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Machine Politics: An Election Day Thought

My only comment about today’s election is, basically, the one Tim Burke made yesterday:

Whatever happens in the U.S. elections tomorrow … the national security policy of the United States is unlikely to change in any systematic or meaningful ways, meaning both the approach of the government towards civil liberties and its military posture abroad.

The appointment of particular individuals to specific executive offices by either possible President may make for slight differences of emphasis in the professionalism, competence and interpretation of the consensus policies of the American government. That’s about it.

This is not a Naderite assertion that there is no difference between the two parties. This is not about parties any more. If by some bizarre fluke Jill Clark or Ron Paul were elected tomorrow night, they’d very likely be forced to continue almost all of the security policies of the Bush and Obama White Houses. They could give orders to the contrary, but they’d be overriden actively by Congress and possibly the federal judiciary as well. They’d be ignored or circumvented by the military, intelligence services, foreign policy professionals and rank-and-file law enforcement. They’d be shouted down by the numerous popular and local constituencies that actively depend for their livelihood on security spending–arguably even liberals should hesitate to massively redirect the flow of that money for the same reason that they argue against austerity in general. Any given President might succeed in ending one wasteful war–or might foolishly rush into one. But the basic tenor of American policy almost cannot be moved.

There are other ways in which parties do matter: for instance, a Romney administration would almost certainly not participate in the limiting and narrowing redefinition of religious institutions that the Obama administration is committed to — to cite but one example. But in this one major and enormously costly way, the federal government has indeed become utterly subservient to what President Eisenhower famously called a “military-industrial complex”, indifferent to fiscal prudence and civil liberties alike.

President Eisenhower wasn’t the only one in 1961 to see this complex extending itself. Robert Nisbet, in an essay recently re-presented in these pages, made a still more incisive analysis:

It is a truth often uttered that war is an extension of foreign policy. In our day, unhappily, foreign policy is an extension of war, and it shares deeply in the modern character of war. The clear tendency of modern wars is to become ever more “popular,” ever more closely identified with widespread moral and political aspirations: freedom, democracy, rights, and social justice. What is true of war is true of cold war—an accepted way, be it noted, of referring to world diplomacy since 1946. Being an extension of war, rather than a pragmatic search for a limited balance of power, it can hardly help but take on some of the moralistic and absolutist attributes of modern warfare.

There is also our taste for the metaphysics of history. It is bad enough in foreign policy to confuse strategy and tactics; it is ruinous to confuse either with essence and eternity. Despite a frequently proclaimed American pragmatism, despite our scorn for Marxian dialectics and other secular substitutes for religion, we have, as Tocqueville noted, a proneness ourselves to general ideas. And of all general ideas, Progress is the one with deepest roots in the American mind: Progress conceived as unalterable destiny with our own civilization as the essence. Just as we have often subordinated our domestic planning and legislation to an imagined track of national progress, so do many of us today subordinate foreign policy to a world view that has the development of American culture as its model. The American dream becomes a cosmic principle.

This “cosmic principle” has gradually created a system that amounts to — if I may borrow and twist a phrase used by James Russell Lowell to describe American attitudes towards the Constitution — “a machine that would go of itself.” It goes more powerfully now that an immense security apparatus has been appended to an already-hubristic foreign-policy agenda. Like Tim Burke, I see no forces in this country capable of offering significant resistance to the great Machine.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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