The U.S. Election Is a Referendum on American Values

August 1, 2016

Signing of the U.S. Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy. Public Domain via Wikipedia

Liberalism is the simple but powerful idea that freedom and equality are values worth defending. It celebrates the rights of the individual, including free speech, freedom of religion, civil rights, and free markets. It rejects monarchy, hereditary power, autocracy, and state infringement on our rights. It acknowledges that human institutions, not least governments, are flawed and can become corrupt; thus it places the ultimate protections on the individual. Liberalism has been a guiding light American politics since the country's founding.

And yet today liberalism is under attack all over the world. From the rise of illiberal parties in Europe, to the growing influence of China and Russia, and now to the platform of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the core principles that define liberalism are threatened. Commentators from Francis Fukuyama to StephenWalt and Roger Cohen have recently warned about threats to liberalism. Here in the United States, faced with Trump's radical departure from American principles, voters are in effect being asked to defend liberal values at the polls this fall.

As President Obama noted last week at the Democratic National Convention, the U.S. election in 2016 has become a referendum on affirming American values, and anyone—fascists, communists, or jihadists—who has bet against those values in the past has failed. It may be no surprise that the most serious threat to American greatness does not come from abroad, but is rather the possibility of a "cunning tyrant"gaining power as a reaction to terrorism fears in a country like the United States, as the late U.S. defense expert Fred Ikle put it in the prescient 2006 book, Annihilation from Within.

In the same year, one decade ago, writer Peter Beinart argued in his book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (quite a coincidence), it was the tough-minded centrist liberals who won the Cold War, delivering another victory to the liberal democracy and defeat to tyranny. Liberal societies have proven to be the strongest and most resilient. Members of this group included Harry Truman, Paul Nitze, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan; they were inspired by thinkers Arthur Schlesinger and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For these passionately patriotic, anti-communist foreign policy professionals, liberalism was a "fighting faith," according to Beinart quoting Schlesinger.

Despite the common caricature, liberals are not hoity toity elitists or foppish dandies living in a fantasy world. For hundreds of years, liberals have taken up arms to defend the rights of the individual in the face of oppressive governments and despots, again and again. The American and French Revolutions were popular uprisings in the name of liberal ideals against corrupt and unaccountable rulers. Some of the most violent conflagrations in recent world history were in the defense of liberal values, including both world wars and many of the Western-led emancipatory campaigns, including the Korean, Vietnam, Bosnian, and Gulf wars. Liberals can throw down.

On the economic front, despite the problems with globalization today, the liberal economic system supported by the Bretton Woods institutions has been responsible for the largest creation of wealth in history, with the world economy lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Contrary to what many supporters of Bernie Sanders may say, "socialism" is not the answer to the economic problems such as inequality, poverty, and corruption. Socialism is the state-ownership of the means of production. Anyone curious to know how this usually works out, go ask an average Venezuelan, Cuban, or North Korean.

The Cold War was a decades-long, global struggle to defend liberal values in the face of a socialist threat; a struggle that at least once in 1962 nearly ended in the destruction of the planet. I am old enough to remember the nightmares people of my generation had of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. This dystopia was reflected in popular culture from pop songs, such as Nena's "99 Red Balloons" and Sting's "Russians" to the utterly terrifying 1983 TV movie, The Day After.

It’s baffling to imagine that handing over control of the economy to government officials appeals to some Americans. It is no coincidence that the most murderous tyrants in recent history were illiberal socialists, including Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, and Adolf Hitler, who combined socialism with both nationalist racism and anti-capitalism.

There’s nothing wrong with nationalism, patriotism, or love-of-country per se as long as they are promulgated for ethical ends. Which brings me to the bizarre, cowardly, and incoherent Trump policy platform. Taken together, Trump's policy proposals add up to something that is un-American in its affront to liberalism. Certainly, there are Americans who rightly resent corruption and feel left behind by open markets and free trade. But Trump's proposals go against the very principles that are at the core of American values, which have served make this country great in the first place. Those principles define liberal thought: equality, openness, freedom, and free enterprise. They also are the principles that the United States has gone to war to defend multiple times.

