Other states will not defeat us unless we defeat ourselves first. To be sure, the United States faces grave geopolitical challenges ranging from the rise of Chinese power and adventurism, the lingering scourge of Putinism, the aftermath of a catastrophic defeat in Afghanistan, stubborn nuclear proliferation problems in North Korea and Iran, the instability caused by transnational networks of terrorists inspired by militant Islamism, climate change, global pandemics, a global refugee and migration crisis, and more. Yet every one of those problems becomes more difficult to confront if the country is ripped apart by political divisiveness so bitter that politicians act (and citizens vote for politicians who act) as if they thought the gravest threat to the country came not from external adversaries, but from other citizens who voted for the other party. Given current realities in America, the health of the body politic is properly considered a national security issue. Domestic politics is national security and vice-versa.
Sadly, evidence is accumulating that we have reached this point. An October 2020 Pew Poll showed that 9 out of 10 Joe Biden supporters said that Donald Trump’s election “would lead to lasting harm to the U.S.” and roughly the same percentage of Trump supporters said the same thing about a Biden election.[i]There is little evidence to suggest that the situation has improved in the past year. Political scientists call this “affective partisan polarization,” where the strongest ties that bind partisans together are not the policies they stand for, but their common hatred for the other party.
Affective partisan polarization is not the taproot of all our domestic problems. It is closer to being a vivid symptom of deeper problems, including such disruptive social forces as the way technology has changed social interaction and political engagement. The question left hanging is what to do about the problem. My answer: Let us consider what the discipline of strategy, particularly as it is practiced in this group, might have to offer.
Every conversation among foreign policy specialists about a thorny policy problem can be parsed into three buckets. Bucket one involves admiring the problem—identifying the problem in all its complexity and flagging second- and third-order aspects that may not be obvious to the non-expert. Bucket two involves identifying grand solutions—responses that, in theory, could have a dramatic effect, but that also require so much political will as to border on the grandiose. Bucket three involves identifying baby step responses—measures that might nudge things in a positive direction but would not really resolve the problem unless they could be scaled, which is hard to the point of unlikely. By definition, thorny problems are ones that do not lend themselves to sweet-spot responses that are efficacious enough to matter and small enough to be readily doable.
Restoring the foundations of American democracy, to include restoring our confidence in our own project of democracy, is precisely such a thorny policy problem. It is much easier to flag aspects of the problem than to identify responses that would likely have a big effect. The policy measures that would have the biggest impact strike to the heart of the Constitution, including compromises between states with large and small populations, compromises between federal and state rule, and restrictions on majoritarianism. Whether or not such major movements would be wise to do—and a prudent strategist would urge further analysis of second and third order effects before launching such a political battle—it seems doubtful in the extreme that a body politic sick enough to need such radical surgery would be healthy enough to self-administer it.
The strategic approach likewise directs us to consider how these problems connect to larger geopolitical dynamics. This year, the ASG workshop (an annual nonpartisan convening of experts to address the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing the United States) focused primarily on an inside-out framework of analysis—how domestic problems can constrain America’s geopolitical position. This can happen through one of two causal pathways. First, domestic dysfunction can hobble the U.S. government directly, perhaps by leaving political leaders so focused on internal problems that they lack bandwidth to address global issues or perhaps by saddling them with governmental paralysis that freezes the engine of foreign policy. There is some evidence of attention deficit disorder and abundant evidence of governmental paralysis, in the number of empty confirmable posts, the breakdown of meaningful congressional oversight, and the complete collapse of the legislative process.
Second, the inside-out framework points to another causal pathway, where political dysfunction at home feeds political dysfunction in other countries, including allies, partners, and even adversaries. It is no coincidence that all the ills that experts have spotted in the American body politic—creeping authoritarianism, affective partisan polarization, populism, identitarianism, and the embrace, if not the centrality, of a campaign platform of a “Big Lie”—can all be seen in other countries as well. Instead of a “coalition of the willing,” we are left with a “coalition of the illing,” with each infecting the other and each holding the other back from getting well.
