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A few weeks ago I read the book American Carnage by Tim Alberta. Alberta is the Chief Political Correspondent for Politico, and the book was a fascinating look behind the scenes of politics since the 2012 election. If you’re like me, you might expect the book to answer the dominant question of the day, which might be stated “Why has politics gotten so nasty recently?” But, to my surprise, after reading it, I ended up wondering about almost the opposite. “Why isn’t it always this nasty? What kept it civil for so long?” As I considered those questions, in the light of everything else I know (or at least suspect) I came up with a theory. A theory that answers those questions and also the question of why it’s gotten so nasty recently. A theory I’m going to share with you in this post, but before I get to it I need to lay some groundwork first.

To begin with, we’re a nation of nearly 330 million people. We have farmers, tech workers, hunters, inner city gang members, entrepreneurs and factory workers. And while we’re unlikely to have 330 million distinct political ideologies it seems equally unlikely that we would end up with just two. This is part of what I mean when I ask, why wasn’t it always this nasty? Or to borrow from Alberta, why didn’t the “carnage” start sooner? 

Coincidently there’s been a couple of different articles written recently which have touched on this very subject, and while I think both has touched on some part of the puzzle, I don’t think either has put things together in quite the same way I intend to do, but reviewing the pieces they have contributed will help provide the foundation for the theory I’m proposing.

To begin with, I’m obviously not the first to question whether something deeper is going on. Whether something fundamental has shifted in the way modern democracies operate. Frequent commenter Boonton pointed me to a story on Vox, The Anti-liberal Moment by Zack Beauchamp which is probably worth reading in its entirety if you have time, but for the moment I want to just review the author’s starting point because it very much describes the same problem I’m seeing.

Beauchamp starts off by talking about the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler. 

One contemporary observer, a legal theorist in his mid-30s named Carl Schmitt, found the seeds of the crisis within the idea of liberalism itself. Liberal institutions like representative democracy, and the liberal ideal that all a nation’s citizens can be treated as political equals, were in his view a sham. Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.

“Even if Bolshevism is suppressed and Fascism held at bay, the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism would not be overcome in the least,” he wrote in 1926. ”It is, in its depths, the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.”

As I mentioned the question I was left with after reading Carnage was not why it was happening now, but why it hadn’t happened sooner, and in effect Beauchamp is offering the same observation, when he says, “Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.” The natural state of politics is not compromise, it’s conflict, and that is precisely what’s happening currently between Democrats and Republicans. Further, as the quote from Schmitt points out there is an “inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.” With that in mind, my question might be reframed as how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently?

As part of the answer to that let’s turn now to the other article I recently read, though in this case it’s more a series of articles. After an exceptionally long hiatus, Tim Urban over at Wait but Why? has started posting what he’s calling the Story of Us. He’s already on chapter six, so I’ll obviously be touching only on a small part of what he says, and once again, I would recommend reading the series in its entirety, but here’s the small part that directly speaks to my theory. 

To begin with, he mentions an old Bedouin proverb (I actually heard that it was a Pashtun proverb, but regardless.) 

Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me against strangers.

This proverb makes frequent appearances across the whole series, and for Urban it speaks to the formation of individuals into tribes and tribes into nations. At each stage order emerges based on external threats. Threats where whatever conflicts you have with your brother are set aside if you end up in conflict with your cousins, and those conflicts are in turn set aside if you end up in a conflict with strangers. He likens this to an elevator which move up to higher levels of cooperation and then back down when those higher levels aren’t necessary:

If you pay attention to the world around you, and to your own psychology, you’ll spot the elevator in action. Ever notice how countries in one region of the world will often despise each other, focusing most of their national dickishness on each other—until there’s a broader conflict or war in play, at which time they put aside their differences? How different sects of a religion in fierce conflict with each other will suddenly find common ground when a rival religion or other outside entity insults or threatens their religion as a whole? How about when rivalries in the world of club soccer become less heated during the World Cup? Or when political factions with differing or even totally contradictory ideologies start marching in the street, arm in arm, during a national election or mass movement? I saw the elevator shoot upwards in the days following 9/11, when millions of New Yorkers who normally can’t stand each other were holding doors for each other, showing concern for each other’s well-being, and even hugging each other in the street. I remember thinking that while an alien attack would suck overall, it would do wonders for species solidarity.

