Do Democracies Die Without External Enemies?

Do democracies die without external enemies?

The United States has come a long way from its "consensus" period in the cold war. Many people worry that the Republic is falling apart. There are indeed similarities between the United States and the late Roman Republic, and even the late Athenian Democracy, which tore themselves apart internally. There is a growing sense that democracy, even in Europe, is starting to go off the rails. 

The United States is a very old democracy, historically. It is the oldest living democracy. Our peer in liberty, France, is working on its fifth Republic. Three of its four failures were internal collapses of the democratic institutions or civil society. 

In Wedgedwe put forth the theory that structural changes drove a breakdown in political dialogue and a suppression of the middle ground. This led to increased polarization, which threatens the nation. We note that growing polarization began in the early to mid 1990s.

However this period also coincides with the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a true Pax Americana. That is, the United States had (and still has) no credible serious threats to its security. 

An alternative explanation to America's growing polarization is that, lacking an external enemy, its tribal identities are changing and factionalism is rising within. Below we'll discuss such a theory and then walk through a bit of American history to see how it applies to the republic. 

(Note we have omitted for now an exploration of other democracies because this post got long!)

Fated to Tribalism?

In-group / out-group theory claims that humans tend to psychologically join and identify within groups (let's call them "tribes"), which always requires psychologically defining those outside that group. 

This tendency is so universal and arbitrary that when Jane Elliot split her class into students of brown eyes and blue eyes, they began acting as if they were generations-long enemies. They even fabricated reasons why one eye color made you a better person.

Such a theory suggests that tribalism is inevitable. Whether it's racial, ethnic, national, religious, cultural, classist, or ideological (or based on your Pokemon GO team), we'll find a tribe to join and another to hate.

Let's say a nation or a group of nation faces an existential threat from another nation or group of nations. These two groups, to form alliances or national unity, have already successfully created a tribal identity. In this case, the existential threat is so pressing that other tribal identities are subordinated to the national or alliance identity. As long as the military threat remains, the identity is strong. Consider:

  • Greek vs. Barbarian, or Roman vs. Barbarian (in antiquity)
  • Chinese vs. Barbarian (China until the 20th century, on and off, depending on threat level)
  • Islam vs. Christendom (in the Umayyad advance and Crusade counter-attacks)
  • Protestants vs. Catholics (30 years war and other wars of reformation)
  • Allies vs. Fascists (WWII)
  • Free World vs. Communist World (Cold War)

You get the idea.

In a democracy, these conditions create a unified tribal identity. 

When you're talking with people in your tribe, you treat them like humans. 

What happens when there is no external threat? Citizens form new in groups and new out groups. Perhaps they are racial, ethnic, political, religious, classist. Sometimes it's sports teams--from soccer hooliganism to the Nika Riots, people find stupid reasons to identify as a tribe and then fight. 

If humans will inevitably form tribes, then in peacetime, these tribes are internal. Instead of devising an external tribe and threat, humans devise internal tribes and threats. 

And if that is true, then democracies are always in peril when there is no outside threat. Factions will emerge and will risk tearing apart the democracy itself.

Internal and External Threats in the History of the United States

A very sloppy look at the United States' history suggests this may be true, at least for America. Just after independence, the United States was highly united under Washington. The fledgling republic was fragile.

Parties immediately sprung into the system at Washington's departure. They were not accounted for in the building of the Constitution and immediately perverted the system from how it was meant to work.

Besides these parties, the north/south, industrial/rural, free/slave split in the United States was a very natural line along which to define tribes. But through the early 1800s, the United States fought a war with Britain, one with Mexico, and many with Native American tribes as it expanded to conquer as much of the continent as it could. With external enemies, the US held together with compromise after compromise.

When it had won the Continent, it tore itself apart in the Civil War. The republic was, in a sense, saved, but only by the complete military subjugation of the south by the north. 

The US then fought Spain and the Philippines as it pushed its sphere beyond its borders in the later 1800s. Pushing Europe out of the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean continued until World War 1. 

We can perhaps count the Great Depression as an external threat. World War 2 followed. The Cold War followed. Then the 1990s came along and the US really wasn't under any territorial or existential threat (forced or chosen) anymore--perhaps for the first time since just before the Civil War. This period was called the American Consensus period

Consider that during this period, large swaths of the American population were oppressed or marginalized. Women had to fight for the right to vote, as well as fight an ongoing societal struggle in the feminist movements. Black Americans had to fight for civil rights and an end of active, deliberate, legal and sanctioned oppression. Japanese-Americans were interred in concentration camps. The 1950s included a Communist scare and the McCarthy era. The 1960s saw massive social upheaval and rioting. The 1970s saw Vietnam.

And yet there is evidence that Republicans and Democrats worked together in Congress and talked together at home, despite massive differences. It seems amazing now: the issues that we fight over so bitterly, that seem to threaten to tear us asunder, were much greater in magnitude than they are today. 

And it was the 1990s, as we point out in Wedged, where partisanship and polarization began to grow. Interestingly, it was a time of comparative national naivete to the social issues in the country (racial biases, gender and LGBT biases, economic inequality, and other issues that we discuss with great heat today). 

Is this polarization growing simply because we are looking for an enemy, and have found that enemy in ourselves? This is an open question and we want your input.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.