However, there is also a separate outside-in framework that is worth more focus. First, and most obviously, is the way that outside adversaries can interfere directly in our domestic politics to exacerbate the problems. This is a well-worn fear in American history, but it received a new urgency with the reports of how Russians and possibly other actors intervened on behalf of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Those malign activities continue to this day. It would be a mistake to blame our problems entirely on outsiders. The impact of external meddling is surely dwarfed by the impact of domestically-generated disinformation campaigns, such as former President Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. Yet, it would also be a mistake to dismiss such external meddling as trivial; on the contrary, confronting it is an urgent national security priority that should enjoy bipartisan support.
Second, it has long been the case that external developments can have a direct domestic impact. The Pearl Harbor attack created the environment in which it was possible for President Franklin Roosevelt to lock up Japanese Americans in internment camps. The Vietnam War, and the draft that supplied the American men to fight in Vietnam, were major factors in the social disruptions of the 1960s. More narrowly, as the stabilization effort in Iraq gave way to a stubborn insurgency, the resulting disenchantment with the Bush Administration led to a decisive electoral rebuke of Republicans in 2006 and then again in 2008. In a similar way, the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan—the most controversial and consequential foreign policy decision President Biden made in his first year in office—likely played a role in the reversal of electoral fortunes visited upon Democrats in the off-year elections of 2021, which may be a harbinger of further electoral rebukes in the midterms and beyond.
In short, the strategic approach shows the connections between what is happening here and what is happening there, and hence the value of having specialists on both aspects in the same room engaging each other’s arguments. The strategic approach also shows the value of being clear about ends before getting bogged down in debates about ways and means. Here, it is clear that there is much work remaining to be done. Consider the problem of authoritarian populists abroad. Is the goal to defeat them, to coopt them, to get them to behave more nicely, or to undermine them by weaning off their supporters? The answer probably varies by the country, but the answer determines the ways and means. If the goal is to coopt or wean off their supporters, then one would approach the assignment quite differently from a campaign to outright defeat them.
When the lens shifts from abroad to home, the question of ends becomes even more urgent. Too much of the discussion seems predicated on the idea that the goal must be the elimination of the other party, or at least the conversion of the other party into something that more resembles one’s own. This is a hopeless task, given the realities of a country split so evenly across various ideological clusters and given the institutional strengths of both parties. Given the Democratic Party’s control over the major levers of cultural power and its entrenched power in key urban centers, it is not going to wither away anytime soon. Given the Republican Party’s well-distributed strength across local and state borders, and given the built-in electoral advantage for rural and small-population states enshrined in the Constitution, it is not going to wither away anytime soon, either. A more reasonable goal would entail creating disruptive cross-party coalitions. Over the long term, such an effort might lead to a third party which might replace one or other of the existing parties. But because of Duverger’s Law, so long as we have single-ballot plurality-rule elections within single-member districts, three (or more) party contests in the United States will inexorably reduce back down to a two-party system in a few cycles. To expect more ambitious ends one must be able to deliver on very ambitious ways and means. And the more ambitious the ways and means, the less plausible it is to expect them to be accomplished—and the more plausible it is to expect that they may not turn out as desired if they somehow were achieved.
This leads naturally to another great insight from strategy: Beware of unintended consequences. For partisan Democrats, flush with temporary control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, it might seem obvious that the solution is to ram through greater majoritarianism into the American political system by removing minoritarian protections. The most drastic examples, for instance jettisoning the Electoral College, would require a highly improbable constitutional amendment. But there are other versions, for instance getting rid of the Senate filibuster, that are doable enough to be seriously tempting to the party temporarily in power. However, these are precisely the kinds of steps that cry out for serious strategic analysis: How will the other side respond and what will be the second- and third-order effects? Democrats probably rue the day they jettisoned the filibuster for temporary advantage in judicial confirmations. Given how closely divided the is country and how often control of Congress has flipped in the past several decades, it is foolish to exaggerate one’s electoral mandate and much wiser to pursue divide-the-opposition compromises that produce less easily reversed accomplishments.
