric that the sky has long since fallen on our nation. In short, it is a form of cognitive dissonance that they cannot handle.

Which leads into my other topic: the future of democracy in America. Donald Trump may well make America great again, but it won’t be in the way he or his supporters imagine. This insane campaign, representing all that is worst in US politics, appears to be pushing his party into a serious crisis of conscious. The long-standing coalition of evangelical Christians, Constitutional originalists, fiscal conservatives, small government zealots, pro-big business, nationalist, pro-military flag wavers, guns rights, and white supremacists (Kevin Kruse’s “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism” is still the standard bearer for the subtle ways that white supremacy embedded itself in the modern conservative movement) is hanging on by a thread. The party is incoherent. For example, the evangelical wing wants to use the government to impose Christian values on what they see as a Christian nation, while small government zealots recoil in horror at the prospect. The big business crowd wants a complicated tax code and regulations imposed that make it hard for start-ups to challenge them, while the true believers in fiscal conservatism want the field open to innovation and competition. But no dissonance is more clear than the flag waving uber patriots who believe that America is exceptional and the party’s collective narrative that it has gone to hell in a handbasket.

The longer Trump leads the GOP primary the more reasonable members of the party will feel compelled to address this incoherence. Already many of the level-headed, intelligent, well-educated conservatives I know have not only denounced his candidacy, but admitted that this problematic portion of their base scares them. These maniacs have hijacked the party for the last 20 years, impeding any efforts by Democrats and Republicans to collaborate on meaningful change in areas that matter to most Americans: healthcare, taxes, Social Security, justice, trade, and immigration. There are so many positives that can come out of Trump’s candidacy. Here are the six outcomes I can imagine today:

  1. Trump and the Trumpkins are decisively defeated: Least dangerous outcome. Discredits these maniacs and forces them to fall back in-line with the mainstream of the party. Also seems like wishful thinking at this moment.
  2. Narrowly defeated and runs as a third-party candidate: Moderate risk. A Trump party has zero chance at getting elected, but might pull the crazies out of the GOP tent allowing them to build a new coalition that makes more sense (and has less open and avowed racists).
  3. Narrowly defeated, graciously bows out: Donald Trump acting with grace and dignity? I just can’t imagine it. Next.
  4. Narrowly nominated, GOP runs its own candidate: Moderate risk. Intriguing possibilities. This doesn’t just give the GOP space to rebuild its coalition– it demands it. This might be my favorite possibility.
  5. Decisively nominated, GOP goes along with it: High risk. I have trouble seeing a path to victory for Trump in the general election, but populists are unpredictable. If he wins the election and governs under the “platform” he has outlined it will be an unmitigated disaster. More likely, he get soundly defeated and the notion that this large, silent majority of Americans crave a return to the racist, misogynist, homophobic 1950s America can die with his candidacy.
  6. Decisively nominated, GOP refuses to go along with it: Moderate to high risk. The risk here is that the GOP dies off and is replaced by the Trumpkins, pushing something like a European right-wing party agenda (fascist and racist). Otherwise, things go off like they do in option 4.

With a little good fortune, we could be embarking on a new, glorious future for democracy in America. One less tainted by racism and open hate. Wouldn’t that be exceptional?



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