At Home and Abroad

The United States’ preeminent position as the leading democracy in the world is threatened today by a breakdown in our politics that can be traced back to the 2000 election and the policy failures that occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I have seen this erosion in America’s standing firsthand in my work abroad. For the last 17 years I have worked on campaigns outside of the United States as a political consultant. That work, regarding the way in which American consultants run high-level political campaigns abroad, has been the subject of a study group that I led this fall at the Harvard Institute of Politics.

While working on one of these campaigns abroad in 2001, I flew to Dublin, Ireland where I had consulted on the previous general election in 1997 and was working again for the leaders of Fianna Fáil, the party of the government at that time. I was headed for a series of political meetings in preparation for the upcoming general election in 2002. Since I was working for a client on the West Coast of the United States, when I began my trip to Dublin, my journey took me through the Denver airport on the way to Chicago to catch a non-stop flight to Ireland.

In early October of 2001, the Denver airport—like many airports in America—could fairly be described as an armed camp. Throughout the spacious main terminal, troops with automatic weapons kept guard in the wake of the attacks on America by Al Qaeda terrorists. The reality of those terrorist attacks was palpable to every passenger that day, and as I saw firsthand when I worked for Senator John Kerry, the events of September 11, 2001, would shape the framework of our own American presidential campaign three years later.

After arriving in Ireland, I had a scheduled meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, at his constituency office in the Drumcondra section of Dublin. The small and unpretentious office known as “St. Luke’s” was a convenient hideaway for the Taoiseach where he would frequently meet with both his local constituents and national political advisors. As I stepped out of my taxi at St. Luke’s, the Taoiseach was arriving as well and met me on the sidewalk in front of the building. As he approached, he said in the most sincere and somber tones, “Tad, I’m very sorry.” At first, I did not quite understand the meaning of the Taoiseach’s condolence, but then I quickly realized that his heartfelt sympathy, something that was later conveyed to me by so many people who I met in Dublin in the days I spent there during that 2001 trip, was a reference to the terrorist attacks on my own country during the previous month.

America’s Falling Standing in the Post 9/11 World

The United States’ standing in the world reached a highpoint in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. It was reflected to me not just in the sincere expressions of condolence from a Prime Minister to an American citizen on a business trip, but also in the way that so many people all across Ireland and elsewhere around the world expressed their heartfelt support for the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks. During my career, I have worked on 14 foreign campaigns, which have permitted me to travel extensively to work for candidates for president and prime minister. I have seen firsthand how foreign leaders and the people who run their campaigns and nations feel about the United States. The time spent abroad also allows me to consume foreign media, not from the remote vantage point of a laptop computer in the United States, but rather,while watching local television broadcasts in hotel rooms and at campaign headquarters, listening to the radio news, and reading the hard copy broadsheets (which still play an important role in framing public opinion in capitals around the world).

While there was much sympathy for the United States in the days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, America’s standing in the world fell precipitously in subsequent months and years. This view is supported by extensive research conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Gallup Polling Organization.

The decline of America’s standing in the world was felt at home as well. The American people understood that the level of respect for our nation and our president likewise plummeted after decisions made by American leaders in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The results of Gallup’s poll on American perceptions of global respect for the US presidency from the mid-1990s until today confirm what polls of foreign respondents tell us—that the high point of respect and affection for America after the attacks was replaced by a trough of disaffection and disrespect towards our nation and its leadership.

 Recent polling confirms the assertion that towards the end of President Bush’s second term, the United States’ global standing was eroded by policy choices made by the Bush administration, such as the decision to invade Iraq and by the tactics utilized by our nation in the war on terror—from legalized torture, to extraordinary rendition, to the Guantanamo Bay imprisonment of captured enemies. While America’s standing has been revived dramatically in the aftermath of the election of President Obama, recent events have begun to erode that improved perception of American leadership again.

