Andrew Bacevich on Washington’s Tacit Consensus

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Credit: Dale Robbins
What words best describe present-day Washington politics? The commonplace answer, endlessly repeated by politicians themselves and media observers alike, is this: dysfunction, gridlock, partisanship and incivility. Yet here’s a far more accurate term: tacit consensus. Where Republicans and Democrats disagree, however loudly, matters less than where their views align. Differences entertain. Yet like-mindedness, even if unacknowledged, determines both action and inaction.

In the ‘Bill-W.-Obama’ era, a neoliberal consensus defines American politics. In his classic text, The American Political Tradition, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified the parameters of that consensus. It emphasizes, he wrote, “the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition.” It assumes “the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion … into a beneficent social order.” Grab and get ultimately works for the larger benefit of all. That, at least, is the idea.

President Barack Obama, center, speaks as former Presidents Bill Clinton, left, and George W. Bush, right, listen in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010. Bush and Clinton have been asked by Obama to help with US relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama, center, speaks as former Presidents Bill Clinton, left, and George W. Bush, right, listen in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington in 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Of course, when Hofstadter published these observations way back in 1948, his subject was not the neoliberalism of our day but an earlier variant — the progressivism that had shaped the American political agenda during the first decades of the 20th century. During the era bookended by the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, progressives had sought — successfully — to preserve corporate capitalism by curbing its excesses. Attacked by their critics as radicals, TR and FDR were in fact anything but.

By 1948, Hofstadter was worried that progressivism had become a spent force, leaving Americans “bereft of a coherent and plausible body of beliefs.” In fact, a revised, more assertive brand of liberalism was already gathering strength. While this new Cold War liberalism differed from pre-World War II progressivism in some respects, protecting the “free enterprise” system remained a top priority. With perceived threats to that system now coming primarily from abroad, exercising global leadership, backed by ample military muscle, now became one of liberalism’s abiding signatures. This modified consensus, superseding progressivism, dominated the American political scene for several decades during the latter half of the 20th century.

Although the Cold War has long since ended, this emphasis on an expansive, militarized foreign policy persists. If there’s a fresh element in today’s neoliberal consensus, it’s found in the realm of culture. As neoliberals see it, received norms related to family, gender and sexuality ought to be optional. What Hofstadter in his time described as a “democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity” has become in our day a democracy combining cupidity with individual autonomy at the expense of fraternity and self-restraint, all backed by the world’s most powerful, widely deployed and busily employed military establishment.

To imply that all Americans subscribe to this neoliberal consensus would be misleading, of course. A loosely-organized antiwar movement objects, however ineffectually, to Washington’s penchant for military adventurism.
Are the troops in Afghanistan fighting for our freedom? If so, the package of things they fight for includes the prerogative of dispatching US forces to wherever it pleases Washington to send them, along with no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, gay marriage, and an economic system that manifestly privileges the interests of the affluent at the expense of those hard-pressed to make ends meet. To pretend otherwise, indulging in some sanitized or cliché-laced definition of freedom, is to engage in willful self-deception. 

To imply that all Americans subscribe to this neoliberal consensus would be misleading, of course. A loosely-organized antiwar movement objects, however ineffectually, to Washington’s penchant for military adventurism. Moral traditionalists protest against the casting off of social conventions, again without discernible impact on policy. Risking the charge of engaging in class warfare, groups such as the Occupy Wall Street movement raise a ruckus about the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else. Again, the effects of their efforts appear negligible.

As far as their practical impact is concerned, these dissenters might as well be locked in a soundproof booth. They shout, but are not heard. Hofstadter had anticipated their predicament. “The range of ideas … which practical politicians can conveniently believe in,” he observed, “is normally limited by the climate of opinion that sustains their culture.”

Here we come to the heart of the matter: the climate of opinion. Only politicians who possess an aptitude for interpreting the prevailing climate will succeed in gaining and holding high office. In the political sphere, ideas at variance with that climate are by definition inconvenient. Expedience dictates that they should be ignored.

Watch: Andrew Bacevich on Changing Our Military Mindset

Whether the precepts informing basic US policy today actually work as advertised – whether the neoliberal consensus keeps us safe, liberates us from archaic and repressive attitudes, and creates conditions conducive to broad prosperity or whether they foster needless wars, moral confusion, and social injustice is an interesting question. That the question deserves more attention than it presently receives is undoubtedly the case. What cannot be argued, however, is that those precepts depart in any significant way from what the prevailing climate of opinion demands.

Andrew Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A graduate of the US Military Academy, he received his PhD in American diplomatic history from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University.
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  • Richard Carter

    Dr. Bacevich says Richard Hofstadter identified in 1948 the parameters of a “neoliberal consensus” that emphasizes, Hofstadter wrote, “the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition,” and which assumes “the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion … into a beneficent social order.” Mr. Bacevich then restates as the more blunt–and stark–“Grab and get ultimately works for the larger benefit of all.” Then Mr. Bacevich gives us the actuality: “That, at least, is the idea.” There is a hint there that “the idea” is false. And it is.