For instance, Trump stands in direct contrast to Ronald Reagan who in 1987 told the Soviets to "tear down" the Berlin Wall, which was built by the Soviet-controlled communist East Germany during the Cold War. Trump's rallying cry has been to deport 11 million immigrants, ban Muslims, and build a wall on our southern border—the most concrete physical manifestation of illiberal thought that one could imagine. Ironically, the other famous wall in history was commissioned by China’s first emperor, built by slaves, and failed to keep out invaders. Symbolically, Trump's wall would be the opposite of the Statue of Liberty. What ignoble company the United States would find itself in if Trump becomes president.

Free trade is another pillar of liberalism that Trump claims to want to shatter. While the United States would benefit from a more coordinated program to help the "losers" from trade, as Francis Fukuyama has recently pointed out, the logic of free trade still holds up. Trump has threatened to erect trade barriers with numerous big trade partners, including China, Japan, and Mexico. Let's be clear what that means. It is to say that Trump proposes that the U.S. government tax Americans to buy imported goods, thereby hurting the average consumer as well as many U.S. businesses that import supplies to build their products. If that weren't enough, estimates actually predict that Trump's tariffs would yield a net job loss in the United States.

While Republicans claim to want to "get government out of the way of business," Trump would do the opposite. Does the average American believe it is the U.S. government's job to select which industries to protect and then tax Americans accordingly? Part of the thinking behind free trade is that "Made in America" is an exceptional brand, which makes sense since the United States is home to the most valuable, highly-admired companies in the world. Free trade also means that countries should export the things they are best at making. Trade experts agree that protectionism almost never revives a struggling industry. America should therefore not be making cheap textiles, low quality tires, or low grade steel but rather high-tech materials, top grade tires, and specialty steel from minimills. In Trump's view, however, America can't compete. Instead, he offers defeatism.

With trade protectionism, Trump would be pushing the United States toward a trade war and into questionable company. Countries that are highly globalized and keep their tariffs low, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, New Zealand, and Denmark, tend to be the most prosperous and least corrupt. On the other extreme, countries with high tariffs and low levels of globalization, such as Cameroon, Somalia, Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, and North Korea, are corrupt and poor. It pays to be a liberal. The World Trade Organization (WTO), which Trump also criticizes, may not be perfect but it has provided a way to promote American interests and free trade worldwide.

On our alliances—from commitments to NATO to Japan and South Korea—Trump has shown no desire to stand up for our friends or our values. For someone who claims to be an expert negotiator, Trump appears to misunderstand how strong alliances and credible deterrence advance America's interests. By casting doubt on U.S. alliances, Trump has already weakened American deterrence credibility and negotiating power. No wonder Trump admires Putin, and no wonder the U.S. intelligence community believes Russia is behind the DNC email leak. America’s rivals would naturally welcome weaker U.S. power.

Why have we come to this place? As mentioned earlier, scholar Stephen Walt argues that the liberal order is vulnerable because it was oversold and has contributed to bad policies such as the creation of the euro and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Walt also argues that illiberal people like Trump have taken advantage of the freedoms of the liberal order to rise to power. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, meanwhile, points to differing ethical assumptions between Trump and liberal voters.

But I would like to offer a slightly different explanation. My research suggests that what the U.S. political system suffers from is the typical staleness, atrophy, and stasis that occurs when groups have figured out how to game a system to continually increase their power and wealth. Here the Sanders supporters are right: Systemic corruption needs to be weeded out, and we do need a more robust social welfare system. That requires a reaffirmation of our principles and a refresh, not a "revolution." The problems we face are not inherent to liberalism, and they are in no way reasons to give up on the enduring values for which our country has fought. Instead, the need is for American political “renewal,” as Fukuyama has put it. To that end, let’s hope that Bill Clinton was right when, at the convention, he called Hillary Clinton, "the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met."

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