 American political consultants like myself have benefited from being abroad. Our long history as a birthplace of democratic institutions and America’s leading role in the economic, military, and cultural spheres have helped consultants not only in winning political business from foreign clients but in winning respect from leaders whom we were advising. Frankly to be an American political consultant in a foreign campaign is probably the single best pedigree for anyone in my business, given the general consensus shared by foreign leaders and campaign officials that our election contests are the most sophisticated and dynamic in the world and that our government actually still works. We have benefited from a form of American “exceptionalism,” a term which conservative commentators use as a wedge issue in politics but which more accurately describes the unique status that American democracy enjoyed before its slide downward in the first decade of this new century. However, the breakdown in our own politics now threatens the work that I, and other American consultants, conduct around the world. We, as American political consultants, no longer represent the gold standard of functioning democracies.

The Decline of American Political Exceptionalism

This American political decline can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2000 election, with the Florida recount’s “hanging chads” and the contested outcome of an election where the votes of 100 million people were decided effectively by a single vote on our Supreme Court. Needless to say, having spent the final five months helping run the Gore campaign in Nashville, I was disappointed in the outcome, especially after our comeback from a 17-point deficit in the polls as late as July. Having lived through a contested election in Colombia in 1994, when my candidate, Andres Pastrana, had the election stolen from him by documented collaboration between his opponent and Colombian drug lords, I recall wondering what the Supreme Court’s decision on Bush v. Gore would have looked like to Americans if it had happened in Colombia. Imagine a scenario where a candidate for election in Colombia lost by 527 votes in one state that would decide the election. Imagine also that the governor of that state was the brother of the presidential candidate. The election official in charge of counting the votes was the chairman of the presidential campaign in that state, and the father of the winning candidate, who had previously been president himself, appointed the Justice to the Supreme Court who provided the one vote margin that effectively ended the recount and sealed the election. Since Pastrana’s own father had been president of Colombia and the integrity of their democracy had been tested as recently as the 1994 campaign, I knew that story might have been credible to my Colombian friends. But when they saw it happen in the United States of America, the beacon of democracy, in many ways it was almost incomprehensible to them and so many others around the world. The result of the 2000 election was the beginning of the end of American political exceptionalism on the world stage.

Vice President Al Gore’s concession did much to stabilize a volatile political situation in America in December of 2000. While the civil unrest in the United States never got much beyond a so called “Brooks Brothers riot” in the Canvassers Office in Miami-Dade County and the hecklers on the street corner near the vice president’s residence during the recount, it is not hard for me to imagine how unsettling a scenario like that would have been in a country where the rule of law was not as well established as it is here at home. Indeed, while attempting to return to the United States from Bolivia, where I was working on a presidential campaign, the airport in La Paz was shut down by striking air traffic controllers and protesters before being occupied by armed government troops. I can easily imagine a scenario where electoral and political conflict can lead to military intervention and takeover. America in 2000 was not that kind of place. As Al Gore noted in his concession speech, the ruling principle of American freedom and the source of our democratic liberties is embodied in a quotation over the Harvard Law School Library: “Not under man but under God and law.”

The backsliding of American leadership is the product of many factors, but few can doubt that the slide began with that fateful decision of the Supreme Court on December 12, 2000 and accelerated through the next decade. The influence of our political system on democracies around the world, as well as America’s reputation within non-democratic regimes that yearn for freedom, is in decline. That reality is taking hold today, in the wake of a near government default on our debt, precipitated solely by politics, not economics.

For us to return to the status that we enjoyed only a decade ago, American exceptionalism is going to have to stop being a political tagline and start being a way of doing business in Washington again.

If we do not restore the functionality of our government, we run the risk of losing the mandate of leadership in the world that generations of Americans fought to establish and preserve. With so much at stake, we need to look at this challenge of restoring America’s role as the leading force for democratic government with a renewed sense of urgency. This can only happen if we again allow American democracy to function as a dynamic form of government that produces results—budgets that are passed on time; elections that are run in transparent ways so that the money in politics is disclosed to voters, not known only to the special interest contributors who raise it and the politicians who spend it; and burdens that are accepted by this generation, and not passed down to the next. Americans have always left the next generation better off, and that simple formula has been carefully preserved at the heart of American ascendency. It has ensured the upward trajectory of the American experience. Until that standard returns as a way of conducting political business, we will not be able to reclaim the mantle of leadership, and others will vie to replace America as the paragon of a successful democracy.

