by Gordon M. Hahn
It is increasingly clear that the United States is in the midst of a great political crisis. The American people – both society and elites – have rejected Americanism. America’s abandonment of its founding principles is ominously on display in the presidential election campaign’s discourse: Lincoln-Douglas it is not. When a population rejects its country’s founding ideals, the survival of a country’s political, social and/or economic order come under threat. More broadly, the American crisis – by tainting the democratic image of America as the ‘shining city on the hill’ or as a model for others to follow without coercion or even excessive proselytizing – weakens the potential for spontaneous global democratization.
Americanism, similar to the much touted idea of ‘American exceptionalism’, encompasses the notion, among others, that the national identity was founded and is rooted and held together not on the basis of a common or predominant nationality, ethnic group or religion nor on devotion to a king, a particular political party or class. Rather, the American national identity has historically been defined by a set of ideas, attitudes, and beliefs surrounding the proper relationship between ‘rulers and the ruled’, limited government, republican governance, political and social equality, and the freedom and justice for the individual. Buying into these ideals made one American.
Americanism’s original defining ideals were institutionalized in the Constitution of the United States, which functions as the linchpin for the nations’ core values: representative government; one person, one vote; freedom of religion, speech, and association; trial by a jury of one’s peers; federalism with the bulk of power residing with the states and lower-standing units of government; the separation and balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; and judicial independence and originalist rather activist constitutional interpretation by the courts. In sum, America’s essence and exceptionalism as a nation and state lies in its constitution and the people’s allegiance to, and vigilance over it. Over recent decades, especially under the Barack Obama administration, America’s elite and people have gradually lost their knowledge, fealty, and desire to uphold this original America idea.
American society has lost both its private and public or ‘civic virtue’. The founders, for example John Adams, insisted in 1798: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His brother, Sam, noted: “While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader…. If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslaved.”
By virtue the American revolutionary generation meant several things. A personal virtue involved disinterestedness, knowledge, politeness, generosity, punctuality and so on. A public virtue involved engagement with society and politics through civic interaction, discussion, and consideration. Voting was but one manifestation of engagement and arguably the least important. Through study, civic discussion and consideration with equally virtuous fellow citizens the right conduct, action, and vote would emerge.
The two virtues were interdependent. American historian of the revolution, Gordon S. Wood: “(F)or man in the eighteenth century, virtue now flowed from the citizen’s participation in society, not in government, which the most enlightened increasingly saw as the source of the evils in the world. ‘Society,’ Thomas Paine said, is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness. The former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions.’ It was society, not politics, that bred the new domesticated virtue of politeness. Mingling in drawing rooms, clubs, coffeehouses and even counting houses—partaking of the innumerable interchanges of the daily comings and goings of modern life, including those of the marketplace—created affection, fellow feeling, credit, and trust that bound people together in the natural harmony of the social world that was as marvelous to the eighteenth century as the discovery of the force of gravity in the physical world” (Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. x). Such a people would produce a similarly virtuous – that is disinterested – elite and political leadership that would honor and maintain the principles of constitutional republican government, the sovereignty of the people, and a more polite and erudite political discourse.
Americans, both rulers and rules, are now a far less virtuous, even largely non-virtuous people. Rather than reading history, poetry or philosophy and mingling in coffeehouses to discuss the human condition, commerce and politics, they sit alone at Starbuck’s or home reading ten-word tweets, surfing social networks for the ‘news’, or watching sports and pornography unaware of who their leaders are, no less what they are up to. Americans no longer know their history or constitution, and few have a desire to.
This ‘virtuousnessless’ and ignorance is compounded by the social consequences of the information age. Anonymity and the distance of impersonal interaction through the Internet has revolutionized our discourse, and the result is a decline of virtuous politeness – putting things mildly. There is a lack of basic civility and mounting levels of incivility, antagonism, hatred and increasingly even violence. This is occurring on an unprecedented scale between Democrats and Republicans, whites and non-whites, men and women, gay and straight, the religious and secularists.
