Peace with Consequence: Understanding Political Conflict after the Obama Era

There is more war in America’s future.

I speculate this occurrence not for desire to fear-monger, or because of a singular conflict, misfortune, or accident, but because all evidence of current political behavior indicates that, as a society, we actually want war. Like an impulse to itch, politics of the present — namely, democratically elected officials and their voters who promote fear or skepticism of other, the lure of “greatness,” as well as a swelling tendency towards nationalist movements worldwide — indicate an irresistible desire to fight for something, in the name of something, be it the facade of greatness, hope for financial prosperity, or the prosperity of democracy. In other words, the violent politics of now indicate a no-longer-dormant desire to find meaning through a struggle, dominance, and “winning.”

The existential current of a desire for meaning is nothing new in politics: it perjoratively provides the undercurrent for most citizen’s political outlooks, no matter their party. Conservatives and liberals alike utilize their vote as a means to finding meaning in their government. This makes sense. This is a basic principle of politics.

What might not be so obvious is the means by which respective parties find meaning. Conservatives, “hawks,” and the newly voiced Alt-Right support commerce-oriented conflict, or even flat-out war, argueing that this acceptance of inter-special conflict comes from a place that is noble, i.e. a fight for existential “meaning.” This is, to these voters, a different kind of progress, one that is more visible, tangible, and measurable; it quite literally fights for the democracy, via policies like the decline of a corrupt dictator, or the return to small, laissez faire governance. Likewise, Conservatives willingly sacrifice the lure of peace for that of “greatness,” truth, or the right to fight for a piece of the pie.

In his famous War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges breaks down the cultural mythology of war for soldiers and citizens alike, noting its potent and addictive psychological effects. In it, he writes,

Even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent…. War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one.

Hedges’ book is filled with chapters titles like, “The Plague of Nationalism,” and “The Hijacking and Recovery of Memory.” While these titles negatively connotate the admiration of “fighting for freedom,” their breakdown of the psychological effect of war is nearly irrefutable. War, undeniably, makes us feel like as a society, together, we are aiming and reaching for some end.

As conventional as this mindset might seem for the conservative sect, this idea is not witheld to one party alone. Liberals today suprisingly seem just as prone to fight for meaning. This is demonstrated by different means: some want to “resist” violently, some not. Regardless, liberals just as easily fight on. Their motivations? Instead of financial or more tangible progress, Dems are fueled to defend the identity of those that have no place. Be it via Twitter, live protests, or anarchist rebellion, liberals lately do not often demonstrate a desire for peace, either; rather, they want a different kinf of “greatness”-equality- and some even seem ready to bear arms for it.

Regardless of your party affiliate, both sides are or can be driven by the desire to fight or stand up for their belief systems. The amount of conflict between the two has certainly varied throughout American political history, but as it stands today, the divide between the two sides is at a record high, and continues to increase. This is evidenced by numeral sources that indicate a lack of bipartisan politics and continuous data showing less and less overlap between parties in Congress. Today is an era in which bipartisan politicians and voters are majoritavely hated. Together, a picture is being painted with both sides of the political spectrum saying, “We do not want to compromise. We are willing to fight for what we want. We want conflict. We want war.”

Certainly, historical perspectives on times of great internal divide provide an indication of what might lie ahead for America. In 1946, for example, less than one year following the conclusion of the Second World War, Aldous Huxley and his publishers released a newly printed edition of his dystopian Brave New World. The novel famously depicts a futuristic disaster laced with drugs, meaningless sex, and phony spirituality. In the “Foreward” to this new, ’46 edition, Huxley looks at the recent history of partisan politics. He writes,

For the last 30 years, there have been no conservatives; there have been only nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left… The nationalistic radicals had their way, with consequences we all know — Bolshevism, Fascism, inflation, depression, Hitler, the Second World War, the ruin of Europe and all but universal famine. (xii)

Sound familiar? Huxley’s outlook on the polarized political climate surrounding WWII perhaps reflects the future of our current growing distance between the political parties. Additionally, note how Huxley does not blame or accuse a particular party for such distance; rather, he points to nationalism. He does not specify if conservative- or liberal-based nationalistic radicals were resonsible for the separation, because at different times in history, it was both. Rather, Huxley claims that “nationalistic radicals had their way”- a much more bipartisan outlook on the mid-century’s history of conflict.

