A Foreign Policy for the Privileged Class

In the 20th century the conception and execution of US foreign policy largely became insulated from the American people. How did we get here? And what does it mean for the left?

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A foundational political assumption with which most American citizens implicitly agree is that the public should inform policy. Though people may disagree as to the mechanism of public influence—should the public shape policy through direct plebiscite? mass demonstrations? Congress?—if asked, the majority of Americans would likely insist that a government that makes decisions without reference to its demos could hardly be considered a democratic government at all.

It’s a tragedy, then, that for seventy-five years US elites have done whatever they could to limit ordinary people’s ability to shape their government’s choices, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

While it seems like it’s been with us forever, genuinely mass politics is a rather new phenomenon. Beginning in the nineteenth century, processes of urbanization, industrialization, and technological development gave rise to the establishment of novel types of political formations that relied on the “masses” for their legitimacy and influence. This era, in fact, was the period when the political spectrum we still live with today came into being, with avowedly socialist parties facing off against liberal parties facing off against reactionary parties.

The power of the so-called “masses” continued to grow over the course of the early twentieth century as more and more people moved to cities and became workers. Furthermore, new technologies like the radio enabled leaders to communicate directly with the public. Predictably, this engendered significant debate among elites about the proper role of the public in policymaking.

In the United States of the 1920s, two prominent public intellectuals, the journalist Walter Lippmann (d. 1974) and the philosopher John Dewey (d. 1952), engaged in a debate that continues to define how Americans understand the public’s political role.

On one hand, Lippmann argued that ordinary people were simply too ignorant and too easily manipulated to be given the reins of public policy. Instead, he affirmed, social scientists needed to attach themselves to institutions that provided the government with advice. In this way, Lippmann presented academic expertise as the solution to the problems of modernity.

On the other hand, Dewey averred that, though Lippmann was correct to doubt the contemporary public’s wisdom, the solution was not to elide the masses, but to educate them. Through education, Dewey claimed, ordinary people would eventually gain the knowledge necessary to make good political choices.

The Lippmann-Dewey debate was one of the most important of the twentieth century, and still shapes how intellectuals understand mass politics. (For the Noam Chomsky fans, it was Lippmann who coined the phrase “the manufacture of consent” in his 1922 Public Opinion.)

For much of the 1920s and early 1930s, the majority of American intellectuals embraced Dewey’s position over Lippmann’s: democracy, they maintained, relied on an educated, mass public.

Nevertheless, by the late 1930s many intellectuals began to switch their position and endorse Lippmann’s arguments over Dewey’s. Why? First, the Great Depression, which witnessed bank runs and other “irrational” behaviors, suggested to many elites that the masses were innately unreasonable. Second, and more important, the rise of the Nazi Party—an admittedly and viciously racist, expansionist, and militarist mass political movement—demonstrated to many observers that ordinary people could be easily duped to support destructive leaders like Adolf Hitler.

Together, the Depression and the rise of Nazism persuaded an emergent majority of American elites that ordinary people could simply not be trusted. Mass politics became something to be tamed rather than embraced.

This was especially true when it came to international politics. As I discussed in an earlier column, since Nazism’s emergence US elites have viewed international relations as a sphere of life defined by the struggle between Manichean enemies. It’s therefore unsurprising that after World War II, when the United States faced a seemingly existential enemy in the Soviet Union, elites constructed a state apparatus designed to limit the public’s ability to shape foreign policy. From this perspective, the creation of the National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, and Department of Defense was about establishing governance structures that ensured it was elites, and not the masses, who decided what the United States did in the world.

If one takes a hard look at the history of US foreign policy since World War II, it’s fairly clear that the public has had, at best, a minor influence on either its conception or execution. All of the major strategic decisions of the post-1945 period—to build a global empire; to intervene constantly in the politics of other countries; to deploy thousands upon thousands of troops abroad—have been made with only passing reference to public opinion. In fact, as readers of this column know, Congress itself has been a secondary player in US foreign policy decision-making, having not officially declared war since 1942.

Instead of being a partner at the foreign policymaking table, the public has been mostly a silent witness, forced to express its preferences at mass events like the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstration of October 1969 or the anti-Iraq War protests of February 2003. And, though these were noble moments of resistance, suffice it to say that the US military remained involved in the Vietnam War until 1975 and invaded Iraq in March 2003.

The decline of mass politics presents the anti-imperialist American left with a significant problem. Namely, it suggests that our major potential advantage—masses of people—is not especially important when it comes to foreign affairs. Instead, foreign policymaking has become an incredibly elite sphere, subject to the whims of people who occupy positions within government or influential think tanks like the RAND Corporation, Brookings Institution, or the Center for Strategic and International Studies. One might also add defense contractors, foreign agents, and individual billionaires to this list. This may be difficult to hear, but it’s the truth.

What, then, is to be done?

There are no easy answers to this question. Indeed, it poses new ones: Should the left embrace or abandon a grassroots strategy? Should we attempt to establish institutions of our own, building upon the success of transpartisan groups like the Quincy Institute? Should we try to change popular culture and thus expose Americans to the evils of their empire?

If the left is to one day win, we need to take the decline of mass politics seriously. Otherwise, we will continue to remain on the outside looking in.