America’s greatest threat lies within
This and two earlier columns argued that the greatest dangers facing the presidents of China, Russia and the U.S. are domestic in character. That should surprise some readers, as the conventional view in America, confirmed by polls, is that the largest threats to this nation are China and Russia. Don’t count on that.
The first column called Chinese President Xi Jinping’s actions a “Reverse Gorbachev” in which, instead of “opening” Chinese society as Mikhail Gorbachev did in the USSR, inadvertently ending the Soviet Union, Xi is closing it down. The huge protests against the “zero COVID” policy are an example. But make no mistake: By imposing tight controls on Chinese society, Xi is killing off the entrepreneurial reforms unleashed under Deng Xiaoping and breaking the social contract with the Chinese people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps without appreciating the consequences, has duplicated the brittle and vulnerable Soviet style of central political control. But Putin does not have the party cadres and organization or socialist ideology to enforce his decisions and must depend on his popularity to maintain legitimacy. His “special military operation” in Ukraine is challenging that level of public support even though the secret police and other government agents can attempt to eliminate or neutralize dissent.
President Biden’s major challenge is a broken American society. The unraveling began in early August 1964. In response to what was mistakenly cast as a second series of North Vietnamese PT boat attacks against two U.S. Navy destroyers that did not occur, with only two dissenting votes in both Houses, Congress passed and Lyndon Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. That resolution was a de facto declaration of war that led to the Vietnam quagmire.
Then, about 80 percent of Americans trusted and believed the federal government and the word of its leaders. Fifty-eight years later, about 80 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. And few trust government, including the Supreme Court, which many believe has become overly politicized. Worse, the basis of government, the U.S. Constitution, may not be fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Why? For the Constitution and separation of powers to work, at least one of three conditions must apply. One party has veto-proof control of Congress and of the White House as well as at least five Supreme Court votes. No president, not even Franklin Roosevelt with huge congressional majorities, has achieved that.
Second, a crisis such as the attack on Pearl Harbor rallies a divided nation. But COVID-19, in which more Americans died than have been killed in battle in every war the nation has fought since 1775, further divided the nation. Last, civility and compromise are present. Both are missing in action.
Exacerbating these factors is the extraordinarily toxic partisanship that is a major contributor to failed and failing government. Many in both parties regard the other as evil. The aim is to seize power to prevent the opposition from destroying the nation. One example of this hyper partisanship: Years ago, marriage outside religion was taboo. Today, marriage outside political affiliation is increasingly discouraged.
With Republicans in control of the House or Representatives, governing will be far more difficult. The GOP majority will retaliate against the Democrats for impeaching former President Trump twice and imposing what Republicans assert is a woke agenda and a cancel culture mentality. Democrats continue to regard the Republican Party in the shadow of the last president as a threat to democracy.
Lincoln was correct. A House divided cannot stand. What then can President Biden do to bind the nation while not ignoring the reality of Chinese and Russian assaults on the international order?
When asked at his last press conference what he would do differently in his next two years, Biden said: “nothing.” Biden is correct. Legislation has been passed and will take time to take effect. If, in the next 18 months, inflation declines to 5 percent or less; gasoline at $2.50 a gallon; and the stock markets recover, Republicans will have an uphill electoral battle in 2024. However, that does not mean a broken society will be self-repairing.
What Biden must do is summon congressional leadership to Camp David before Christmas and keep them sequestered until agreement can be reached on several crucial issues, including the debt ceiling; the budget; reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887; and bringing some measure of civility to the political discourse.
Will that work? Perhaps. But absent that effort, America is in graver peril at home than abroad and, worse, few Americans realize it.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.