Of course, it is quite possible that Huxley is wrong, that he is overtly negative in outlook, and that wars were driven by individuals, rather than groups, taking outlandish and extremist positions. This is a potentially legitimate argument, especially if one considers the remarkably dark pictures he paints throughout Brave New World, as well as the monolithic politics of the age in which he was writing.

Still, should Huxley’s political perspective indicate any truth at all, it would appear, then, that one could conclude war at the time of WWII was promoted from the interior of the political structures and then supported by the nationalistic enthusiasm it garnered. Propoganda at this time was key to the snowballing of nationalism. Mein Kumpf was one approach, sure, but genocidal Germany also manipulated the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, artwork, music, and newspapers. All of these media were adopted to promote a state of total war, the fight to “be better,” and nationalism.

Turning back to the present, it would appear that increased nationalism of today is a reaction to something, some lack of struggle for an identity. The end of the Obama era might simultaneously indicate the end of certain kind of political pacifism. While Obama by no means ennacted or demonstrated a completely conflict-free presidency, he indeed ushered international political peace, a peace that was at the very least advocated by his office in its relations with global powers by its resistance to act. Even his more-recent finger-waving at Valdimir Putin stands as an increasingly-relevant symbol of his refusal to act in compliance with worldwide conflict. Obama’s politics were laced with the intention to come to as little armistice as possible, and perhaps even ennabled a certain kind of impunity.

Domestically, one could easily point to Obama’s more leftist actions as rabble-rousing (Guantanamo, Obamacare). After all, he was ranked one of the poorist in history for his relations with congress. However, Obama’s presidency was not particularly at armistice with conservatives; it was also laced with bipartisan moments that just as significantly contribute to his legacy as a domestic pacifist. Namely, his “buy-out” of the private sector during 2008’s housing crisis. This was Obama’s first year in office, and he might have used this opportunity to take a stand against the laizzes faire corruption of banks nation-wide. Such a motion might have garnered more support from his constituents; instead, Obama chose to support the banks in their downfall. Whether or not this action actually saved the American economy or not, one cannot disagree this as, at the very minimum, a symbolic gesture of peace with the Republican party, one that arguably defined his pacifistic stance. In one of his most public, early decisions, Obama chose to support, rather than abandon, a predominantly right-wing establishment. Ironically, even conservatives did not seem overwhelmingly supportive of this decision.

None of the previously highlighted moments are intented to be glamorized as a sort of ideal; rather, they should be objectively seen as a political stance that occurs with real consequences. Like the schoolboy who refuses to exchange blows, Obama’s political peace, both domestically and internationally, quite obviously aggravated the American political consciousness. It did it’s own damage. Obama’s arms-down approach to international affairs, and even domestic ones, got under the proverbial skin of both adversaries and party affiliates for its lack of a clear progress. The conflict-embracing, no fear nationalist political climate of the Trump era indicates this as a hard-to-argue truth.

What did Obama do? “Nothing,” many argue. This stance can come from the left and the right. Indeed, if your political outlook on civilization is one that it should always be fighting for something, no matter your party affiliate, you would be right. By refusing to act aggresively towards some specific end, the pacifism of Obama has taken its toll on America’s sense of meaning. For many Americans, Trump is the antidote for the idleness of their sense of purpose.

Pacifism takes critiques from both sides of the aisle. Even outspoken democratic-socialist George Orwell spoke of pacifism’s potentially mind-numbing effect:

While I would not go so far as to claim that the pacifist is “Pro-Nazi,” as Orwell has here, a Trump supporter might make such a statement. The correlation to the right-wing’s take on Obama’s approach to modern-day terrorism is uncanny: Trump supporters guffaw at Obama’s resistance to move more actively against terrorism. Again, in this area, Obama did not fight for America, according to Trumpers. Such a neutral stance leaves many searching for a national identity at all.

And by not fighting earlier, we fight now. So the pendulum swings back. Where we had little fighting before, we have plenty of it now.

However, what still stands to be proven is whether or not Obama’s America will actually show long-standing sense of progress. Will public healthcare, among his other actions, stand as a legacy? Or will Obama’s peaceful message itself leave him comparable to the likes of Ghandi or MLK? Perhaps at his worst, he will he slip into the ether of the Jimmy Carter-reputation, who is recognized as a president who was just too darn nice for office.

Regardless, it should be noted that Obama’s era of peace and pacifism is, for all intents and purposes, over.

But not without leaving its mark on the present.

-Sean Marshall