Populism, Pacifism, and Isolationism (Part 2): The Present

This is the second article in a three-part series on populism, pacificism, and isolationism. The first article, “The Past,” can be found here.

As in historical instances of a bipartisan pacifist/isolationist coalition arising, the same necessary ingredients are required to bridge the partisan divide: alienation from and disillusionment with domestic representative institutions and foreign interventionism. In consequence, populist movements possess a predilection for pacificism and/or isolationism.

Populists have determined that powerful elites governing a country are expanding their power and prosperity at the expense of the common people. Their rights infringed, and their pursuit of happiness hindered, populists have little incentive to support, let alone kill for, the repressive, elitist regime and their foreign military adventurism. Such alienation and disillusionment—and, ergo, populism—further spreads among the remainder of the population should the government’s military ventures fail to meet their promised results.

Today, if we limn the outlines of each party’s populist wings, we respectively find the “Bernie Bros” and “MAGA.” While differing in many respects on their proposed solutions, both believe elitists are infringing on their rights and obstructing their pursuit of happiness. They have a shared sense of alienation from an unresponsive government. To wit, both parties’ populist wings opposed the Wall Street bailout. While this alienation can ebb and flow depending on which party is in power, it cannot be fully extinguished because its root causes have yet to be ameliorated and eradicated.

Further, both populist wings share a disillusionment with American military operations stemming from the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the initial unity exhibited by the American public for deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as lesser but still strong support for “regime change” in Iraq, ultimately Americans grew disillusioned with both military engagements. This was due less to the actual military operations than to the civilian-diplomatic failures of the reconstruction process and its promise of “nation building” and “model democracies.”

Nonetheless, such foreign interventions require both initial military victories and subsequent reconstruction. The loss of American lives and trillions of dollars in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars and reconstructions—notably the failure to find Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and the abysmal “skedaddle” from Kabul and the return of the Taliban to power—have disillusioned both parties’ populist wings and millions of other Americans about military interventions abroad, especially those directly involving our military personnel.

In brutal truth, throughout the ensuing decades since the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, events led the American public’s attitudes toward these conflicts to devolve from eagerness to ambivalence to disillusionment, leaving them to dolefully ponder what, if anything, our nation’s efforts wrought except loss measured in lives, dollars, and trust.

This being the case, what has prevented a bipartisan pacifist-isolationist coalition from forming, growing, and fundamentally impacting American foreign policy?

As an exceedingly practical people, Americans prioritize domestic issues over foreign policy. While there have been rare exceptions of cataclysmic attacks bringing foreign affairs to the forefront and uniting Americans behind a chosen course, the last decade has revealed how party affiliation has been determinative in how the public views foreign affairs.

Regardless of a populist’s feelings about pacificism and/or isolationism, their abiding concern remains how to protect and promote their unfairly imposed upon rights and obstructed pursuit of happiness. Consequently, they will support the party they believe will facilitate this goal and oppose the party they believe will prevent it. In foreign affairs, this results in the populist muting objections to their favored party’s interventionist and/or kinetic foreign policy aims to ensure it gains or remains in power. The populist then expends their pent-up frustration by assailing the interventionist and/or kinetic foreign policy of the disfavored party.

Consider how the left’s progressive, pacifist wing grew quiescent during the many kinetic military operations of the Obama and Biden administrations and muted its concerns regarding military aid to Ukraine. Equally, ponder how the right’s isolationist wing, which remained relatively quiescent under President Trump, has been revivified under Mr. Biden, notably in its opposition military aid to Ukraine. While there exist exceptions to this rule—the populist Left’s vocal opposition to President Biden’s support of Israel’s anti-terrorist campaign in Gaza and the populist GOP’s objections to President Trump’s missile strikes in Syria—these pacifist-isolationist movements mute and measure their responses to such events based upon the “facts on the ground,” including which party is occupying the White House and controlling Congress.

What is speeding the bridging of the partisan divide, however, is that within each major party, their pacifist/isolationist wing is growing and impacting both parties’ foreign policies. As each pacificist-isolationist wing expands through their grassroots activism, public primaries, and internal national and state party elections, they will no longer have to mute their opposition to their establishment’s foreign policy decisions.

Further, as a practical people, the bedrock domestic agenda of each party’s populist wings is, well, popular and, yes, bipartisan. Both parties’ populists believe our nation’s focus and resources should be spent at home on pressing problems, be they issues such as income inequality or border security. This will continue to help fuel the ascent of the populists in their respective parties.

In short order, the populist wings in each party will become the establishment, making both domestic and foreign policy decisions. And, unless and until one party determines there is a political benefit to returning to a more interventionist foreign policy, we are likely heading to a period where the establishment of both parties will be pacificist/isolationist. Ironically, as each side of the aisle pursues a pacifist-isolationist foreign policy intra-party, a practical people will bridge the inter-party divide as a practical matter.

Whether the practical consequences of this will be beneficial is another matter. Going forward, then, how can America define, prioritize, and protect our vital national interests?

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 14: An American flag flies during a college football game between the Iowa State Cyclones and Cincinnati Bearcats on October 14, 2023 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)