With all of the above in mind, here’s my theory:

The chief reason for the current level of conflict within the nation is the lack of external, unifying threats to the nation. 

After reframing, the question I started with was how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently? With this theory in hand, the answer boils down to: war.  Or to look at it from the other direction, the Long Peace, the lack of wars between the great powers since the end of World War II and the development so beloved by people like Steven Pinker, has, somewhat paradoxically, led to another kind of war, the current internal political war. Just as Pashtun Tribesmen will stop fighting their cousins in order to fight the Americans, Republicans will stop fighting Democrats in order to fight the Nazis. But go back to this fight once those external enemies are defeated.

You may argue that the problems with unity didn’t start in 1946, and that’s a fair point, but even though the Cold War didn’t feature any direct hostilities between great powers, there were lots of proxy wars and as someone who grew up while the Soviet Union still existed, I can tell you it definitely felt like they were a threat. As further evidence of unity I offer up the Cold War policy that politics stops at the water’s edge. Something which definitely is not in effect now, and which can’t all be blamed on Trump either.

Moving forward in time, even after the Cold War ended there was 9/11 which brought a brief period of unity as well. Though given the relative mildness of that attack (from a historical perspective) and the weakness of the supposed enemy, that unity didn’t last very long. But taken together in the past these threats have necessitated the unity we’re currently missing. That the natural state in politics, as I intuited while reading “Carnage” and as Beauchamp and Urban point out, is deep divisions and in-fighting, but these impulses are periodically checked by external threats, which have the effect of resetting relations between the internal factions.

Once this theory occurred to me several other observations and questions immediately followed. The first was the natural impulse to check it against other instances of historical internal unrest, and of course the 800 lb gorilla in this category is the Civil War. Much has been written about the severe fractures between North and South, including, above all slavery, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any mention that as far as external threats the mid 1800s were unusually quiet. The only countries capable of posing any threat to the US were all in Europe which was largely convulsed by revolution (the numerous revolutions of 1848) or busy in their own backyard (the Crimean War of the mid 1850s) also recall that Germany, the country destined to be the future antagonist in all the major conflicts of the next century wasn’t even unified until 1871. I find it interesting to speculate on whether the Civil War would have happened when it did if the War of 1812 had instead been the “War of 1840”…

Moving closer to our own day there was the political instability of the late 60s, early 70s, and I’ll admit that the connection here is not as clear. That, in fact, not only were we engaged in a war at the time, but most people feel that the existence of that war was a large contributor to the unrest of the time. On the other hand I don’t think that anyone considered Vietnam an actual threat. In fact I would go so far as to argue that by distracting people from the threat of the Soviet Union that the overall perceived threat level may have actually dropped. Additionally while the violence was greater than we’ve seen currently, the unrest as a whole seemed more confined, which is to say that the unrest of Vietnam was deeper, but not as wide as what we’re experiencing now, a non-trivial difference. Finally, I think there’s a case to be made that Reagan brought us out of things by placing a lot of focus on the threat of the Soviet Union, and creating a narrative that we were the good guys and they were the “Evil Empire”, precisely what you’d expect from my theory.

There is of course the other side of the theory. That in addition to telling us how a nation might split apart it also suggests how one comes together. To adapt the Pashtun saying, forging a nation would appear to involve something which turns strangers into at least cousins if not brothers. And once again the theory points to some interesting possibilities. There have been lots and lots of revolutions, and by and large, all of them have failed. Either through being overtaken by another revolution a short while later, or by being co opted by a dictator and losing sight of their original principles. Except the American Revolution. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another successful revolution where the revolutionaries said “these are our principles” and hundreds of years later those principles remain, largely unchanged in the nation created from that revolution. Can you think of any other examples? 

Why is this? Well, the other thing that appears to make the American Revolution unique (again I’m open to counter examples) is that it’s the only revolution which took place in the face of a strong external threat. Based on my theory this is precisely the sort of unique condition that would yield a similarly unique outcome.

To return briefly to Urban, as his metaphorical elevator goes higher it represents cooperation from a greater number of people, he calls these large groups of cooperating people giants, because of their power. We have lots of these giants, though we generally call them nations. Some would argue that reverence for these giants is what we call nationalism, a term that’s pretty controversial at the moment. 

