The Surest Cure for America’s Political Insanity

As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there’s no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing’s risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz’s megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there's no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing's risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz's megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact of Fox News and the perverse effects of gerrymandering are also popular culprits. Yet another strand of thought pins the blame on Rep. John Boehner's spineless desire to cling to his House speaker post even if doing so drives the country off a cliff. And then there are those who see this episode as an inevitable consequence of the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution. In this view, crazy-making moments like this one are hard-wired into the American system of government. They don't happen often -- thank goodness -- but they are bound to occur from time to time.

Any or all of these causes may well be at work, but these explanations all miss a broader structural reason for the current impasse, one whose roots are found not in the nature of American politics but in the nature of the contemporary international system. In brief: All this mishigas is happening in part because the United States is in fact very secure, which leads many people to think it doesn't need a strong central state. They are therefore willing to countenance steps that they would not consider if the country were really facing a serious external danger.

For a prophetic analysis of this basic issue, check out Michael Desch's 1996 article "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" in International Organization. Drawing on Otto Hintze and others, Desch argued that the end of the Cold War was going to undermine and weaken many existing state structures. The logic is straightforward: During periods when international conflict is rife, populations look to the state to protect them, and they are willing to tolerate (even encourage) increases in state capacity. Moreover, they are less willing to tolerate anyone who seems to be threatening national unity. In extreme forms, this tendency leads to abuses -- such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other crimes -- but in milder forms it means punishing politicians who act in an irresponsible or divisive fashion.

As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there’s no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing’s risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz’s megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact of Fox News and the perverse effects of gerrymandering are also popular culprits. Yet another strand of thought pins the blame on Rep. John Boehner’s spineless desire to cling to his House speaker post even if doing so drives the country off a cliff. And then there are those who see this episode as an inevitable consequence of the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution. In this view, crazy-making moments like this one are hard-wired into the American system of government. They don’t happen often — thank goodness — but they are bound to occur from time to time.

Any or all of these causes may well be at work, but these explanations all miss a broader structural reason for the current impasse, one whose roots are found not in the nature of American politics but in the nature of the contemporary international system. In brief: All this mishigas is happening in part because the United States is in fact very secure, which leads many people to think it doesn’t need a strong central state. They are therefore willing to countenance steps that they would not consider if the country were really facing a serious external danger.

For a prophetic analysis of this basic issue, check out Michael Desch’s 1996 article "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" in International Organization. Drawing on Otto Hintze and others, Desch argued that the end of the Cold War was going to undermine and weaken many existing state structures. The logic is straightforward: During periods when international conflict is rife, populations look to the state to protect them, and they are willing to tolerate (even encourage) increases in state capacity. Moreover, they are less willing to tolerate anyone who seems to be threatening national unity. In extreme forms, this tendency leads to abuses — such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other crimes — but in milder forms it means punishing politicians who act in an irresponsible or divisive fashion.

But when nations are feeling secure from external dangers, both citizens and politicians are freer to indulge ideological whims or to pursue self-serving agendas of their own, because the body politic won’t see these actions as undermining national unity or threatening national security. And that’s at least partly why a yahoo like Cruz can get away with what he’s doing.

But wait: Doesn’t the United States face a serious threat from international terrorism? Isn’t that why Congress passed the Patriot Act, why it approved the vast expansion of the National Security Agency and other intelligence capabilities, and why the public supports the use of American drones and special forces all over the world? Don’t these dangers create a profound need for national unity and resolve and thus contradict this basic line of argument?

Nope. Despite all the hype about terrorism, the United States is still a remarkably secure country and ordinary Americans get this, which is why presidents and foreign-policy wonks have to work overtime trying to scare us enough to get us to keep policing the world. Sure, foreign-policy experts like me love to talk about the implications of events in far-flung regions, but that’s mostly to give ourselves something to do and to remind everyone that We’re Really Important. But most people in the United States don’t care very much about these things, except on those rare occasions when someone bombs Pearl Harbor or flies a plane into the World Trade Center. Then you get a vigorous response, but it wears off as soon as the problem is gone.

Ironically, the surest cure for the self-indulgent insanity of the current Republican Party would be a serious external threat. Ideally, we’d need an external threat that was just large enough to require us to pull together more and keep fringe groups out on the margins where they belong, but one that was not so large as to pose a genuine danger to our security and way of life here at home. Alas, dangers don’t always limit themselves to that convenient "not too hot, not too cold" range.

On the whole, I’d rather live in a world where the United States faced relatively few external challenges, so that it could concentrate more of its energy and wealth on improving the lives of U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, a favorable international environment tends to bring out the crazy here at home and might actually do more damage to the country than Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or Nikita Khrushchev ever managed.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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