The Post-Cold-War Consensus Collapses
by Andrew Bacevich
Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.
It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850-1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) or William Howard Taft (1909-1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines — now known as “presidential libraries” — to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.
Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarified space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.
Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.
At the same time, they also took on various extra-constitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and — last but hardly least — celebrity-in-chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.
As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919 (enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.
In truth, influential American institutions — investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security apparatus and both major political parties — have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.
Furthermore, it’s our president — not some foreign dude — who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.
Then came the Great Hysteria. Arriving with a Pearl Harbor-like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.
Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense. That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.
Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience. Indeed, they recur with some frequency. The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are examples of the phenomenon. So also are the two Red Scares of the twentieth century, the first in the early 1920s and the second, commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.
Yet the response to Donald Trump’s election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent. History itself had seemingly gone off the rails. The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state. A self-evidently inconceivable outcome — all the smart people agreed on that point — had somehow happened anyway.
A vulgar, bombastic, thrice-married real-estate tycoon and reality TV host as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and chief celebrity? The very idea seemed both absurd and intolerable.
If we have, as innumerable commentators assert, embarked upon the Age of Trump, the defining feature of that age might well be the single-minded determination of those horrified and intent on ensuring its prompt termination. In 2016, TIME magazine chose Trump as its person of the year. In 2017, when it comes to dominating the news, that “person” might turn out to be a group — all those fixated on cleansing the White House of Trump’s defiling presence.
Egged on and abetted in every way by Trump himself, the anti-Trump resistance has made itself the Big Story. Lies, hate, collusion, conspiracy, fascism: rarely has the everyday vocabulary of American politics been as ominous and forbidding as over the past six months. Take resistance rhetoric at face value and you might conclude that Donald Trump is indeed the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, his presence in the presidential saddle eclipsing all other concerns. Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death will just have to wait.
The unspoken assumption of those most determined to banish him from public life appears to be this: once he’s gone, history will be returned to its intended path, humankind will breathe a collective sigh of relief, and all will be well again. Yet such an assumption strikes me as remarkably wrongheaded — and not merely because, should Trump prematurely depart from office, Mike Pence will succeed him. Expectations that Trump’s ouster will restore normalcy ignore the very factors that first handed him the Republican nomination (with a slew of competitors wondering what hit them) and then put him in the Oval Office (with a vastly more seasoned and disciplined, if uninspiring, opponent left to bemoan the injustice of it all).
Not all, but many of Trump’s supporters voted for him for the same reason that people buy lottery tickets: Why not? In their estimation, they had little to lose. Their loathing of the status quo is such that they may well stick with Trump even as it becomes increasingly obvious that his promise of salvation — an America made “great again” — is not going to materialize.
Yet those who imagine that Trump’s removal will put things right are likewise deluding themselves. To persist in thinking that he defines the problem is to commit an error of the first order. Trump is not cause, but consequence.
For too long, the cult of the presidency has provided an excuse for treating politics as a melodrama staged at four-year intervals and centering on hopes of another Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan appearing as the agent of American deliverance. Donald Trump’s ascent to the office once inhabited by those worthies should demolish such fantasies once and for all.
How is it that someone like Trump could become president in the first place? Blame sexism, Fox News, James Comey, Russian meddling, and Hillary’s failure to visit Wisconsin all you want, but a more fundamental explanation is this: the election of 2016 constituted a de facto referendum on the course of recent American history. That referendum rendered a definitive judgment: the underlying consensus informing U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has collapsed. Precepts that members of the policy elite have long treated as self-evident no longer command the backing or assent of the American people. Put simply: it’s the ideas, stupid.
Rabbit Poses a Question
“Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” As the long twilight struggle was finally winding down, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s late-twentieth-century Everyman, pondered that question. In short order, Rabbit got his answer. So, too, after only perfunctory consultation, did his fellow citizens.
