Six reasons why what’s un-American may become a campaign issue in 2016

by Chris Zappone

Every culture has its idiosyncrasies. One unique feature of America’s is periodic episodes of hysteria over foreign influence, a remarkable trait considering the country is a nation of immigrants. The issue of what is essentially American or un-American crops ups from time to time. It can be mingled with xenophobia and racism, like some of the crude mania about US President Barack Obama’s supposed Muslim foreignness. Part of the political backlash over Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign speech delivered to the US congress (with no consultation with the White House) has sparked this mini-debate about who American Jews should be supporting, the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister of Not the United States, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Within that debate, there are shades of the age-old issue of loyalty and Americanism. The US, as an open society, has been receptive to the range of ideas and influences from around the world. This is part of its strength. But when those ideas and figures from abroad sow fears among the population, like during the Cold War, a backlash is possible.

The trend since the end of the Cold War has been for the more right-wing pundits to see the left in the US as the Other, who are deserving of cynicism and scorn and scrutiny. This goes right back to the generational psychodrama of the Republicans versus the Administration of Bill Clinton.

Since then, the effects of globalization have dug deeper into the US. Long-term geopolitical rivals have resurfaced, such as Russia, and new ones have emerged, such as China, which has never been so strong in the time of the US’s existence. Their quiet but pervasive influence may suddenly emerge as a political issue in the US in surprising ways.

The list below details possible motives for another period in which the concept of American loyalty rises to prominence and becomes part of the of the US political vocabulary.

1. US-Israel relations

A petition on the progressive organizing website MoveOn is pursuing treason charges against the 47 Republican senators who signed the letter to Iran’s leaders suggesting a deal on Iran’s nuclear program could be nullified in the next Congress.

“By his inviting a foreign leader to address Congress, John Boehner deliberately dealt in foreign policy and thus violated the “Logan Act”, thus usurping the powers of the presidency of the United States,” the petition reads.

On a related note, there is continued fallout of the Netanyahu-Republican axis to undermine the President of the United States. Both of these issues are important, because they speak to an area of the world where the US has sacrificed much blood and treasure for little gain. And the Middle East is an area many Americans have a general view and awareness of.

2. Basic technology

American culture, like its government, was forged in a time of the printed word. We are now in the time of electronic media and the internet, where vastly different locations are linked side-by-side online. People online can organize themselves along single issues much easier, in the process, reinforcing the depth of their own commitment to and identification with a cause. It has engendered excess ideological division and polarization – this is happening in many democracies (in Britain, small parties have replaced the large as the building blocks in coalitions, in Australia, social media has made successive ruling governments structurally unstable). The topic of loyalty – framed as ‘does this view or action benefit this nation?’ could be the first step in the political adjustment to this online reality.

3. Hillary Clinton’s finances

Another possible factor that could propel loyalty forward as a campaign issue would be Hillary Clinton’s finances. In a globalized world voters would want to be assured her financial advantage is not supplemented by foreign money. That’s why Republicans and Democrats have questioned the relationship between foreign donors to the Clinton-run charity and the politics of Hillary Clinton. As the WSJ notes: “The foundation’s efforts in health care, economic development and opportunity for women and girls are being touted by Mrs. Clinton as she prepares to embark on a campaign for the presidency.”

And what’s true for Hillary would likely be true for all. Junkets from foreign nations for candidates, funds from foreign governments flowing to influential American thinktanks, any hint of favors to foreign leaders. It brings the issue of globalization, and the role of the elites, front and centre in a campaign that is going to be focus on economic justice.

4. #CalgaryCruz

cruzThe Texas Senator was not born in the US and is running for the presidency. Setting aside the actually legalities of Cruz’s case, it will drag the issue of a foreign-born politician, and thus foreign-influence, onto the national radar.

5. Russian propaganda

Kremlin-centric networks such as Sputnik and RT offer an endless supply of news pointing out division and shortcomings in the US. Their cynicism is in fact the common denominator in much of the news choice. Should it dawn on Americans that the point of these networks is to weaken the US and exacerbate divisions, it could sharpen the domestic suspicion of outsiders seeking to change opinion at home.

6. China’s soft-power outreach

China, too, is coordinating with US media to push a soft-power message to mid-America, through a co-production with the Discovery Channel. This even as the crackdown on dissent and the undisguised challenge to American power abroad continues apace. “What is quite funny is that Discovery Channel is saying it’s a documentary,” Jeremy Goldkorn, of Beijing-based Danwei was quoted by AFP. “If Discovery Channel think there’s no politics involved in this, they are kidding themselves.” It’s clear both the US government and business have nowhere near the access to China’s citizens as China’s government will get through this Discovery Channel deal, or the CCTV programming in the US.

The upshot? If this scenario played out – and that’s a big if – it could mark the end of the Great Diffusion in American politics that coincided with the years of dominance of free market globalization and the introduction of the internet. In the US, a newfound priority (or low-level hysteria, more likely) concerning US loyalty could have a galvanizing effect. It could mark the moment when the political reality within the US begins to catch up with the political reality outside the US, the one in which the US is no longer the hyper-power at the world’s center. It would be the reality where the subtle means of the media are used against the US – and the US political class may begin to have to look outward rather than inward for enemies.