The Economic Risk of Continued Political Gridlock

There is a growing resentment in America today against the way our government works. The depth of fear and dissatisfaction expressed by now over eight out of ten respondents in ongoing national polling is a reflection of the deep concern and dark pessimism that citizens are expressing in the United States about their own government and future. The wrong track measure of public opinion in the United States, which for many months has been between net 50 to 70 points negative in polls, looks more like the numbers I got used to seeing in places like Bolivia, Colombia, and Honduras than what I ever expected to see in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history. There has been a disintegration of trust in our system, and the bond between elected officials and the citizenry has been stretched to the breaking point.

In my time as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, I have been able to observe and participate in many different events discussing the polarization of our politics and how that polarization causes problems to the fabric of our democracy. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet privately with a European ambassador to the United States to discuss how our current political polarization and economic downturn was impacting America’s relations with our allies. Based not only on my recent conversation with that ambassador but on numerous conversations with elected officials around the world, it is clear that America’s friends in Europe and elsewhere want our nation to succeed particularly in terms of our economy and all that America represents for democracies around the world. They believe that the political paralysis in the United States is holding back our economy and are worried that if we don’t end the gridlock, there could be negative economic implications that would hurt their economies back home. Those impacts include the loss of trade revenue, the instability of markets that have affected the ongoing financial and fiscal problems in the European Union and elsewhere, and the collective negative impact that economic slowdown in the world’s largest and most advanced economy has in all parts of the globe. At a time when old totalitarian regimes are failing in the Middle East, long seen as one of the most dangerous regions in the world, the decline in American political exceptionalism and its attendant economic deterioration runs an even greater risk that the new political model for nations emerging from centuries of oppression and darkness will not be the beacon of American liberty, but the economic growth model and oppressive government embodied in modern controlled capitalist economies like China, where freedom is nether treasured nor practiced. That surely represents a serious short and long-term threat to American interests and security.

Our allies in Europe and friends in other parts of the world want and need American democracy to work like it has in the past, in order for their own democratic systems to succeed and for their own economies to flourish. The political gridlock that we are experiencing today in the United States is not just hurtful to our nation in the context of our domestic politics; it’s also undermining America’s standing as the leader of the democratic world. In an increasingly global economy this slide represents a real economic threat to our well being. This is not only a threat to the business of people like myself who work on campaigns in other countries, but also to large American businesses and interests that derive much of their revenue from markets outside of the United States.

Restoring American Political Exceptionalism

To return to the pinnacle where America stood after the terrorists attacked on September 11, we need to return to fundamental truths and basic principles that still work in the age of Twitter, Facebook and instant global communication. We need to re-establish America’s standing not only as a powerful nation, but also as the most functional democratic system. We need to return to a place where elections are run and waged vigorously by contestants, but where government is then separated from the partisan brinkmanship of all out political warfare. We should recall again the words that Al Gore quoted in his concession speech: “Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism.’”

We can only return to that place, where even prime ministers feel they need to express sincere sentiments about events in America in the most human terms to average citizens, if we recognize that our politics at home are part and parcel of our standing around the world. I have no doubt that we can regain the respect we have lost if we let government in the United States become the place where the representatives of this most diverse and pluralistic nation debate the issues while resolving, as Benjamin Franklin advised his fellow delegates to the Convention in Philadelphia, to “doubt a little of [their] own infallibility.” That lesson from the birthplace of American independence and the founding of our democratic institutions should be heeded at a time when the forces of modernity and the harsh tactics that define new politics are trying the great experiment of American democracy. Hopefully, if I ever see the leader of another country offer condolences about America again, it will not be for the failure of our system to come to grips with the challenges of our own age. I have no doubt that American politics and government can again become the standard by which working democracy is measured, but I believe that we must change course soon or risk losing our unique and exceptional status for many years to come. 

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Thomas A. (Tad) Devine is a media consultant who has produced political ads for candidates in the United States and around the world. He is President of Devine Mulvey, a media and strategic consulting firm in Washington, DC. Tad Devine has been recognized as one of “the most respected media consultants” in the nation by USA Today.