The International Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction
Image Credit: White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

The International Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction


Particularly in the wake of President Barack Obama canceling his Asia trip, it is no secret that America is suffering from political dysfunction.

The proximate causes of this dysfunction are petty domestic matters. Basically, gerrymandering has created many extremely conservative congressional districts that have elected radical conservatives to Congress. These newly elected conservatives have more to fear politically from primary challenges from even more conservative candidates, than they do from Democratic candidates in a general election. Thus, they have a strong political incentive to uphold their conservative credentials if they wish to keep their jobs.

But like most phenomenon, there are likely deeper structural causes to America’s political dysfunction. Proof enough of this is that the above circumstances didn’t exist until after the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, while America’s political dysfunction has persisted for much longer now.

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And part of the deeper causes of the dysfunction may be at the international level of analysis, rather than the domestic. Basically, in the post-Cold War era, America has lacked an international peer competitor to unify around.

Social psychologists have long discussed the importance of out-groups in the formation and maintenance of in-group cohesion. We define who we are in no small part by who we are not. All things being equal, the greater the perceived threat from the out-group, the more unified the in-group will be. For a country as large and diverse as the United States, an out-group can be especially important for unity.  

Indeed, whatever the merits of the in-group/out-group theory in general, a cursory look at U.S. history seems to offer it strong support.

The thirteen colonies first unified around the idea of ejecting the British. After this was accomplished, disunity among the colonies became the order of the day. Thus, the U.S. accomplished little under the Articles of Confederation.

However, the United States was born into a situation of great external danger, surrounded as it was by all the great powers of the day (France, England and Spain). It was in part because of this external danger that the political elites of the day proposed a Republic with a stronger federal government to replace the highly decentralized Confederacy. Despite the intense fear of a strong executive that was the legacy of colonization, the founding fathers managed to win public support for their Republic. Key to winning this support was the Federalist Papers published anonymously by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

Notably, the first four essays (listed as numbers 2-6 because of a short introduction) focused on the external dangers the nation faced, which the authors argued couldn’t be met without a stronger federal government. Even the next few essays, which discussed the dangers of division among the states, were about how foreign powers would seize upon domestic divisions to weaken the country.

Once formed, the Republic made rapid progress in lessening the external dangers that it faced. By the beginning of the third decade of the 19th century, both France and Spain had receded as threats. The British still controlled Canada (despite America’s repeated invasions during the War of 1812), and small skirmishes between British Canada and the U.S. continued for some time. Even as they did, however, England had basically come to accept America’s existence after the War of 1812. Moreover, the U.S. and England were finding common cause in trying to prevent the Holy Alliance from encroaching on Latin American colonies Spain could no longer defend.   

Notably, 1820 was also the year that the deep divisions between north and south — which would ultimately lead to the Civil War — first forced themselves to the forefront of national affairs. Although ostensibly solved with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, these domestic disagreements would continue to fester and dominant national affairs through the following decades in which the U.S. did not face a real external threat. Eventually, the issue of an external threat became moot as north and south became engaged in a bitter conflict.

The same general pattern has held true in the post-WWII era. In the first part of the post-WWII era, the Cold War, the U.S. faced a clear and present danger from the Soviet Union. This did not in itself preclude vicious domestic political battles. In fact, in some cases it created them, such as during the McCarthy and Vietnam eras.

Generally speaking, however—and especially in hindsight—the U.S. weathered with relative ease political disagreements of far more consequence than anything in the post-Cold War era. The battle over Obamacare, however important it may seem to some, is not nearly as fundamental as those over civil rights or whether to become permanently engaged in Europe. The U.S. also used the Cold War to advance stunningly large projects like Eisenhower’s federal highway program.

There were government shutdowns during the Cold War too, of course. Yet many of these were partial and the longest in the 1970s had to do with disagreements within the Democratic Party. Once there was a realignment within and between the Parties to reflect a changed political and ideological landscape, the government shutdowns in the 1980s and 1990 lasted between one day and four days, despite there being divided governments.  

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in an era of American primacy that was widely celebrated within the United States. Almost immediately, however, domestic political battles became more destabilizing. They were also over issues of far less importance and emotion than many of the battles during the Cold War. In the last two decades, the U.S. government has similarly failed to accomplish any great national projects like the highway system or LBJ’s Great Society.   

The first government shutdown of the post-Cold War era came in October 1995. It lasted five days; longer than any since the 1970s. Two months later, the government shutdown again; this time the shutdown lasted for 21 days, longer than any of the previous shutdowns. If the current one goes through the debt default date, it will be the third largest since the new budget rules took effect in 1976.

If there is any good news to this story, it is that a rising China (combined with self-inflicted U.S. wounds) may soon give the United States incentive to reunify.

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