War As Culture War

I think Daniel Larison’s reflections on Dan Drezner’s despair of the condition of foreign policy debate within the GOP need to be understood in the light of Thomas Edsall’s reporting that the Obama campaign is basically resigned to the fact that they will be running against a party following some version of the Sailer Strategy, and is accordingly planning a campaign based on the demographic groups left out of a Sailer Strategy coalition.

That is to say: foreign policy, at least on the GOP side, is now basically a branch of the culture war: a way of convincing the white working class to support a party that is not pursuing their economic interests by flattering them with the implication that, in the memorable words of Edward Wilson, they’ve got he United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

Before World War II, foreign policy divisions frequently obtained intra-party as much or more than between the parties, and real divisions in economic interests: between slave states and free; between predominantly industrial and predominantly agricultural states; between groups heavily exposed to international trade and finance and groups less exposed. That’s not to say that ethnic politics – the aversion of Irish immigrants and their descendents for alliance with Britain; the aversion of German immigrants and their descendents for war with Germany – or ideological currents had no bearing on foreign policy debate by any means. But there was foreign policy debate – and it was to a considerable extent based on different conceptions of interest.

Larison says that foreign policy was particularly important to Cold War elections, and that therefore this period was abnormal, but that view should be qualified because with the advent of the Cold War, big-picture foreign policy debate largely ceased. There was an overwhelming bi-partisan ideological consensus in favor of the basic architecture of containment. No major party candidate ever fundamentally repudiated it, and the two major party candidates who deviated most meaningfully from that consensus – Goldwater and McGovern – suffered the most lopsided defeats of the period. In virtually every election, voters either punished manifest incompetence (1968, 1980) or opted for responsible stewardship of the consensus (1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1988). The two exceptions were both close elections, where the question of responsible stewardship was at least somewhat muddled, and only in one of those (1960) was the plainly more bellicose candidate preferred.

I’m not suggesting that during the Cold War foreign policy actually drove elections. I don’t think it did anything of the kind. I’m also not suggesting there was no debate at all – particularly intra-party debate – about which direction to nudge that consensus. Certainly, 1968 and 1972 on the Democratic side, 1976 and 1980 on the Republican side, represented, among other things, intra-party debate about just such a push. But that’s what we’re talking about: a nudge, moving the consensus a bit this way or that, not a repudiation of that consensus. And in the general election, Cold War politics did not feature debate but rather imposed a one-dimensional “fitness test” on candidates with respect to foreign policy. And all this represents a significant change from the pre-war terms of foreign policy debate – a narrowing thereof.

Foreign policy was largely irrelevant to the elections of 1992, 1996 and 2000. No longer was a “fitness test” for stewardship imposed, but neither was there any meaningful debate over the direction of foreign policy, either between or within the parties.

It’s in the last two elections that the trend of foreign policy being treated as part of the culture war – at least by the GOP – has become dominant. Mitt Romney is the exemplar in this regard; his entire foreign policy argument consists of saying that he knows America is exceptional and President Obama does not, and that Obama has been making too many concessions to America’s enemies (without any clear explanation of what those concessions might be). Obama has been a somewhat more belligerent steward of America’s existing posture than I anticipated (I fully expected the escalation in Afghanistan and the tough line on Pakistan, since he ran on both, but the Libyan war came as a modest surprise), but otherwise he’s been pretty much exactly what I expected him to be: a competent and fairly successful steward of America’s position as he inherited it. America has suffered no meaningful foreign policy setbacks during his tenure, and has had some notable successes. The contrast to the economic situation could not be more stark. Why on earth would anyone on the other side spend their time demagoguing on foreign policy? Why would anyone on the other side respond to such demagoguery? That’s not what the Democrats did in 1992, either in the primaries or in the general election.

The reason has everything to do with the culture war. Identity politics on the GOP side of the aisle involves stoking an emotional identification between their core demographic groups, the Republican Party, and the national identity. The white working class is the backbone of the American military. Stoking an identification between the white working class and the military, and between the military and national purpose, provides the emotional fuel for political mobilization. It imbues identity with purpose and connects that purpose to politics.

I expect this dynamic to continue. If Thomas Edsall is correct, both parties have now committed to their respective demographic “sorts” of the electorate. The GOP will be the party of the white working class and of the wealthy. The Democrats will be the party of the professional classes and non-whites of all classes. In a competitive political environment, the median voter theorem should hold true most of the time – which means that neither party can plausibly win a durable majority regardless of its demographic coalition. So the important thing about the sort is what kind of leverage coalition members have within each party to press their group’s interests. A highly successful sort based on identity, which makes it emotionally difficult for demographic groups to shift allegiances, drastically reduces those groups’ leverage. To the very extent that the GOP is able to cement white working class identification of themselves with the “real” America, and both with the GOP, to that same extent the white working class will have surrendered its interests.