In a similar way, Democrats need to think carefully about priorities. Repeatedly in the pages of this journal, analysts have identified the worst excesses associated with President Trump and Trumpism in general as the gravest threat to the republic. If current Democratic leaders believe that, why are they governing in a way that seems to further enable Trumpism and seems to drive other Republican politicians, who might otherwise be looking for an escape, back into the arms of the former President? An instructive thought experiment would involve drawing up a list of action items designed to marginalize the Trumpiest wing of the Republican Party and contrast that list with what President Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress have actually done or attempted to do in the first year. Perhaps it is not their intention, but a significant fraction of what the party in power has actually spent its time and political resources on has had the perverse effect of making it easier for President Trump to hold on to influence, rather than driving a wedge between the Republican political leadership and the Trumpy base. To pick just one example among countless: If Democrats maintain that any concerns about ballot integrity is tantamount to peddling Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, they will not reduce the power of the “Big Lie.” On the contrary, they will bind together two otherwise separable factions, one that accepts that Biden won, but is concerned about the ad-hoc nature of pandemic-induced changes to long-standing voting rules, and the other that equates ballot integrity with their favored candidate winning.
That said, there exist many more modest, but also more promising policy responses that might shore up the defenses of the republic. These measures might be thought of as strengthening the bumpers and guardrails that have kept previous partisan fights over whose hands would be on the steering wheel from causing the republic to veer off the cliff. When President Trump’s effort to deny and defy the results of the 2020 election tested those guardrails more dramatically than any other time in the contemporary era, most observers were surprised to see just how dependent we were on these protections and grateful to see that they held, barely.
The front-line heroes turned out to be hitherto unheralded functionaries who administer elections at the state and local level. Most were partisans who nevertheless placed their oath to fulfill their duties ahead of their partisan interests. They followed the facts and the law, even if it meant certifying the election for a man they disliked over a man they enthusiastically supported. For this act of principled integrity, they have been attacked and threatened and, in many cases, hounded out of office. Reinforcing the norms which the 2020 team upheld honorably may be the most important hedge against a more malignant result in 2022 and 2024.
Arguably the ultimate guardrail is the loyalty of the armed forces and the other security services to the Constitution. While that loyalty was put to the test in 2020, the institution as a whole, and key military leaders in particular, passed the test admirably. However, efforts to politicize the military by demanding personalist or partisan loyalty to achieve temporary advantage continues to place undue stress upon this bedrock of democracy. Such short-sightedness is not the exclusive affliction of just one party, but President Trump embraced it more brazenly than any other leader in modern times. To protect military professionalism, national security specialists should speak often and passionately about the norm of a non-partisan military and should name and shame military figures, politicians, and media celebrities who violate that norm.
While some of these measures can be pursued regardless of the level of goodwill among political and policy elites, they all will yield a better effectif accompanied by a better affect. Here the Aspen Strategy Group can make a distinctive contribution. The ASG was birthed as an effort to break partisan deadlocks on arcane national security problems like arms control and nuclear strategy. However, the approach pioneered in ASG could also be well-suited to dealing with domestic problems. This approach, which might be dubbed the “spirit of Aspen,” involves bringing together specialists who are partisan enough to be relevant, yet non-partisan enough to have honest conversations—honest speaking and honest listening—with each other. The result is clarifying where there are opportunities for cooperation across the aisle (bipartisanship) and more sharply delineating the terms and grounds of disagreement (principled partisanship).
This Aspen spirit is the opposite of affective polarization, which denies the possibility that a partisan opponent might be animated by patriotism and principles. Instead, the Aspen spirit recognizes that love of country is a shared bipartisan commitment that entails partisan responsibilities—specifically, policing the excesses of one’s own side as vigorously as one protests the excesses of the other’s side.
A close look at the health of the body politic leads one to a profound sense of urgency bordering on desperation. It was striking how many times participants in the workshop found it apposite to quote Ben Franklin’s quip that we have a “republic, if we can keep it.” To most national security professionals, the possibility of losing the republic from within feels more real than it ever has in our professional lives. Most of us can remember moments in the Cold War when external threats raised that specter, but the current domestic dysfunction seems to eclipse even the dark days of civil unrest in the 1960s and governmental turmoil during Watergate.
There is a palpable sense that we cannot continue as we have in the past several years and be confident that we will reach our semiquincentennial, let alone our tricentennial, as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. To do that, we each, individually and corporately, may need to pledge renewed allegiance to the republic. And to do that may require discovering or rediscovering a spirit of civil comity that has been increasingly hard to find in our politics.
[i]Michael Dimock and Richard Wike, “America Is Exceptional in the Nature of Its Political Divide,” Pew Research Center,November 13, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-the-nature-of-its-political-divide/.