The United States is facing a democratic crisis. Conventional definitions of citizenship and national identity have been thrown into question by ruptures in the global political landscape, changing post-industrial economic relations, shifting racial demographics, and new attitudes toward sexuality and religion. In a post-cold war era lacking in superpower conflicts, old fears of foreign insurgency have been supplanted by anxieties about trade deficits, declining educational standards, and a loss of common purpose. As social inequities continue to increase, citizens are losing faith in the government and the master narratives supporting it.
Few could have predicted the speed with which Europe would be reconfigured by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Yet rather than easing international tensions, these events have triggered new forms of national chauvinism and regional antagonism. Complicating matters further is the so-called post-Fordist restructuring of global capitalism. As the world evolves into a transnational marketplace and the production of goods and services has become more fluid and decentralized, the distance between rich and poor nations has continued to widen. Meanwhile, within the U.S. a once dominant white majority is quickly being diminished by communities of color. Factor in the growing influence of feminism, challenges to the traditional nuclear family, and more recent activism supporting the rights of lesbians and gay men, and it becomes clear that a massive movement—indeed, a majority movement—is rising to confront the reigning order.
Not surprisingly, these shifts have produced considerable public tension, along with a disturbing tendency to reach for quick and easy ways to settle disputes. Witness recent social unrest in cities from Los Angles to Atlanta, the broad-based hostility toward legislative and judicial figures, and the remarkable popularity of such fringe personas as Rush Limbaugh and Ross Perot. Claiming to appeal to populist sentiments this new breed of would-be demagogues has emerged to push for stricter laws, harder tests, and an ever more puritanical set of cultural standards.
More disturbingly, this means finding people to blame for the nation’s problems. In foreign policy, this translates into the construction of an endless chain of foreign conflicts into which the U.S. must intervene in its new role as global peace keeper. In each instance the U.S. military portrays itself as the force of reason in a world overrun by savage tribes and mad dictators. Even as the efficacy of old legal conventions and bureaucratic structures is thrown further into doubt, new justifications are advanced for consolidated power and political control on a global scale. For a growing number of conservative ideologues, these new international dynamics call for a simple and familiar strategy: the return of colonialism.