There is an old colloquialism amid the discourse in democratic political philosophy which holds that, most of the time anyway, a nation gets the government it deserves. Let’s spend a moment unpacking what this colloquialism means, and then another moment or two applying it to a pertinent case: the apparent reaction of the American people to the Islamic State, and how that reaction sheds light on who may become President in January 2017.
There is a certain moral poetry in the colloquialism, for it promises justice. If a nation is on the whole jealous in the protection of its liberty, it will get a limited government that respects its own democratically specified limits. This is the kind of republican government the Founders had in mind, and it seems to me that John Adams said it best: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In other words, social regulation must be vested organically in society itself if government is to be properly and effectively light-handed. Adams may have had Edmund Burke’s famous admonition in mind as he wrote:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon the will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
To punctuate the thought, then: If a nation is on the whole made up of individuals and families who are prudent, humble, modest, provident, and of a mind to be self-sufficient, it will get a government rich in such virtues as well. And if not, then not.
Things are not really so simple, of course. A benign social order can decay for reasons beyond the power of individuals or families to resist. And if that inner order and discipline should decay a great deal, the substituted soft despotism of the state, the coming of which Tocqueville foresaw, can be a evil less onerous than the injustices and indignities that the powerful may visit upon the weak. As far as citizen virtue and responsibility in a democracy are concerned, public issues can become so voluminous and complex, as the state fills the vacuum where a benign, more or less self-regulating social order once was, that such things as rational apathy and the logic of collective action can come to dominate the workings of government. When that happens, distortions of political economy are inevitable, trust in institutions eventually erodes, and an ambient anxiety can fill the very collective soul of a people.
That, it seems to me, pretty much sums up the state of affairs in the United States today. Notwithstanding a good deal of misinterpretation and demagogy surrounding the growth of “inequality,” there is no question that we live in an age of plutocracy in which the American political economy has been structured to redistribute income and wealth upward. The impossible-to-understand convolution we call a tax code testifies to the fact, but the instruments of that upward redistribution are both subtler and more structurally insidious. A vague awareness of this reality goes far to explain why an avowed socialist still has a chance to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, and possibly even the election. The ambient anxiety that attaches to an unnamed sense that the system is “fixed” in such a way that honest, hard-working people cannot get an even break also goes far to explain why a know-nothing fear-and-loathing huckster has a chance to win the Republican Party’s nomination for President, and possibly even the election.
Most pundits and supposedly sage observers label Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump “populists” as though the term were itself a dirty word. But populists will rise among democratically minded publics when responsible elites sell their birthrights for a pot of red lentils. Something like that happened in America’s Jacksonian upheaval some 150 years ago, it certainly happened in the first, post-Civil War gilded age, and it is happening again. Hold that thought, please.
Americans, it seems, are afraid of the Islamic State. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino terrorist episode, following closely as it did on the Paris attacks of November 13, there now seems to be a popular—populist?—majority willing to send large numbers of American soldiers into the Levant to battle Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and his legions. If people get the government they deserve, in democracies people also sometimes get the wars they deserve.
My contention, however, is that the ambient anxiety that so many Americans feel about life at home today is the source of their fear of the Islamic State, not the other way around. In other words, I am positing a relationship between what usually passes as “domestic” affairs and what goes typically by the term “foreign” affairs. Of course, I am not alone in this. For example, H.W. Brands, in his barely pre-9/11 book The Strange Death of American Liberalism, argued that national security crises tend to raise Americans’ social trust in government. That allowed the civil rights movement to form in the cauldron of the Cold War. To simplify somewhat, no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Voting Rights Act. At first highly counterintuitive, the argument makes more sense the more one thinks about it. I am arguing a kind of converse thesis: that institutional decay and eroded trust at home are spilling over into perceptions of national security threats, creating an optic of existential danger where there is none.
Do not misunderstand me: ISIS is dangerous, more so that one could reasonably have posited 18 months ago. But it is not an existential threat, just as al-Qaeda after 9/11 was obviously dangerous but also not an existential threat. No group of that kind, whether strictly terrorist like al-Qaeda or more of a hybrid like ISIS, is an existential threat short of its highly unlikely attainment of deliverable weapons of mass destruction. But a rattled American body politic scares easily nowadays for reasons about which it is largely not self-aware.
Consider that fear of ISIS really got traction in the United States in the summer of 2014 thanks to the theatrically ghoulish beheading of two unfortunate American journalists who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The American mass media, always looking to exploit anxiety to gain market share, hyped the beheadings into an extravaganza of outrage. Not a few politicians on the make helped a lot, as well. But what actually happened? We would have been wise at the time—and we would be wise now—to try to understand events before working ourselves into an emotional froth over them.
After ISIS erupted into our consciousness by seizing Mosul in June 2014, the U.S. government began bombing its formations in Iraq. ISIS was active in Iraq at the time, and only a bit in parts of Syria adjacent to the Iraqi border; ISIS leaders had not attacked American targets as such, and its spokesmen had made no threats against the United States. When James Foley and Steven Sotloff were arrested within ISIS-controlled territories, ISIS spokesmen demanded that the U.S. government cease bombing their members. ISIS leaders may well have wrongly believed that Foley and Sotloff were spies; conspiracy theories are not rare in that part of the world, and—even short of full-fledged conspiracy theories—minds such as those of salafi extremists do not assimilate well the concept of coincidences.
