The Wrong Kind of Unity

by Benjamin Studebaker

On the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the American media reflected on the war on terror. It was just a month after our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and you might think that the American press would be introspective about its own role in promoting our expensive blunders in the Middle East. But instead, the press expressed nostalgia for the “unity” the country experienced in the years immediately following the attacks.

Post-9/11 “unity” enabled our government to start a series of expensive, destructive wars. More than 200,000 people died in Afghanistan. More than 200,000 people died in Iraq. All told, the war on terror cost $8 trillion and killed an estimated 900,000 people. Both parties were culpable. Democrats voted to authorize these wars, and President Obama’s disastrous intervention in Libya cut that country’s per capita GDP in half:

Libya GDP per capita PPP

Unity has value, but this is not the right kind of unity. What is the right kind?

Crisis Communication: Lessons from 9/11

After 9/11, most Americans agreed on two things:

  • Stopping terrorism is the priority, it is the most important and pressing policy goal, because terrorism is scary.
  • American foreign policy experts are trustworthy and capable. They know how to deal with scary things.

This meant that foreign policy experts could recommend nearly any course of action, no matter how absurd. As long as they justified their policy by appealing to the seriousness of the threat of terrorism, Americans would go along with it. The unity we experienced after 9/11 was therefore highly deferential to authority. Americans were scared, and because they were afraid they empowered authority figures to make reckless choices. Post-9/11 unity therefore requires both a common enemy and a reflexive trust in national experts.

Our government abused this trust to make a series of reckless destructive decisions. Trillions of dollars that could have been invested in improving our healthcare system, our education system, and our infrastructure were instead spent killing people to no purpose.

Understandably, these wars undermined public trust in policy experts. The mistakes policy experts made in the run up to the global economic crisis of 2008 further undermined trust in them. This led to political movements which were explicitly hostile to expertise in the 2010s. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many Americans were unwilling to agree that stopping coronavirus is the priority, the most important and pressing policy goal, because coronavirus is very scary. They were also much less willing to trust public health experts.

Right now, many of these Americans are unwilling to take coronavirus vaccines. The media is nostalgic for post-9/11 unity in large part because these media personalities want Americans to treat coronavirus the way they treated terrorism. They want us to agree that stopping coronavirus is the priority and to defer to the judgement of public health experts.

But Americans learned something from 9/11–when we come together to agree that there’s one national priority that is more important than everything else, other issues get neglected. When we come together to spend $8 trillion on fighting terrorism, our government fails to invest in healthcare, education, and infrastructure. When we come together to stop Americans from being killed in terrorist attacks, Americans get killed in other ways. They die because of poor access to healthcare. They die deaths of despair driven by unemployment and underemployment. They die in combat overseas. When we agree to myopically rally behind one value, one goal, our other goals fall by the wayside. Experts who focus on solving one problem often ignore other problems or allow them to fester and worsen in the service of their mission. Foreign policy experts aren’t economists, and economists aren’t public health experts, and public health experts aren’t foreign policy experts or economists.

On top of that, Americans aren’t sure public policy experts know what they’re doing. The experts said they were going to turn the Middle East into a sea of democracies. But in most of the countries in which the United States intervened, there’s a mix of authoritarian regimes and lawless power vacuums. Where “democracy” persists, it is corrupt and unpopular. Then the experts botched 2008 royally, leading to a decade of economic pain for ordinary people while the rich got richer. Why would public health experts be more trustworthy than foreign policy experts and economists? People didn’t get hooked on opioids on their own. It was their own doctors who prescribed the pills.

Public policy experts have a trust problem, and they’ve done a lot to create that problem. In the 2000s, it was the Republican voters who trusted our foreign policy experts and economists. They were the ones who most loudly supported the War on Terror and the neoliberal economic policies that led to 2008. These Republican voters were burned. They trusted the Bush administration, they trusted Alan Greenspan, and they paid a heavy price. They are understandably skittish about reflexively supporting the government’s priorities and policies.

To restore unity, the American government needs to acknowledge this trust problem and work on resolving it. It starts with acknowledging that the kind of unity we achieved after 9/11 was unsustainable and counterproductive. Real, lasting unity is not achieved by putting one value or goal ahead of all others. Handling coronavirus well doesn’t just mean reducing the number of coronavirus deaths in leading wealthy countries. We have to protect people’s mental health. We have to ensure people who may have cancer, heart disease, or other chronic conditions can see a doctor. We have to ensure our teens and young adults don’t get lonely and depressed, that they don’t have their relationships and careers derailed. The average Millennial gained 40 pounds during the pandemic.

To stop the spread of variants, we need to get people vaccinated in poor countries. The Delta variant was first discovered in India. India’s vaccination rate is, at the time of writing, 15%. Travel restrictions make little difference to the spread of these variants. The Indian variant was able to get to Europe despite restrictions, and it was able to get to America from Europe despite the ban on European travelers. New variants will continue to be generated in countries like India regardless of whether or not skeptical Americans get vaccinated. India alone has more than 1.3 billion people. But the United States has only donated about 110 million doses of the vaccine to foreign countries. That won’t work.

By pitting vaccinated Americans against unvaccinated Americans, the same journalists who call for national unity have undermined it. Real unity requires that we get together and make policy that acknowledges the many different values and priorities that Americans have. Real unity treats every citizen’s interests as legitimate. Real, lasting unity requires policy that enables citizens with different values to live together peacefully. Our government has, for decades, legitimated itself by telling its citizens it is there to defend their liberty and freedom. It now turns around and tells them they must social distance, they must wear masks, they must get vaccinated. Understandably, some citizens who took these promises seriously feel betrayed by pandemic policies. Even if you don’t think that these conceptions of liberty and freedom matter, or that reducing coronavirus deaths is more important, the people who feel this way are our fellow citizens. They acquired these values and priorities by growing up alongside us, by going to our schools, by working in our economy, by engaging with our culture. Our experts designed our education system and our economy. They produced our media and entertainment. Our experts led these people to believe they were getting freedom and liberty from the American government. Our experts framed freedom and liberty in such a way that these Americans feel pandemic mandates contradict those promises, those principles. It should matter to us that our fellow citizens feel betrayed. They feel like they don’t know our country anymore. They’re scared. They don’t know what’s next. They don’t feel safe in this world.

Let’s cut out the blame and shame, the division and hatred. These are our people. Let’s offer positive incentives for vaccination, like lottery tickets, gift cards, and tax breaks. Let’s focus on vaccinating poor countries, because the variants that really punch through the vaccines will almost certainly develop overseas. Above all, let’s take some of these other values and priorities seriously, and make policy in a manner which explicitly includes them.