But what if the only way to get the power of a giant is by way of the nation? (It’s true that other ways have been tried, mostly in the form of multinational organizations, but they’ve largely been unsuccessful.) If that’s the case nationalism starts to seem pretty important. 

And what if the only way to get a nation is through putting a group of people into a life or death struggle against some external threat? Then war starts to appear fairly important as well. 

What then happens if there are no more suitable wars or existential threats? 

One assumes that the number of people willing to cooperate would steadily decrease. That the giants would become more numerous, but also smaller. Resembling less vast colossuses, bestriding the Earth with the power to do amazing things, and more squabbling children. Which, unfortunately, is what appears to be happening, at least in the West.

I realize this all boils down to a defense of war, but this would not be the first time I’ve come to its defense. And certainly, as I pointed out then, it’s not inconceivable, given it’s historical ubiquity that things might have adapted to benefit from the presence of war and that nations might be included on that list. It is worth noting that in most civilizations and even the US until very recently it was expected that leaders would have served in the military and even better fought in one of these wars. Thus not only were nations forged by the external threat of wars, but it was presumed that leaders were as well.

If I’m correct that external threats are necessary to maintaining cooperation, for maintaining the alliance of cousins and brothers against strangers than you would expect that actual politicians would have figured this out as well, even if they don’t end up stating it in the same terms, and indeed I think we can see that happening. There are of course two ends this effort could be conducted from. You could either try to strengthen the feeling of brotherhood, or intensify the perception of threats. I want to say that in the past the former was more common (probably because there were already plenty of threats and they didn’t need any artificial boost) but these days it’s all about intensifying perceived threats. As you might imagine based on their ideologies this intensification takes different forms depending on that ideology.

To begin with, arguably the neo-cons vastly intensified the threat posed by radical Islam in the wake 9/11, and as I already said it did have the effect of, temporarily at least, uniting the country. However, when one considers the toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that it was worth it.

Moving to more recent examples, the Republicans are clearly working to intensify the threat posed by immigration. How much you think they’re intensifying it probably depends on your own ideology. I would personally argue that while there is definitely some exaggeration at play, that there is also an actual threat underlying it all as well. Also, at least the Republicans have chosen to focus on a threat external to the country. I’m going to argue that the Democrats are also intensifying perceived threats, but in their case the threats they’ve chosen to focus on are largely internal e.g. racism and inequality (among others). 

I’m sure your own ideology will provide a ready answer as to the actual threat level these things pose, I’m more interested in the consequences of deciding to focus on internal as opposed to external threats. At first glance it would appear to be very, very bad, particularly in light of the theory I just put forth. If it’s impossible to maintain cohesion and cooperation with the lack of external threats how much more difficult will it be to maintain cooperation if, on top of that lack, you also decide to focus on threats coming from within the entity you’re expecting on cooperation from!

None of this is to say that the Republicans aren’t also engaged in intensifying internal threats, or that the threats the Democrats point out aren’t real, most of them are real and potentially very serious. Neither am I suggesting, if this focus on internal threats does result in the nation breaking up into small factions, that this is necessarily a bad thing. But if for some reason you are trying to maintain national togetherness and cooperation, I am suggesting that you should take all of the above into account as you decide what sort of things are going to help or hinder you in that effort. 

I am one of those people who think we should try to maintain as much togetherness and cooperation as possible, and my big worry in all of this is that if, in the forge of a life and death struggle, we can go from strangers to brothers, then it’s also possible to go in the other direction as well, particularly in the prolonged absence of any such struggle. And this is precisely what appears to be happening. Now I know that the Pashtuns go back to fighting their cousins as soon as the strangers are gone, and maybe that’s just what we’re seeing with Republicans and Democrats, and that if a sufficient threat emerges they will once again join forces, but such a threat might not emerge, at least not soon enough, because it also seems possible that if things go long enough and get bitter enough, that reconciliation will no longer be on the table. That, past a certain point, the ties of nationhood could be permanently severed. That it doesn’t matter how big some future threat ends up being, the many sides in the country will never again be one. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that we may already be past that point.


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