In the 2000s, politics in the U.S. stopped being local and became irreversibly global.
Long ago and far away—Washington in the early 1980s—a Democratic speaker of the House named Tip O’Neill famously declared that, in America, “all politics is local.” To him, and to most of the country, the dictum made sense. World affairs mattered, to be sure. We were, after all, an amalgam of former colonies, and we had fought war after war. Still, we saw the world from native ground up, from our own town’s neighborhood streets outward.
Tip’s world vanished in the first decade of the new millennium. It was vaporized by 9/11 and 9/12—by a terrorist attack and a catastrophic planetary credit collapse—and by sweeping changes in technology, demographics, immigration, and religion. In America, now and hence, all politics is global.
Whether that is a good thing for Americans, for the ideals of freedom and democratic justice, we won’t know anytime soon. Perhaps a new global consciousness will cause us to lose our values or our way. Or perhaps we’ll move closer to the City Upon a Hill John Winthrop hoped that his Pilgrims would establish in Tip’s beloved Boston and, by extension, in the rest of the United States. I’m reasonably sure that younger American voters think the latter. At least they did in 2008. They voted for Barack Obama by a margin of 65 to 35 percent, the most lopsided vote of any age group in any exit poll in the election. They liked the senator not only because he “read” young and because he talked of hope, but because he was a product and an avatar of a new global awareness.
Reared in a world of new dangers, but also of new economic opportunities, young voters had become skeptical (or worse) of George W. Bush’s combative unilateralism. They were looking for a new leader with optimistic global instincts. Obama became the first presidential candidate to stage what amounted to a campaign rally abroad: a tumultuous, rock-star appearance, even for Berlin, that drew 200,000. The real audience, of course, was the one at home. But home was everywhere, even if only American citizens could vote for him.
The Age of Global Politics had announced itself seven years earlier, in shock and blood in New York, Washington, D.C., and in the skies over Pennsylvania. Suddenly, terrorist acts—stateless or state-based, Islamist or otherwise—were no longer foreign nations’ problem. They urgently were ours. But 9/11 was only the most nightmarishly obvious sign and cause of the new planetary politics. There were and are myriad others.
Technology is the most important and the least well understood. The invention this decade of net-based communications and networking programs—Skype, iChat, BlackBerry Messenger, and Twitter, to name just a few—have collapsed the scattered people of the Earth into one community, erasing borders and geographical distances in ways that threaten the idea of nationhood but create a sense of global citizenship. Almost everyone is merely a cheap Skype call away.
Satellite television, which reached maturity this decade, has the power to transmit whole cultures from one place to another; what, after all, is modern culture, if not TV? As a result, immigrants never quite leave the Old Country. They bring their native concerns and worldviews with them in a satellite dish. Cell phones and net-based media allow the world to partake in the American political conversation and influence it as never before. We are now beset by a planetful of buttinskies, who not only have the technological power but also, in their view, the right and the need to speak up.
Americans, for their part, can and do listen to what the no-longer-quite-foreign foreigners are saying about them on their TV channels and Web sites. The BBC’s coverage of American politics, for example, is not only extensive but very popular in the U.S. Washington cable TV offers a nighttime menu of international news broadcasts that ranges from China to Nigeria to France.
Very few public concerns today are primarily, let alone purely, local. The credit crisis of 2008 brought home vividly the connectedness of global flows of money and credit; a run on banks in Seoul could spell doom for a mortgage lender in Cincinnati. The pleasures and perils of our trading relationship with China are well understood, and increasingly resented, by many Americans. And even if voters are currently more skeptical about global warming than they were a few years ago, environmental consciousness is deep, especially among younger Americans, who also know that most of the challenges and solutions are global in nature.
What used to be called “the war on terror” has metastasized from a military matter after 9/11 into something with sinews everywhere, from international banking surveillance regulation to narcotics interdiction to electronic wiretapping and monitoring on a global scale. What used to be issues of local jurisdiction can no longer be, not when an Internet call or an e-mail in which neither party is in the U.S. is routed through servers and router farms in, say, northern Virginia.
Immigration is the most obvious and enduring of global-domestic issues. The recession notwithstanding, there are now about 40 million foreign-born persons legally in America, and perhaps another 10 million living here without proper documents, which is to say illegally. That is the most ever in absolute terms and the highest in percentage terms since early in the 20th century.
But the nature of legal immigration has changed and is changing politics. In the early 20th century, most immigrants came from Europe, eager to be an ocean or more away from the Old Country. Now most are from Latin America, a third are from Mexico alone. They remain close geographically and psychologically to their homelands. And even those from more distant places increasingly regard themselves as residents of both their country of origin and the United States, a duality that is bound to affect our politics in ways we can’t yet know.
For now, the world cheers the idea that all American politics is global. That’s one way to interpret the decision of the Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize to President Obama. “Welcome to the world,” the gentlemen of Oslo seem to be saying. “And now that you are here, voters of America, there is no going back.”