Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Unified American Hysteria

State of the Union: Promises and perils of a peer rival


Mary Harrington made an interesting observation about the Chinese spy balloon. She wrote that the incident proved to be counterintuitive, as it highlights that despite the apparent disunity, America is far more united than it appears. “But beneath the bickering was, paradoxically, a clear sense of unity. Despite vigorous disagreement about the meaning or proportionality of the US government’s reaction to the balloon, which fell out along familiar lines, Americans on all sides appear to share essentially the same sense of outrage at its presence in US airspace”, she wrote, concluding that “the world’s pre-eminent superpower is less disunited than sometimes appears…given the collective outrage triggered by one spy balloon, my sense is that America’s apparent disunity is less structural than it sometimes seems as an outsider.”

Important caveat: Unity, especially in a democratic polity, isn’t always an unalloyed good, and in fact has often been exploited. Hans Morgenthau warned against a “democratically conducted foreign policy…a compromise between the rational requirements of a good foreign policy, and the emotional preferences of public opinion.” The reason is not that the public is a force of evil, but that the public can be easily swayed, and most people are often not rational enough to discern fact from sophisticated propaganda employed opportunistically by ideologues—a warning against any form of direct democracy incidentally shared in sentiment by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. We don’t have to reach far back in history to see how a sense of genuine anger and grief was exploited toward social engineering at home and abroad post 9/11. History is littered with similar examples. The greatest bloodbath of the last century was at least partially a result of an extreme version of collective political unity in a certain Mitteleuropa nation. 

But there is a broader point about republics and a united polity. A republic by its very structure is fractured and tends to be chaotic in spirit, lacking external rivals. That is by democratic design, opposed to an enforced discipline that might lead to outright despotism. Republics are also often united when faced with an external threat. That is also a historic fact and at times a historic need, and, sometimes, a historic opportunity for smooth demagogues. Those factors are complementary and feed on each other, although not always in a good way. 

Some of the greatest champions of public opinion in republican Rome were often xenophobic about a rival Carthage, which, paradoxically provided Rome with the exact foil needed to get domestic issues in order. The Venetian republic belatedly realized the need for unity only when the Ottoman threat was upon their shores. The French republic was brutal on domestic enemies, often thought as an extension of designs by peer rivals. The Irish might have a very different recollection about the short-lived Cromwellians than the future Americans. The history of the American republic is practically mirrored as a reaction to hegemonic rivals in Europe and Asia. 

The promises and perils of a peer rival here are twofold. On one hand, it is true that China as a peer rival, strictly by manpower, GDP, and production capability, is far, far greater a threat ever posed by imperial Spain, imperial and Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. China is also, however, surrounded by powerful nations either allied or in alignment with the U.S. Asia in 2023 isn’t Europe in 1949. While the rise of China belatedly provides a sense of purpose and priority to an internally fractured, overstretched, and utopian American republic, it could also be dangerously exploited by those seeking to transform the globe. Any disunity or dissent can then be considered unpatriotic. The key to a rational grand strategy is about a sense of proportion, and loyal and stoic elites. As the Athenians found out, it is hysteria and blunder, which is often more fatal than the enemy’s devices.  


Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here