The U.S. In 2020: E Pluribus Multis
Out Of Many, Many: America’s Divisions And Its Foreign Economic Policy
Moments in history, if sufficiently important, transcend themselves and endure into the future. Is the election in which Americans reinforced, if not exacerbated, their divisions, one such moment and, if so, what are the implications for American foreign economic policy?
America has been a 50-50 country, in terms of popular voting in presidential elections, for nearly four decades. The last landslide was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 victory over Walter Mondale. On Nov. 3, 2020, a numerical assertiveness from one side would have been an empirical demonstration of the nation’s official motto until 1956: e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Instead, the persistent numerical division reflects deep conceptual schisms that prove Americans are not united around an idea, even about its present motto ‘In God We Trust’.
And, if Americans are divided about their own identity, then they can’t forge a clear vision for how to interact with the world. America’s international terms of trade are confused because America’s philosophical self-examination is unresolved. Americans can’t decide if they’re utilitarian about democratic institutions. They can’t come together on the importance of integrity in their leaders. And, they can’t reach consensus on intrinsic goodness and human rights.
Utilitarianism – Institutions Matter
Democracy is all about institutions. No individual can appropriate those institutions, either in their processes or in the outcomes they deliver, for his own end. When that happens, governance is democratic in name, but authoritarian or (worse) totalitarian.
- Becoming utilitarian starts with a pragmatic ‘whoever is effective, whatever works’ approach. It then slides down a slippery slope where calculations are based on what is the ‘greatest-good-for-greatest-number’, like tapping into how “law & order” appeals to “the silent majority”.
- Then it’s downward to strong central power, an erosion of the rule of law and separation of powers. Think ideologically-driven nominations to the judiciary. Pluralism is rejected in favour of authoritarianism.
- Ultimately, with totalitarianism, the media is branded the “enemy of the people”, private life and thought are controlled and opposition isn’t tolerated.
Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle helped lay the foundations for utilitarianism. Americans cannot agree on utilitarianism, despite evidence from the last four years of its limitations. Kim Jong Un’s touted his intercontinental ballistic missiles in October 2020 in Pyongyong, notwithstanding three summits President Trump held with this North Korean totalitarian. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan assailed France’s laïcité, the secularism that underpins America’s Constitution written after a revolution the French supported, notwithstanding President Trump’s cozying up to this Turkish authoritarian to fix problems in Syria.
Given their domestic differences over whether institutions are only as good as the next cost-benefit test to which they are put, Americans cannot be expected to advance the theme set for them by President Thomas Jefferson, namely promote an “empire of liberty”. Many are relentless laissez-faire capitalists. Many are not. So, Americans can’t be trusted role models to support fledgling democratic aspirations overseas.
A possible U.S.-Kenya and U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement may be test cases. They are opportunities to advance the rule of law in Sub-Saharan Africa and stand up for democracy near the Chinese Mainland. But, these structures may fall prey to commercial self-interests that buy off enough support among a divided electorate to win them passage in Congress.
Likewise, an Indo-American FTA holds the promise of uniting the world’s largest and most religiously pluralistic free-market democracy with the world’s oldest, most powerful one.
Virtue Ethics – Actors Matter
Aristotle pioneered “virtue ethics.” By this term, he and successive philosophers mean that “ethics is about agents, not actions or consequences.” That is, “[l]iving an ethical, or good life … consists in the possession of the right character traits (virtues) and having, as a result, the appropriate moral character.” Underlying the numerical electoral divide, Americans split over the behaviour of President Trump: so monstrous that his allegedly good acts cannot save him, or dismissible conduct in light of his actions?
If Americans cannot decide whether Virtue Ethics matter, then they cannot prioritise the importance of a foreign actor versus his acts. How relevant should the conduct of foreign leaders be to deals America pursues with the countries of those leaders?
- A long-hoped-for trade liberalising arrangement with Brazil? Hmm, there’s Bolsonaro to contend with.
- Supporting Israel in its so-called peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan? Oops, Netanyahu seems always on trial for something or other.
- Working collaboratively on reforms in the Saudi Kingdom? Uh oh, that means dealing with Mohammed Bin Salman.
Deontology – Actions Matter
Americans are divided over Deontology.
“Deontological theories (derived from the Greek word for duty, deon) base morality on certain duties, or obligations, and claim that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong, that is, right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences that may follow from those actions.” Simply put, if an act is good by its nature, because it conforms with a moral norm, then it is moral.
In the domestic arena, those moral norms include the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law. That it doesn’t, in fact, is the core of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the international arena, those moral norms are clear: the 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. That they are not adhered to in China is adduced by the attempted destruction by the Chinese Communist Party of two civilisations, Tibetan and Uyghur, in less than one century.
If Americans can’t agree on whether Black Lives Matter, then they can’t be relied upon to help make Tibetan and Uyghur Lives Matter.
The commonality is human dignity, the creation of a human person in the image and likeness of God, thus rendering each person unique, unrepeatable, and priceless. Any act undermining that dignity is innately wrong. Application of this truth, again proposed as universal in Pope Francis’ October 2020 Encyclical Letter, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters, All), split even Catholic Americans: before the polls closed, 52% of said they’d pick Biden, and 40% Trump.
So, who knows if Americans will insist on catching up to the European Union by inserting “human rights” clauses in trade agreements? To be sure, the U.S. has a history dating to 1994 of labour rights provisions in FTAs, but the EU is more ambitious: its “essential elements” clause includes democracy, and expressly refers to the U.N. Declaration.
Is America Exceptional?
America is not divided by numerical electoral results per se. The numbers reflect a far worse problem, namely, tribalised peoples with different philosophical premises about public and personal morality. Political divides are social divides and vice versa. Americans ask “is the person on the other side like me?” Many say “no.”
When American voters want their society to be like them, they export their desire for homogeneity to foreign economic policy. From ranchers in the Southwest to factory workers in the Upper Midwest, from small and medium-sized enterprise owners outside Philadelphia, to corporate executives at multinational corporations based in Atlanta, Americans are not united on re-engagement with foreign trade and investment, nor on the acceptance of immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers.
To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with a country grappling with itself as to what side of an even 50-50 numerical balance it is on. That is especially true if electoral introspection aims to eschew disenfranchisement of any segment of the society. Yet after nearly four decades, America isn’t in agreement on foundational philosophical concepts of how to evaluate what is good, what constitutes the good life, and about how to be good.
The Ancient Greeks energetically and thoughtfully contested these points. They offered the world an idea on which America built its democracy. The first official act of American exceptionalism was George Washington’s Farewell Address in which he renounced the perpetuation of his own power, and offered this advice:
“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it?”
Are Americans in their present state showing themselves to be unworthy beneficiaries of this noble classical legacy, and thus – like so many other polities across history – unexceptional?
Raj Bhala is the inaugural Brenneisen Distinguished Professor, The University of Kansas, School of Law, Senior Advisor to Dentons U.S. LLP, and Member of the U.S. Department of State Speaker Program. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the State of Kansas or University, Dentons or any of its clients, or the U.S. government, and do not constitute legal advice.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.