    One can see in America, and perhaps increasingly in the rest of the developed world, that with “Grab and get” as the expected, the paradigm, the common consensus, them what grabs get and have and those that don’t grab but just go along doing what actually keeps themselves and society going day-by-day have it grabbed from them.

    Mr Bacevich soon brings up the facilitator of a successful process. Between Teddy & FDR, “progressives had sought–successfully–to preserve corporate capitalism,” and here is the enabler, “by curbing its excesses.” The last 50 years have seen the erosion of the social consensus that enforced controls or curbs. The Conservative Movement began in earnest, from what I’ve seen on the ground, as a grunt (to use a non-technical military term), in the Sixties. And conservatism, as necessary to survival of a social animal as “liberalism,” gradually has become its present twisted, non-conservative big-C Conservatism. The makers are called the takers and the takers (the grabbers, the skimmers) are called the makers. Zero sum has been accepted by nearly all: I win; you lose.

    I’ll re-read this piece again and think about it. Seems after two readings that it’s kind of squishy, unusual for Mr Bacevich. The “climate of opinion” term is worth some cogitation.

  • Anonymous

    Look, a country has inner turmoil. We pick a side, does not matter which side, then just drop bombs on the other side. Which side wins? Neither. Only winner is the US military industrial complex.

  • Anonymous

    I fail to see how reproductive freedom and marriage equality have anything to do with the neoliberal consensus that defines our imperial national security state. The previous administration ardently opposed gay rights and reproductive choice, yet was every bit as committed to advancing the imperial corporate agenda as is the current head of state.
    Maybe Col. Bacevich is lumping our military expansionist policies with these affronts to his Catholic sensibilities purely out of personal preference?

  • Anonymous

    We saw the Deep State in action when Halliburton placed Cheney in office. We got two wars, thousands of our young sons killed, a tanked economy, while Halliburton’s profits soared. It paid off for Halliburton, so why shouldn’t Wall Street try it! Makes me ill! Koch’s money got Paul Ryan on the ticket as VP. Just keep distracting the pubic with non issues like gay marriage, abortion, prayer in schools.

  • Mr. Lou

    Are we done yet.. Listening to these experts trying to analyze these mega problems?
    Frankly, where are the leaders who pose possible solutions? There are none! That’s why this has gone this far. No one is brave enough to stop it.

  • Bullhorn Journal

    I suspect that it is more an impossibility for anyone of any substantial character enough to ‘stop it’ to actually gain any power within the system than a lack of those brave enough for the task–which is essentially what Bacevich is saying in this essay. The Washington Consensus vets all who apply, and discharges the ‘brave’ at the level of city councilman with a raft of money to his opponent. The rare exception being the occasional rogue Tea Party populist, ironically enough. Only a constitutional amendment defining a human as a human and speech as speech (not money) will have any effect. But the fight starts at your town hall, I’m afraid, and there won’t be any cameras and it will be pretty boring, actually.

  • kingdo goodbomber

    Americans are far too ignorant to understand anything that goes on past the tip of their genitals let alone understand anything abstract. In fact, they seem to worship the American Taliban Special Forces death squads. That’s why there is no effective push back, Americans like the situation and don’t want to hear from Negative Nancy.

    “Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    -Frederick Douglass

  • RC

    re: the “abortion on demand…” reference I think
    Colonel Bacevich is simply widening the lens for the reader to show that our
    military objectives include not only the propaganda (“Freedom”
    “Hearts and Minds” etc.) but also the reality. He names some aspects
    of American culture but not only progressive social issues; he ends the
    sentence with what I would call a concise description of the currently-reigning
    American plutocracy. But more importantly (to my mind) is where he begins that
    thought, by defining “the package of things they fight for includes the
    prerogative of dispatching US forces to wherever it pleases Washington to send

    His overall theme in the video is undeniable I think: the “American
    century,” if it actually should be termed America’s century, is over.
    Washington can no longer unilaterally “call the shots,” politically,
    financially or militarily. There are other actors now who hold significant
    positions of power. Americans can choose ignorance and politically-sanitized
    “exceptionalism,” clinging to pride in accomplishments decades-old.
    Or she can wake up to reality and practice some humility on the world stage. In
    the words of C.S. Lewis: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself;
    it is thinking of yourself less.”

    America is strong enough to face itself and accept
    responsibility for its actions. Over its history certain decisions made by American
    leaders continue to affect us today. Some of them are never discussed let alone
    taught to our children. What effect does this have on our world view today?

    I am not optimistic that a change in attitude can occur in the U.S. without a
    drastic and probably tragic event (or events) that affect the majority of her citizens.
    We had a chance after September 11, 2001 but we blew it. Our response to the
    attacks that day is a study in geopolitical and patriotic blindness. Since then
    we have, in our national discourse chosen to remain ignorant of the grievances
    and conditions that provoked such an attack. We’ve chosen to dismiss the
    concerns of an entire region of people, an area of the world America and its
    allies are heavily invested in across the board. In effect, as far as the mainstream
    media goes they are all (or mostly) “terrorists,” hence undeserving
    of any thoughtful consideration. Occasionally we get glimpses of new developments
    in the Arab world, like the possible suspension of Iran’s nuclear program and the
    more moderate voices coming out of Tehran. But they are presented to the
    American public as side shows, whether it’s coverage of the “Arab Spring” or the
    ongoing confrontations in Egypt. The underlying message still seems to be, “they’re
    all crazy, bent on annihilation of Israel and America. Military force is the
    only way to safeguard our interests.”