The passing of the Cold War offered cause for celebration. On that point all agreed. Yet, as it turned out, it did not require reflection from the public at large. Policy elites professed to have matters well in hand. The dawning era, they believed, summoned Americans not to think anew, but to keep doing precisely what they were accustomed to doing, albeit without fretting further about Communist takeovers or the risks of nuclear Armageddon. In a world where a “single superpower” was calling the shots, utopia was right around the corner. All that was needed was for the United States to demonstrate the requisite confidence and resolve.
Three specific propositions made up the elite consensus that coalesced during the initial decade of the post-Cold-War era. According to the first, the globalization of corporate capitalism held the key to wealth creation on a hitherto unimaginable scale. According to the second, jettisoning norms derived from Judeo-Christian religious traditions held the key to the further expansion of personal freedom. According to the third, muscular global leadership exercised by the United States held the key to promoting a stable and humane international order.
Unfettered neoliberalism plus the unencumbered self plus unabashed American assertiveness: these defined the elements of the post-Cold-War consensus that formed during the first half of the 1990s — plus what enthusiasts called the information revolution. The miracle of that “revolution,” gathering momentum just as the Soviet Union was going down for the count, provided the secret sauce that infused the emerging consensus with a sense of historical inevitability.
The Cold War itself had fostered notable improvements in computational speed and capacity, new modes of communication, and techniques for storing, accessing, and manipulating information. Yet, however impressive, such developments remained subsidiary to the larger East-West competition. Only as the Cold War receded did they move from background to forefront. For true believers, information technology came to serve a quasi-theological function, promising answers to life’s ultimate questions. Although God might be dead, Americans found in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs nerdy but compelling idols.
More immediately, in the eyes of the policy elite, the information revolution meshed with and reinforced the policy consensus. For those focused on the political economy, it greased the wheels of globalized capitalism, creating vast new opportunities for trade and investment. For those looking to shed constraints on personal freedom, information promised empowerment, making identity itself something to choose, discard, or modify. For members of the national security apparatus, the information revolution seemed certain to endow the United States with seemingly unassailable military capabilities. That these various enhancements would combine to improve the human condition was taken for granted; that they would, in due course, align everybody — from Afghans to Zimbabweans — with American values and the American way of life seemed more or less inevitable.
The three presidents of the post-Cold-War era — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — put these several propositions to the test. Politics-as-theater requires us to pretend that our 42nd, 43rd, and 44th presidents differed in fundamental ways. In practice, however, their similarities greatly outweighed any of those differences. Taken together, the administrations over which they presided collaborated in pursuing a common agenda, each intent on proving that the post-Cold-War consensus could work in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
To be fair, it did work for some. “Globalization” made some people very rich indeed. In doing so, however, it greatly exacerbated inequality, while doing nothing to alleviate the condition of the American working class and underclass.
The emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism improved the status of groups long subjected to discrimination. Yet these advances have done remarkably little to reduce the alienation and despair pervading a society suffering from epidemics of chronic substance abuse, morbid obesity, teen suicide, and similar afflictions. Throw in the world’s highest incarceration rate, a seemingly endless appetite for porn, urban school systems mired in permanent crisis, and mass shootings that occur with metronomic regularity, and what you have is something other than the profile of a healthy society.
As for militarized American global leadership, it has indeed resulted in various bad actors meeting richly deserved fates. Goodbye, Saddam. Good riddance, Osama. Yet it has also embroiled the United States in a series of costly, senseless, unsuccessful, and ultimately counterproductive wars. As for the vaunted information revolution, its impact has been ambiguous at best, even if those with eyeballs glued to their personal electronic devices can’t tolerate being offline long enough to assess the actual costs of being perpetually connected.
In November 2016, Americans who consider themselves ill served by the post-Cold-War consensus signaled that they had had enough. Voters not persuaded that neoliberal economic policies, a culture taking its motto from the Outback steakhouse chain, and a national security strategy that employs the U.S. military as a global police force were working to their benefit provided a crucial margin in the election of Donald Trump.
The response of the political establishment to this extraordinary repudiation testifies to the extent of its bankruptcy. The Republican Party still clings to the notion that reducing taxes, cutting government red tape, restricting abortion, curbing immigration, prohibiting flag-burning, and increasing military spending will alleviate all that ails the country. Meanwhile, to judge by the promises contained in their recently unveiled (and instantly forgotten) program for a “Better Deal,” Democrats believe that raising the minimum wage, capping the cost of prescription drugs, and creating apprenticeship programs for the unemployed will return their party to the good graces of the American electorate.
