Economics, Politics

Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

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President Obama recently made a speech to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, arguing that climate change is a national security issue. This is an argument that the Pentagon made in a report last year. Many others have been making it for over a decade.

I’ve often thought that progressives who care about climate change should make the connection to national security more often, in an attempt to appeal to the values of cultural conservatives — although there will of course be limits to the persuasiveness of such an appeal if conservatives perceive it as coming from liberals.

More generally, what President Obama might call “a whole host of”* progressive policies could be advocated on national security grounds. This casts a new light on several previous arguments that have appeared on this blog.

Specifically: in earlier posts, I’ve thought about the shape of a new progressive era — that is, a political and constitutional regime to replace the smoldering detritus of the Reagan era. I concluded that a new progressive era would almost certainly be primarily defined by economic issues, just like the Reagan era and the New Deal era before it, rather than by (for example) environmental issues, or campaign finance reform, or constitutional reform, because there appears to exist a relatively stable hierarchy of political concerns among voters, and the economy appears to be close to the top. In fact, economic concerns appear to be trumped only by grave and pressing threats to national security, and perhaps serious threats to cultural identity or honor. Because national security and cultural identity threats are rarely significant enough to trump economic concerns, it makes sense that elections in the United States and in other more or less well-functioning democracies (according to the political scientists who study these things) tend to be largely determined by economic performance in the run-up to the election.

But all of this creates a potential puzzle for those of us who have an eye for the indeterminacy of meanings — that is, for humanities people, rather than the social scientists who for the most part study the kinds of issues discussed in the preceding paragraphs: who is to say what counts as an economic issue, a national security issue, or a threat to a group’s demand for recognition?

As Obama’s speech suggests, environmental issues can be reframed as national security issues. Of course, climate change could be — and often has been — reframed as an economic issue as well (“green jobs,” etc.).

And as my comment above suggested, any number of other issues close to progressive hearts could be reframed as national security issues. Consider all the young people who would like to serve in the military but can’t satisfy its physical or educational standards. It appears that up to 75% of young people would not qualify for service due to health concerns such obesity, educational concerns such as lacking a high school degree, or criminal records.

Progressives tend to talk about the following policies in terms of economic inequality: our failure to provide easily accessed and effective universal health care, education and support for new mothers, paid parental leave, early childhood education, progressive funding that gives greater resources to schools in poor areas, healthier environmental and food policies, better public transportation, higher minimum wages, more power to unions, monetary and trade policy that promotes full employment, and on and on. Rather than addressing inequality of opportunity as a strictly economic issue, could it also be addressed as a national security issue? Someone could argue: We’re weakening our armed forces by failing to provide the resources that would make more of the next generation physically and educationally fit to serve.

Surely it’s not a coincidence that the military itself looks a lot like a socialist state on the inside: free or highly discounted health insurance and health care, food and housing subsidies, generous support for new parents, strict regulations regarding health, less threat of being fired, a fixed and much flatter distribution of incomes than in the civilian world, and so on. (The world of the military even looks like a socialist state. Someone who drives through a U.S. military base for the first time might be surprised by how the layout — wide, largely empty streets, standardized buildings separated by large distances, rows of identical houses — resembles something from a Soviet central planning document.) If the military has found something like socialism useful for ensuring the readiness of servicemembers, might not a few of these policies also be useful in promoting the readiness of American civilian society to face future threats?

Or consider the longstanding progressive suspicions of what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex,” and of wasteful military adventures. Rather than framing these concerns in terms of peace or justice — or, even less effectively, in terms of the ostensible immorality of U.S. foreign policy — the concerns could be framed as national security issues. As Paul Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, military overextension and adventurism is the greatest threat to national power in the long term, because it eats away at economic strength — which is the strongest predictor of national power in the long term. At the same time, the fondness of some progressives for small-scale, ideally multilateral humanitarian interventions could be defended in national security terms as a way of increasing the United States’ soft power and perceived legitimacy.

The list could go on. Once one accepts Paul Kennedy’s premise that economic strength leads to and underlies military strength, nearly all large-scale economic issues become national security issues. Long-term growth appears to require a strong middle class, which appears to require all kinds of progressive policies that the Right might denounce as socialist but that could conceivably be defended as vital to America’s long-term national security.

Could a new progressive era be defined by national security concerns? Could the Reagan era be displaced by a (progressive) vision of governance based on enduring, resilient national security?

I suppose the answer depends in part on how the ideological meanings of various concrete policies get established. If it is within progressives’ power to reframe their policy preferences in the public imagination as necessary for protecting America’s national security, and if this could somehow elevate these policies into a paramount concern for voters (at or near the apex of the hierarchy of political needs), then it might not be inconceivable that the next political or constitutional regime in the United States could be a new progressive era defined, exceptionally, by national security rather than economic concerns — just as the Civil War and Reconstruction era was primarily defined not by economic concerns but by concerns surrounding national security, cultural identity, and race.

Maybe, however, such a strategy is doomed to failure, because of the second “if” in the previous paragraph. Sure, any concern can be rhetorically reframed as a national security concern; but only those national security concerns that are perceived as serious, imminent threats end up trumping the economy in the hierarchy of political needs. The national security threat posed by climate change or the decline of the middle class is too gradual to be imminent. Conservatives are free to argue that the erosion of traditional family structures and sexual morality are a national security threat, and progressives are free to argue that climate change is as well, but neither side will succeed in persuading the body politic that addressing these issues is more urgent than increasing the availability of good jobs.


*(I hadn’t heard the phrase “a whole host of” in regular use before Obama, just as I hadn’t heard the use of “grow” as a transitive verb with “the economy” as its direct object until George W. Bush frequently used the phrase. It turns out that Bill Clinton actually popularized this usage — but in an illustration of tribal cognition, I still sometimes find myself strangely bothered by the phrase “grow the economy.” I doubt I would be bothered if I associated the phrase with Clinton instead of Bush… especially because I ordinarily don’t care much at all about proper usage — because Shakespeare, etc.)


One thought on “Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

  1. Pingback: Constitutional Rot: A Thought Experiment | Against the Logicians

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