Political Risk: America Has A Confidence Problem


John F. Phillips

Yesterday, I was re-reading parts of Fareed Zakaria’s 2008 work, The Post American World. Something he said in the final chapter that is titled “American Purpose” really stuck me because I think his point really gets to the heart of why the United States seems so politically dysfunctional both domestically and internationally. Mr. Zakaria writes:

“Before it can implement any of these strategies (in foreign policy), the United States must make a much broader adjustment. It needs to stop cowering in fear (emphasis mine). It is fear that has created a climate of paranoia and panic in the United States and fear that has enabled our strategic missteps. In order to recover its place in the world, America first has to recover its confidence.” (p.250)

Remember, this was written 13 years ago, in 2008!

How prophetic and how applicable to the political environment that we live in today.

Fear has become an integral part of the American political and civic culture. The left fears the right is holding back the “advancement” of society by clinging to the past. The right fears that the left is a “threat” to traditional values and the “American way of life.” Whites fear the blacks. Blacks fear whites, especially those who exercise authority. For various reasons, many fear the immigrant. Urban fears rural and rural fears urban. China has become the new “boogyman”, replacing Russia. Citizens, in varying degrees, fear government and those in government fear a small segment of voters (about 20% in both parties) who exercise disproportionate power relative to their actual numbers.

The list goes on, but the bottom line is that we have become a society that lives and isolates itself in silos of fear. This has created an American confidence problem that is slowly sucking the life out of our civic culture, destroying our credibility abroad, and threatening the legitimacy of our leadership in the world.

If Americans lack confidence in their own democracy and government, if America is so divided that it cannot address the challenges it faces both domestically and internationally, if America is so controlled and/or paralyzed by fear, how can we expect to be an example to others and legitimately exercise leadership in the world?

What people need to understand that this civic culture of fear, this lack of national confidence, is a threat to our national security and poses an existential threat to the future of the United States.

A house divided cannot stand.

While the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust” (established in 1956), the de facto motto since the inception of the country has been “E Pluribus Unum” (One From Many). The Founders realized that many factions would vie for influence (read Federalist Paper #10) and designed a system of government that would use this as an advantage to foster the common good though give and take, checks and balances, and compromise. While not perfect, it has worked for over 230 years.

Our system encourages difference of opinion, dissent, peaceful protest and other protected forms of expression. Throughout our history, there have been times of severe division, but we have always been able to work through our differences and come together for the common good. We were confident that, despite our differences, we could unite and move forward.

Not anymore, and it’s a problem that we have created ourselves. Despite the voter turnout in 2020, turnout in modern presidential election years has hovered around 50-55%. Turnout in off year elections has been around 30-35%, and many times, turnout in local elections is barely above 20%. We, as citizens, have decided to disengage.

We don’t take the time or expend the effort to become informed about the issues and candidates. When we do take the time, we flee to networks, publications, websites, and podcasts that reconfirm our own world view and stoke our distrust and, yes, fear of those who think or act or believe differently that we do.

Politics and governing have become a political reality television show, another version of professional wrestling. We have heroes and villains, bomb throwers who want to stir up crap instead of govern. We have entertainers, who pass themselves off as serious thinkers, peddling their point of view in the world now known as “infotainment.” There is always that wait and see what’s next moment, that cliffhanger, the tease to keep watching. It’s all about creating drama and keeping us engaged in the chaos.

The professional political class (career politicians, media, consultants, pundits, fundraisers), no matter the political affiliation, drives this fear and division because it helps them make a ton of money, act as influencers, or allows them to exercise personal political power (or all of the above). Yes, this has always been the case to a certain extent. It just seems like it is a lot worse than it used to be.

All of this chaos and disfunction has created the American crisis of confidence that has left us vulnerable in terms of national security, a crisis of confidence that is being exploited by our adversaries. It has created a situation that has created doubt and mistrust between the United States and other nations. Read the foreign press and the rest of the world is giggling and outright laughing at us. The teacher has been exposed.

Given the current state of affairs, why would any country or international company want to do business, at this time, in the United States? Political risk is really high due to the political instability brought about by the inability to come together and work for the common good, all of this driven by the culture of fear.

The crisis in confidence threatens the legitimacy of our leadership position in the world, our national security, and it has to stop. NOW!

A symbiotic relationship exists between domestic politics and foreign policy. One drives the other. It is time for us to once again embrace “E Pluribus Unum”, retake control of the experiment, hold the professional political class accountable, and get back to the business of being the United States

As Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1932 inaugural address, given at the time of the Great Depression, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” As I watch what is going on, I understand the fear and why it exists. Whether real or imagined, it is there and deeply rooted because perceptions become reality. It has to be acknowledged and dealt with in a positive and constructive way. We have to start focusing on what unites us and not on what divides us (if you need a primer on this topic, read Dan Rather’s book “What Unites Us” ).We need to start talking and really listening to each other. Doing this will help our country regain the confidence we have lost and allow us to move forward to a better place. Our national security, legitimacy, and future depend on it.

What is one thing you will do to start breaking down the walls of fear that divide us?

What is one thing you can do to retake control of the American experiment?

Thanks for reading!

John P.

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