    This blindness, this willful ignorance is not only childish
    it’s dangerous. It’s produced an American public so unaware of world events that
    this lack of knowledge has become simultaneously (and paradoxically) a joke as
    well as a source of pride. It’s fed the American exceptionalism meme, conveying
    not only superiority but promoting dehumanization of (at least) “Arabs” “Muslims” and “Islamic fundamentalists.”

    I am sure Colonel Bacevich is correct when he suggests that
    perhaps only 2 out of 100 random Americans could identify the circumstances
    surrounding the Suez crisis in 1956 or the British/American-led coup d’état in
    Iran in 1953. I wonder how many Americans today believe “most Muslims are

    America cannot afford to continue glossing over and sanitizing its
    history. The attacks on September 11, 2001 showed how high the stakes are
    for American citizens. We’re not safe from the world anymore; our military
    might can’t extinguish every threat. We need to educate ourselves and that
    requires some humility. Unfortunately the mainstream media no longer considers educating the public a part of its job description. Right now it is woefully unprepared even if it wanted to attempt the task. But if we’re to understand our place in the world and define our role as a global power we must open our eyes to some other points of view, some other perspectives. We need to do this for so many reasons and the most pressing one is our national security, our own safety.

    America’s “war on terrorism” has us killing American
    citizens and scores of others without any semblance of public input and
    precious little Congressional oversight. The secret (“classified”)
    FISA court review is apparently the only stage of the process that allows for
    any representation of the accused. I know we have enemies, I understand it’s
    hard and sometimes impossible to capture them. But shouldn’t we first admit
    that our intelligence in identifying our enemies is probably not what it should
    be? In a country where ignorance is at least to some degree celebrated and
    confused with patriotism how sure are we that we’re killing the right people? What
    is the collateral damage of this ignorance,? It is already responsible for killing
    a number of innocent people. How many? We don’t know. President Obama says
    these deaths are inescapable consequences of the war on terrorism and that he and his advisers do everything possible to minimize them. Even so, maybe it’s
    time we reevaluate this never-ending global war and walk ourselves back from President Bush’s assertion that “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” At
    some point we must realize that investing only in the hammer makes everything
    look like a nail.

  • John Taylor

    The American people will fix this mess

  • GregoryC

    I think the US creates enemies for economic domination: looting of natural resources to maintain economic growth benefiting the ruling elite. Pivot to Asia plus the expansion of AFRICOM extraction of natural resources from the African continent and attempting to control China’s efforts to do likewise.

  • GregoryC

    Americans are kept ignorant by corporate media which focuses on issues that divide us (the false left-right, republican-democrat, liberal-conservative issues) which is the perception of Washington politics and their media coverage described by Mr. Bacevich. The media gives little attention to those policies of agreement by the parties, the very serious people of Washington-Wall Street like “entitlement reform,” increased defense spending, corporate tax rate cuts, deficit reduction, etc.

  • anon

    A large part of political liberalism is the atomization of society into individuals that are exempt from societal norms, and are thus free to pursue whatever pleases them — which could be a homosexual identity, a gender change, dope, etc.

    Political liberalism seen in this light aligns very neatly with economic liberalism. After all, what is the difference between the pursuit of profit (to the total disregard of the welfare of the collective) and the pursuit of “vibrant.” “diverse.” and “non-traditional-lifestyles,” which disregard centuries of cultural norms.

    It appears that free markets and the pursuit of profit lead inexorably to the valueless society of post-modernism. Noam Chomsky’s insight that capitalism is inherently anti-racist is a rare admission by the left that globalization , multi-culturalism and policies of “non-discrimination” are exactly what the capitalist elite favor, precisely because it “opens up” the market.

  • Auntie Analogue

    My dear Gregory C, among your “etc.” I should include massive Third World immigration since the 1965 Hart-Cellers act, plus the massive Third World illegal immigration, both of which the Deep State loves as a means of disempowering, displacing, and dispossessing – by means of stagnated low wages due to massive oversupply of labor – what had been our historically unprecedented affluent – and thus politically powerful – middle class. Not to mention that all of this legal and illegal immigration also eliminates opportunities for America’s original racial minority of African-Americans.

  • RevPhil Manke

    If your information is severely censored and redacted by the conservative media, on what could you possibly base your opinion upon? When more than half of a nations GNP is invested in military expansion, how can any peaceful advancement even be seriously looked upon? It’s “a deep do-do state”!

  • Anonymous

    The US has only had one fundamental broadranging political consensus, that of the Military. Ike marshalled this with the Defense Highways and Defense Education policy act. JFK harnessed this by pulling the Aerospace contractors for the Apollo project. Nixon tried marshalling them to mass transit as the Vietnam War built down. Perhaps we should recognize them and deal with it and have the Aerospace community working on pushing technology for renewable energy, high production desalination, and new antibiotics.