Why America Should Improve Its Own Democracy before Spreading Democracy Globally

Mark Twain once said that God created war so that Americans would learn geography. Twain died before World War I, but his sardonic remark still has meaning.

Mark Twain once said that God created war so that Americans would learn geography. Twain died before World War I, but his sardonic remark still has meaning for us. America continues to fight wars in unfamiliar places, and our unfamiliarity with those places does not—for better or worse—seem to deter the fighting.

Contemporary American history is marred by the scars of nation building. The attempt to directly establish American-style democratic institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed, just as it did in Vietnam. In the final cable sent from the American embassy in Saigon, as the city was falling to Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces, a prophetic warning was sent to Washington DC by CIA station chief Thomas Polgar:

"It has been a long fight and we have lost. . . . Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Let us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson. Saigon signing off."

To be sure, Iraq and Afghanistan are not another Vietnam. Nonetheless, the costs of nation building remain high. Occupying foreign countries, appointing leaders to their governments, and deploying American ground troops to stamp out opposition all require that American blood and treasure be spent.

According to Stephen Walt, Harvard Professor of International Affairs, more than one trillion dollars has been spent in Afghanistan since the arrival of American forces. In Iraq, that number is between $3-5 trillion, depending on how you do the accounting.

Would any harm have come to the United States had we not intervened directly in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is surely possible, though we'll never know for certain. But spending $4-6 trillion abroad does come at a direct cost, said Walt in an interview with Big Think.

"Nation building around the world is expensive. And you can use that money for a variety of purposes here at home, or you can leave it in the taxpayer's pockets—either one would be an obvious benefit."

Second, it would save American lives because we've lost soldiers in those conflicts to no good purpose—some of them killed, many wounded, some of those wounded quite grievously—so reducing that would be good for the United States."

Corey Webb, of Springville, AL takes a break during his daily workout as members of the Disabled American Veterans visit wounded soldiers who have recently returned from Iraq and are now at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC on January 7, 2005. (David S. Holloway/Getty Images)

There is currently a lot of public interest in America's foreign policy. During the 2016 presidential election—six months before the North Korean nuclear crisis fully emerged—80% of registered voters said the topic of terrorism was "very important" to their vote for president, and 75% said foreign policy was "very important."

Contrast that to the 2012 presidential election when America's domestic agenda was led by healthcare reform. At that time, 59% of voters cared strongly about terrorism and 52% cared about foreign policy. Still recovering the Great Recession, the nation was turned inward, and ISIS had yet to gain much ground in the Middle East—or coverage in global media.

Daily News front page August 20, 2014, SAVAGES - ISIS monster behead U.S. journalist, taunt Obama over air strikes in Iraq - James Foley. (NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Violent, direct intervention does not create goodwill for America abroad. Toppling governments in Iraq and Libya, and intervening in Syria's civil war, created a space in which bad actors could organize.

"The problem of Islamic terrorism and other forms of violent extremism would be substantially reduced," said Walt, "if the United States were not intervening in as many places, especially in the Arab and Islamic world."

It wouldn't disappear. It wouldn't totally vanish. It wouldn't solve all the world's problems, but much of the energy that has fueled the ranks of Al Qaeda, or groups like ISIS, is hostility to what they regard as illegitimate foreign interference in their societies. And if we stop doing that, a lot of that energy will eventually dissipate."

Iraqi men carry a coffin in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf on July 3, 2016, during a funeral procession for the victims of a suicide bombing that ripped through Baghdad's busy shopping district of Karrada. The blast hit the Karrada district early in the day as the area was packed with shoppers ahead of this week's holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, killing at least 75 people in the deadliest single attack this year in Iraq's capital.(HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)

By now, much has been made of President Trump's Twitter habits. The disruptive, 140-character messages dispatched at odd hours have led some to question the President's attention span. Foreign Policy reported that even NATO leaders had a strategy to keep the attention of the American president. The would limit remarks made by foreign heads of state to between two and four minutes.

Presidential administrations can quickly be consumed by overseas interventions. Vietnam consumed the Johnson administration. Iraq may largely define George W. Bush's legacy. What about Trump?

"Just think of the number of hours that President Bush, President Obama, now President Trump have had to spend wondering about what to do about Yemen?" said Walt on the topic of attention span. "What do we do about Libya? What's going on in Afghanistan? Who should my commander be?"

Presidents spend endless hours trying to manipulate the politics of countries far away instead of doing what we really would like them to do, which is spending almost all of their time thinking of ways to improve the lives of Americans in the United States."

Would an end to interventions like those in Afghanistan and Iraq betray a lack of commitment to American values? Walt seems assured it is the opposite: "Trying to run the world is a distraction from things we need to be working on closer to home." A greater priority, he says, is making America more reflective of the rights we claim to revere—"freedom of speech, openness, freedom of association, and things like that."

In other words, lead by example. We don't need such costly geography lessons.


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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.