Until the recent presidential elections in the U.S., the world had assumed that they had a good grasp on U.S. politics and social developments in the country. However, in the aftermath of the presidential campaign and the election results, the world has realized how little they really know about American society. Despite all the analyses of U.S. foreign policy and first-hand experience of American politics and culture, the recent events have forced us to reevaluate our perception of popular culture and return to the debate table again.
Ever since the U.S. presidential election campaigns began one year ago, there has been an increasing level of concern among world leaders with regard to U.S. domestic policy. While the rhetoric used by presidential candidates was the most shocking element of the entire campaign, the deep political divisions and polarization that ensued in its wake were the most shocking in recent history. The tedious progression of the campaign leading up to election day put the superpower U.S. in the international spotlight, as the world watched closely to see where the country was headed in terms of foreign relations.
While every attentive person in the world was focusing on what the foreign and security policy would be in the next administration, the debates in the campaign turned attentions to domestic U.S. politics. Campaign rhetoric revealed a severely divided society that had become increasingly intolerant of the words and deeds of "others." Supporters of presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton were shocked to the point of tears when she lost the election, which quickly became the catalyst for fear and concern as well. While most of the international audience was aware of the presidential debates and the sentiments of the American public regarding gun control, the death penalty, abortion and Obamacare, these issues seemed insignificant compared to the more poignant issues faced by other countries. In a brief instant, the world realized that the fault lines in American society are deeper and more complex than previously thought, raising serious questions among world leaders about the fate of foreign relations over the next four years and the impact that U.S. polarization could have on the rest of the world.
The world is also pondering another important issue: The relationship between society and state. While the campaign and election results have demonstrated the acute disconnect between the majority of society and Washington, voters have demonstrated that they feel distanced from political elites in Washington and are seemingly disillusioned. It is not rare to see political analysts and pollsters portray this election as a victory for the people over the state establishment; however, two things remain unclear - Who are the people and what exactly is the "state establishment?" At the same time, another serious question has been raised regarding the future of relations between the state and the society it governs - as well as the impact these relations will have on foreign policy and security in the U.S.
Of course, this is not the first time we have seen the public exhibit a lack of trust for the state establishment and Washington elites. During the Vietnam War and the ensuing impeachment of Richard Nixon, the American people exuded similar sentiments toward the state establishment ,which bore evidence of similar fault lines that existed in the country from 1861 to 1865 during the American Civil War. However, in this day and age, technology enables the international audience to follow every minute detail of such developments, raising concern in the international arena. The wealth of information available to international spectators has transformed the very underpinnings of international relations. Gone are the days of the pre-World War II isolationist policies of the U.S. and the bipolar world order. Now, domestic debates and discussions are taking place during a period of rapid transformation, making them somewhat fragile and susceptible to the cracks and fault lines we now see emerging. Although the U.S. is not a unipolar force anymore, it is still the most significant economic and military power in the world. And although it is not a totally multipolar world order there are potential challengers to the U.S. in different spheres. In this, what some call a uni-multipolar world order, the decisions and actions of the U.S. in regards to international relations gain much more significance. And as an important determinant of this foreign policy, domestic politics, public opinion and different fault lines attract more attention in the international community.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.