So try to put yourself, hard as it may be, into the shoes of ISIS’s leaders. These are tribal people, and tribal people survive through concepts of shared responsibility and shared guilt. They unwittingly project their tribal frames of social reference onto societies that are not tribally organized (any more), just as we project our frames of reference onto them. Foley and Sotloff were, to them, members of the faraway tribe that started a blood feud by bombing them for no good reason as far as they could see, since they had not attacked or threatened us. By their reasoning, if they did not exact retribution for what they saw as unjustified aggression against them, they would appear to be weak, thus inviting further attacks. Remember that ISIS spokesmen specifically described the beheadings as retaliation for and warnings against further American air attacks.
Again, don’t misunderstand: I am not exonerating ISIS for its barbarous behavior, and I am not trying to find excuses for it. I am merely trying to describe as objectively as I can how all of this looked from its point of view.
The U.S. government did not take the warning. Indeed, the beheadings steeled President Obama into giving a speech on September 10 that announced a new, if highly desultory, air war against ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq. The eventual result of those attacks, and later French and British participation in them, was to evoke from ISIS, dateline Raqqa, threats against the source of those attacks—specifically, threats against France, Britain, and the United States. We may not like to hear such threats, but the ISIS leadership has acted no differently from any government or proto-government: Someone attacks you, you threaten to return the favor.
One such attack took place in Paris on November 13, or seemed to. There is no question that the eight participants in the Paris attack were associated with ISIS. Some had been to, and been trained in, the caliphate. So far there is no evidence that anyone in Raqqa or anywhere else inside the caliphate gave an order to carry out the Paris atrocities. The eight terrorists seem to have organized and acted on their own, though clearly meaning to do so in ISIS’s name.
Now let’s look at the San Bernardino attack. Here there is also no evidence whatsoever that anyone inside the caliphate initiated, organized, ordered, directed, or even knew about this impending attack. The two murderers clearly had been radicalized and started amassing weapons and explosives long before ISIS splashed into our consciousness in June 2014. Insofar as internet propaganda affected them, it was propaganda from a wide rage of jihadi sources. Moreover, they declared fealty to the Islamic State only after the attack. If the Paris attack was perhaps one or two degrees of separation from operational connectivity with ISIS, the San Bernardino attack was at least six or more. And yet, however irrational and bereft of evidence, the American people seem, if recent polls can be believed, to connect the tragedy directly to the machinations of the Islamic State.
This inference replicates the emotion-propelled foolishness that followed 9/11, when large chunks of the American public insisted that Saddam Hussein was directly connected with the 9/11 attacks. Cognitive psychologists understand the phenomenon, which is fairly common: In a state of emotional arousal, people frequently conflate disparate threats into a single, monolithic target of their fear; and the less they know about these threats, the more likely they are to do so. A people prone to Manichaeism are prone to quickly jump to such conclusions, no less now than fearful Americans in early Cold War days were to see Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Yugoslav, and for that matter American communists as part of a monolithic conspiracy aimed at the beating heart of the United States.
We Americans like our enemies to be very orderly and right-angled, apparently, even when (especially when?) they’re not. So a side effect of the obsession with and exaggeration of the Islamic State threat is to discount, downplay, and even forget about the threat to the region—and U.S. interests therein—of Iran and its various allies, satraps, and proxies. Most adult Americans know at least vaguely that in Syria today the humanitarian catastrophe of our time is unfolding in slow motion. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the deaths of more than a quarter of a million people, millions of refugees, twice as many millions of internally displaced people, and the children eating grass to survive the regime’s starvation sieges. Russia and Iran are trying to save this mass-murdering regime. And yet, if you ask the Americans who, the polls say, want to send the U.S. military to liberate Raqqa and Mosul who is responsible for the death of more innocents in recent years in Syria, my guess is that they will almost invariably say “ISIS.”
The polls notwithstanding, I do not think that the Obama Administration is going to send the U.S. military in large numbers back into the heart of the Middle East. While the Administration has never had a coherent or effective strategy to deal with Syria or all of its various horrific emanations, in this particular judgment it is correct. The President’s giving in to media pressure after the beheadings, which characteristically evoked one of the most feckless displays of American military power ever, only fed the mania that now expresses itself so powerfully after San Bernardino. The right time for the President to have pleaded with the American people for patience and forbearance was late in the summer of 2014, not late in the autumn of 2015, by which point he should have devised a strategy that actually made sense.
Alas, that was then and this is now. What’s done is done, and what’s gone sort of crazy is indeed sort of crazy. The Islamic State is not going to be extirpated within the year, and a new President will have to deal with it one way or another. I worry that the projectile fear that Americans are launching from deep within the home front to the Levant nowadays will in due course create a war that such irrationality deserves. I hope I’m wrong.