The debacle in Afghanistan is still unfolding, but it is already one of the signal disasters of American history. It’s usually premature to assess contemporary events in history’s light, so it’s a sign of just how bad things are in Kabul that I — a historian — am ready to put it alongside the Bay of Pigs, the Fall of Saigon, the Black Hawk Down incident, and 9/11 itself in the list of era-defining American humiliations. It’s bad enough that it’s happening – what’s worse is that we chose it.
And it’s not an aberration for our unmoored American federal government regardless of who occupies the White House or controls Congress. Confronted with a whole summer of insurrectionary violence in American cities, it can’t seem to bring itself to guarantee public order. Confronted with angry citizens overrunning the very seat of its rule on Capitol Hill, it can’t seem to defend itself. Confronted with a metastasizing narco-state threat in Mexico, and a historic crisis of human trafficking overwhelming national borders, it can’t seem to do much but watch.
Yet when confronted with states organizing in blocs to execute tasks reserved to itself — the so-called “Western States Pact” comes to mind, as do the various states sending forces to the U.S.-Mexico border — the federal government seems strangely passive and inert. Perhaps that’s to the good.
It’s tempting to look at unforced errors like this in isolation, just one episode among many. We shouldn’t. The truth is that Afghanistan is part of a larger pattern. Pull the camera back a bit, and the picture becomes more disturbing than even the grim images from Kabul’s beleaguered airport. The incompetence on display in that country is just the latest episode of blundering from a federal government that increasingly cannot do anything it should.
The national government as envisioned and established by the American Founders has just one purpose, succinctly set forth in the Declaration of Independence: “to secure these rights.” Since then, Americans have come to expect federal governance in Washington, D.C., to fulfill an array of roles. For most of American history, it did a credible job of meeting those expectations. Americans of my parents’ generation, for example, reasonably expected the federal government to successfully defend them from enemies abroad and secure law and order at home. They expected it to meet the challenge of public health crises, and run an efficient immigration system. They expected it to assert a monopoly on national authority, and to promote and defend a common American civic narrative.
They expected these things because it routinely delivered on those expectations. No longer. Suddenly, catastrophically, the recent past reveals that the federal government in Washington D.C. cannot be relied upon to do any of these things.
It’s a shocking realization for Americans who grew up secure in the promise of American governance. It’s less shocking for those of us who have been watching the erosion of civic order for some time. For the past half-century, the defining phenomenon of American civics has been the collapse of institutional trust. Americans who used to believe in the mediating institutions of society, from the presidency to the Elks Club to the U.S. Postal Service to organized religion and beyond, no longer do. That isn’t because the people have failed the institutions. It’s the other way around. The only institution that survived the generational collapse in popular trust was the military. It remains to be seen whether the blundering end to the Afghanistan war changes that. My guess is Americans will continue to respect and admire the men and women who choose to serve — and cast an increasingly skeptical eye on a class of generals and admirals who haven’t delivered a definitive American wartime victory in over 30 years.
In the 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway has Bill Gorton ask Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” comes the answer, “Gradually and then suddenly.” The diminishment to impotence of the federal government is like that. We’re in the “suddenly” phase now. One moment you’re a citizen of a well-running republic. The next moment you see that the federal government seems unable to fulfill its most basic responsibilities. Confronted with aggressive attacks on the common civic narrative that is the prerequisite for any national existence, it can’t seem to do anything but capitulate to the attackers. Confronted with the very same people who attacked America on 9/11, it can’t seem to figure out how to avoid yet another humiliation at their hands.
If the federal government can’t win a war, can’t preserve law and order, can’t secure its own seat of governance, can’t control the border, and can’t defend the idea of America, then what can it do? Well, it can collect taxes. It can also guarantee lucrative employment for a class of elite mediocrities who will never endure consequences for their growing list of failures. As I write this, the president is reported to have refused to fire anyone for the Afghanistan disaster. That isn’t because the buck stops with him; sacking someone would just be, as Axios reports, “tantamount to admitting a mistake.”
It’s hard to blame President Biden. If the administration admits one mistake, where will it end? Its list of mistakes is long, and acknowledging them all would constitute an existential threat.
The most serious mistake we Americans now confront is our toleration of them. It’s time to stop. We as a society long ago lost confidence in these institutions, and the institutions are at fault for it. When we see thousands of Americans trapped in Kabul by fanatical tribesmen, and the Chief Executive of the United States asserting his powerlessness on national television, we know something has gone profoundly wrong. We also know this is a culmination, and it’s up to us to determine what comes next.
Yet now is no time for despair. As Chesterton reminds us, “Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.”
The bad news is the crisis in America’s federal government. The good news is we have plenty of working and responsible governments in our states. In that light, the way forward isn’t to wait for Washington D.C. to be fixed, or to hope that President Biden develops the personal maturity to admit error. Our hope is in turning to the states, and demanding they step up where the federal government has stood down.
It’s a tall order. But, to paraphrase Thatcher, there is no alternative. As Washington D.C. abdicates its duties, governors must take the helm. What this looks like in the specifics varies from state to state. No state will be able to set Afghanistan right, for example. But are states able, singly and in concert, to do things like control the border? Can they guarantee law and order? Can they bring common sense to public health? Can they defend our common civic faith and narrative? Can they “secure these rights”?
They can — if they choose to. The time for choosing is here. For Austin, and Tallahassee, and 48 other state capitols, the paralysis of D.C. is a call to act.