Foreign policy, at least on the GOP side, is now basically a branch of the culture war: a way of convincing the white working class to support a party that is not pursuing their economic interests by flattering them with the implication that, in the memorable words of Edward Wilson, they’ve got the United States of America. . . .When politics becomes just us vs. them, our way is American and theirs is secular socialism (or fascist plutocracy), government policy can suffer in meaningful ways. Low taxes have become for Republicans, not a policy, but a loyalty test, and this kept their leaders from making a budget deal with Obama that would have advanced many of their goals. If toughness and belief that America is always right become our foreign policy, well, you get the George W. Bush administration. At least he had the excuse that America had been attacked on his watch. What is Romney's?
Mitt Romney is the exemplar in this regard; his entire foreign policy argument consists of saying that he knows America is exceptional and President Obama does not, and that Obama has been making too many concessions to America’s enemies (without any clear explanation of what those concessions might be). Obama has been a somewhat more belligerent steward of America’s existing posture than I anticipated (I fully expected the escalation in Afghanistan and the tough line on Pakistan, since he ran on both, but the Libyan war came as a modest surprise), but otherwise he’s been pretty much exactly what I expected him to be: a competent and fairly successful steward of America’s position as he inherited it. America has suffered no meaningful foreign policy setbacks during his tenure, and has had some notable successes. The contrast to the economic situation could not be more stark. Why on earth would anyone on the other side spend their time demagoguing on foreign policy? Why would anyone on the other side respond to such demagoguery? That’s not what the Democrats did in 1992, either in the primaries or in the general election.
The reason has everything to do with the culture war. Identity politics on the GOP side of the aisle involves stoking an emotional identification between their core demographic groups, the Republican Party, and the national identity. The white working class is the backbone of the American military. Stoking an identification between the white working class and the military, and between the military and national purpose, provides the emotional fuel for political mobilization. It imbues identity with purpose and connects that purpose to politics.
My fear about this election is that because of economic anxiety voters will elect an administration (Romney's or Gingrich's) devoted to toughness for its own sake, which will torture people just because not torturing people is weak and wage wars just to make the point that America does whatever it wants.