In both parties embarrassingly small-bore thinking prevails, with Republicans and Democrats equally bereft of fresh ideas. Each party is led by aging hacks. Neither has devised an antidote to the crisis in American politics signified by the nomination and election of Donald Trump.
While our emperor tweets, Rome itself fiddles.
I am by temperament a conservative and a traditionalist, wary of revolutionary movements that more often than not end up being hijacked by nefarious plotters more interested in satisfying their own ambitions than in pursuing high ideals. Yet even I am prepared to admit that the status quo appears increasingly untenable. Incremental change will not suffice. The challenge of the moment is to embrace radicalism without succumbing to irresponsibility.
The one good thing we can say about the election of Donald Trump — to borrow an image from Thomas Jefferson — is this: it ought to serve as a fire bell in the night. If Americans have an ounce of sense, the Trump presidency will cure them once and for all of the illusion that from the White House comes redemption. By now we ought to have had enough of de facto monarchy.
By extension, Americans should come to see as intolerable the meanness, corruption, and partisan dysfunction so much in evidence at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue. We need not wax sentimental over the days when Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen presided over the Senate to conclude that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer represent something other than progress. If Congress continues to behave as contemptibly as it has in recent years (and in recent weeks), it will, by default, allow the conditions that have produced Trump and his cronies to prevail.
So it’s time to take another stab at an approach to governance worthy of a democratic republic. Where to begin? I submit that Rabbit Angstrom’s question offers a place to start: What’s the point of being an American?
Authentic progressives and principled conservatives will offer different answers to Rabbit’s query. My own answer is rooted in an abiding conviction that our problems are less quantitative than qualitative. Rather than simply more — yet more wealth, more freedom, more attempts at global leadership — the times call for different. In my view, the point of being an American is to participate in creating a society that strikes a balance between wants and needs, that exists in harmony with nature and the rest of humankind, and that is rooted in an agreed upon conception of the common good.
My own prescription for how to act upon that statement of purpose is unlikely to find favor with most readers of TomDispatch. But therein lies the basis for an interesting debate, one that is essential to prospects for stemming the accelerating decay of American civic life.
Initiating such a debate, and so bringing into focus core issues, will remain next to impossible, however, without first clearing away the accumulated debris of the post-Cold-War era. Preliminary steps in that direction, listed in no particular order, ought to include the following:
First, abolish the Electoral College. Doing so will preclude any further occurrence of the circumstances that twice in recent decades cast doubt on the outcome of national elections and thereby did far more than any foreign interference to undermine the legitimacy of American politics.
Second, rollback gerrymandering. Doing so will help restore competitive elections and make incumbency more tenuous.
Third, limit the impact of corporate money on elections at all levels, if need be by amending the Constitution.
Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter.
Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby eliminating the All-Volunteer military and restoring the tradition of the citizen-soldier. Doing so will help close the gap between the military and society and enrich the prevailing conception of citizenship. It might even encourage members of Congress to think twice before signing off on wars that the commander-in-chief wants to fight.
Sixth, enact tax policies that will promote greater income equality.
Seventh, increase public funding for public higher education, thereby ensuring that college remains an option for those who are not well-to-do.
Eighth, beyond mere “job” creation, attend to the growing challenges of providing meaningful work — employment that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative — for those without advanced STEM degrees.
Ninth, end the thumb-twiddling on climate change and start treating it as the first-order national security priority that it is.
Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.
These are not particularly original proposals and I do not offer them as a panacea. They may, however, represent preliminary steps toward devising some new paradigm to replace a post-Cold-War consensus that, in promoting transnational corporate greed, mistaking libertinism for liberty, and embracing militarized neo-imperialism as the essence of statecraft, has paved the way for the presidency of Donald Trump.
We can and must do better. But doing so will require that we come up with better and truer ideas to serve as a foundation for American politics.