Nothing demonstrates the degeneration of the country more than the degeneracy on display during the period of our presidential campaign: race riots, assassinations of police, attacks on citizens and the Republican party headquarters in North Carolina, and fights at Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump provoked by paid thugs organized by operatives close to the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, including the husband of a Democratic party congresswoman. Meanwhile, the media, intended by the founding fathers as a key element of freedom of speech and information for educative political discourse, focuses almost exclusively on scandal and that of just one of the candidates. Thus, Trump’s sexual exploits have become the main subject matter of America’s political campaign discourse. The nature of Americans’ purulent preoccupations is further reflected in what may be the turning point in the presidential campaign – the discovery of a new batch of Democratic Party candidate for president Hillary Clinton’s emails – comes from an FBI search for child pornography on the computer of a former US congressman and husband of Clinton’s top aide, who is charged with soliciting sex from a minor over the Internet.
Both sides of the aisle are monumentally corrupt not just morally but politically as well. Candidate Clinton has taken campaign and other contributions from foreign states that support terrorism and brutally repress women while posing as a foreign policy hawk and champion of women’s rights. On the other side of the aisle, Trump has engaged in the worst forms of provocative rhetoric, engaged in corrupt business practices, and run a filthy campaign. Both candidates eschew constitutionality. Both want to create a state medical insurance system, something that lacks any basis in the constitution. One wants to provide free higher education; the other, running as an alleged conservative, wants to force companies to return to the U.S. and carry out a 1 trillion dollar stimulus plan that would outstrip his leftist would-be predecessor.
Any society’s elite can be little better than the society from which it comes. But the today’s American elite is further corrupted, indeed entranced by the dual attractions of massive power and wealth offered by a global empire run from Washington. Thus, the government openly lies to the people about both domestic and foreign affairs, and officials openly boast about doing so. This is leading to not just the collapse of the two-party hegemonic political system (which may be a good thing) but an overall rejection, destabilization and radicalization of our politics.
In such a country, institutions themselves are bound to degenerate. Thus, America’s constitutional exceptionalism is in decay. The Justice Department, the courts, law enforcement and media have become politicized, serving the interests of neither the state nor the people. Intelligence agencies tap the communications of allied leaders and steal and store the “personal effects” in the form of emails and telephone records of American citizens. The American president now has the power to engage in drone attacks against alleged jihadi terrorists abroad, which includes the authority to kill American citizens so suspected.
The leading liberal, pro-Democratic Party legal scholar Jonathan Turley characterizes the new order as an “imperial presidency” and views the record of presidential aggrandizement and prerogative in recent decades, especially under Barack Obama, as stunning:
“The shift of power to the presidency certainly did not start with President Barack Obama. To the contrary, this trend has been gaining ground for decades. But it has accelerated under Obama, who has succeeded to a degree that would have made Richard Nixon blush. Indeed, Obama may be the president Nixon always wanted to be.” …
“What is fascinating is that Nixon was largely unsuccessful in accomplishing this dream of a presidency with robust and largely unlimited powers. Indeed, many of the unchecked powers claimed by Nixon became the basis for articles in his impeachment and led to his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.
“Four decades ago, Nixon was halted in his determined effort to create an imperial presidency with unilateral powers and privileges. But in 2013, Obama wields those very same powers openly and without serious opposition” (Jonathan Turley, “A Question of Power: The Imperial Presidency, 21 May 2014, https://jonathanturley.org/2014/05/21/a-question-of-power-the-imperial-presidency/).
A centralization of power within the federal government, now dominated by “unlimited power” and the administrative-bureaucratic dictates of the president, is only exceeded by the degree to which the federal government as a whole has emasculated local and state government in America today. The degree of concentration of power in Washington may warrant nomenclature referencing another hyper-centralized former federative system: Moscow on the Potomac.
History shows that a people that wholly rejects its history, culture and, most of all, its founding ideals, cannot stand. When the Soviet and other peoples lost faith in the false ideals of communism, their countries’ political regimes collapsed.
Worse yet, the decline of democracy in America deprives the world of the passive model for democracy-promotion that the founding fathers saw in the new system to which their revolution gave birth and the phrase ‘shining city on a hill’ invoked. The American experiment’s waning may be the last blow to the overly exceptionalist model that drives today’s excessively ambitious messianic democracy-promotion missions and color revolutions abroad. This comes at a time when a truly disinterested shining city on the hill is perhaps most needed.
In Beijing, Moscow and across the world eyes will strain to see that city and wonder how it withered at the very height of its triumph. Centuries from now historians may answer: elite hubris, imperial overstretch, delusions of grandeur but most of all: abandonment of the American ideal. They should note that after the Cold war the United States had the opportunity to win the world for democracy by setting an example of republicanism and magnanimity. Instead, America lost itself.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the Making of the Ukrainian Crisis and ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.