By Bill Jamieson, CEFEUS Visiting Lecturer
The states of America are no longer “united”. The country that pledged to be “one nation, indivisible” has become a polarized morass of contentious factions and competing interest groups.
Opposing sides have hardened into ideological opposites with seemingly disparate motives and goals. Rigid loyalty to a particular ideology (primarily on the political right) trumps the vision of the nation’s founders, a vision of a “more perfect union” formed to ensure the general welfare of the people.
More than two centuries ago this vision was the focus of 55 men who engaged each other for 17 weeks in conversations, arguments, negotiations and compromises. From that process The Constitution of The United States of America was born.
The Constitution remains a revered governing document. But today, instead of being a uniting codification of values and principles, it has become a battle flag and a cudgel.
Left-leaning Americans see it as a living document that guides and regulates our national life. The right is emphatic that it be read literally, in the 1787 socio/political context of the drafters rather than that of 21st century.
One victim of the collapse of collaboration is the constitutionally-mandated process of checks and balances. The three-prong structure was established to ensure compromise between majority and minority bodies, but today opposing sides reject compromise and governing has become an impenetrable maze of veto points. The nation has fallen into institutional paralysis as each branch of government stymies the others.
The 2016 Republican campaign for the presidency is at the center of this dysfunction. Candidates fan flames of division with rhetoric designed to inflame partisans, not to illuminate policy. They refer to their competitors with contempt and ridicule, and deliberately provoke fear and anger in their followers. Debates are forums for hurling insults rather than engaging substantive policy issues. Their international relations policy pronouncements are focused primarily on military dominance and an “America first” doctrine.
Democratic candidates generally agree with Obama’s international goals, and a Clinton or Sanders administration would be predictable to the international community. Clinton in particular is well known across the globe.
But Republican candidates are wild cards. They agree on the military as a first response to a crisis, and they preach that America has an obligation to set and enforce an agenda for the rest of the world. They also agree that anything implemented by the Obama Administration –––particularly efforts to combat climate change–––should be repealed.
What is of most concern to me is that the incivility, crudeness and vitriol in this campaign has polarized the political process and infected people across the country. It diminishes the United States in the eyes of the world.
Where does all of this come from? I believe it comes from rapid social change. The United States is on the cusp of an epochal transition to a new era, an era in which leadership will shift from white male dominance to a younger, diverse and more progressive generation. Barack Obama’s presidency––a Black man in the Oval Office––is the forerunner of this new era.
People who struggle with change become fearful, and demagogues convert the fear into anger. They tell people, “Elect me and I will build a wall around America to protect you from evil doers; I will keep Muslims out of our country and you will be safe; I will bomb the Middle East until the sand glows; I will make America great again.”
I remain hopeful that America will survive this transition and once again become a United States. I am hopeful because I believe that a new progressivism led by a younger generation will emerge from today’s chaos and bring us into the 21st century. Based on polls, this emerging generation’s foreign policy is more likely to foster inclusive partnerships and collaboration with the international community, rather than retreat into a fortress-America.
The European Union is a logical partner for America because America and the EU are in many ways interdependent and share important values: democracy, human rights, individual freedoms. Together we are 30% of the world’s trade and 50% of the world’s GDP.
I see the EU community as a harbinger of things to come. If the community persists, the strife within individual member states over issues of borders and sovereignty will diminish as a younger generation of leaders, who were reared in the emerging world, begins to take root.
Likewise I believe the United States will get past this ugly period in our political life. The EU and the USA need to stay together and stay the course toward partnership and collaboration. If we do we can lead the world in combating life-threatening issues that breach national boundaries: climate change, immigration and refugees, terrorism, inequality and poverty. If we do, the world will be a better place because of us.