I predicted, after 9/11, that the political parties in the US would fundamentally reconstitute themselves. 9/11 demanded an acknowledgment of an interconnected world in which the political organization of other countries, as well as non-Americans’ perceptions of us, were to be of vital consequence.
Bush won the day because he was the only one to present a coherent argument for American engagement in a connected world: Namely, America must reshape the world in its own image.
Obama’s argument for pragmatic flexibility, paired with his symbolic internationalism, gave heft to vague calls made by John Kerry in 2004 for ‘multilateralism;’ working with, and learning from, the rest of the world was now an affirmative act of engagement rather than a retreat from American principles: We were to engage the world with a willingness to adapt. This argument, of course, resonated more strongly in the absence of the perception of immediate threats from terrorists.
The economic crisis of the past year, too, supported Obama’s argument for increased American flexibility: how could we claim to know what is best for the entire world when our cherished capitalist system was mired in such a quandary?
Finally, Obama’s careful management of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, not in accord with the speedy withdrawals originally called for during the Democratic primaries, has robbed the Republican Party, even further, of a potentially affirmative, internationalist message: that of the United States bringing democracy to the world. The GOP’s impulse to take on the world reverts, accordingly, to a shallow xenophobia and isolationism.
Bush and Obama share (and the fact of their sharing anything is surely disturbing to many) a conviction that the world is increasingly intertwined. Each built a political persona based on that idea. All those who reject contending with this emerging reality are left to make increasingly ideological claims with little empirical backing and to entertain the least reality-based members of their political tribe. It is clear which party follows these patterns today.
If Obama leads the Democrats to a principled, if much more cautious and less violent, promotion of democracy around the world, and couples it with enhanced American flexibility on a range of other international issues, the Democrats will have stolen the center for a good time to come. Few constructive messages for the GOP will therefore remain and the party will accordingly continue to wither.