Russia and China, as well as some of America's closest allies, are not only questioning the rationality of this country's politics. In Moscow and Beijing, the United States is seen as a nation in decline. The Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill were, in essence, the final proof.
For American presidents of both parties to assert continuously its exceptionalism and tout the importance of democracy prevailing over authoritarianism, the instances of contradictory evidence and events are too massive to ignore.
Of course, much of this is pure propaganda. The United States retains the world's largest economy, huge global influence, arguably the most formidable military, and remains the preferred destination for many seeking freedom and the opportunity for betterment. Yet, that does not address all the symptoms of irrationality.
Consider just a few: two simultaneous pandemics of COVID-19 and gun violence, voting rights, the absence of civility and compromise and culture wars. The nation was divided on an almost exclusively partisan basis over wearing masks and being vaccinated against COVID-19. The overwhelming and indeed indisputable scientific proof and fact is that both reduced infections, vaccinations almost completely. Why then would otherwise seemingly rational Americans resist both?
For reasons of health such as pregnancy or prior conditions, these are understandable to eschew inoculations. However, with the rampant spread of the more highly infectious Delta variant, it is inconceivable that individuals would risk contagion when prevention is both available and effective.
Media reporting that may prove to be hyperbolic warns of a "an epidemic of gun violence." Certainly to most foreign observers, America's love affair with firearms seems irrational. And the spate of mass shootings likewise seems inconceivable in a civilized nation. No other country not engaged in a civil war or overrun by terror has such levels of gun violence.
While America prides itself in extending the vote to every qualified citizen, why have voting rights become so politicized? Common sense would dictate that everything possible would be done to ensure fair, free, secure and open elections in which any eligible citizen wanting to vote could. Yet, the political debate suggests that is not the case.
In this litany is not only the absence of compromise and civility, although it appears the White House, Congress, Republicans and Democrats have agreed on an infrastructure bill. The hostility and toxic political atmosphere have made governing a zero-sum game in which you are either for or against but unwilling to seek middle ground. And even to non-Americans, any system built on checks and balances meant to limit the power, reach and authority of the central government will not work unless one party has veto-proof control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue (and the Supreme Court), a crisis to force consensus or civility and compromise to close the differences. None is in evidence.
Last, the cultural civil wars over inequality, economic disparity and social justice are being fought over "wokeness" and addressing, or not, the past sins of slavery, systemic or institutional racism and critical (and ill-defined) race theory. Being caught on the wrong side of these issues can be professionally or socially fatal. Is this rational?
To some, the most serious threat to the nation is not China, Russia, a lesser foreign power or non-state actor. It is as the famous swamp cartoon character Pogo memorably muttered decades ago mimicking a great naval battle cry, "we have met the enemy and it is us," and indeed our seeming irrationality, supercharged by another powerful and so far unrecognized force.
During the Cold War, MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction, was shorthand for preventing the existential disaster of thermonuclear war. Today, a new MAD threatens not only the nation but the Constitution and the political system. The new MAD is Massive Attacks of Disruption. And the unmistakable messengers include COVID-19, unprecedented storms, fires and floods precipitated by climate change, cyberhacks that cut off gasoline and power, social media that perpetuated fake news, disinformation and distortion and the inability of government to respond rationally.
These failures intensify the seemingly irrational elements of society generating worsening degrees of disagreement, desperation, division and societal tensions. What is profoundly different today from 20 or 50 years ago is the fundamental contradiction arising from globalization and the diffusion of power. As societies became more advanced and affluent, greater vulnerabilities and frailties to disruption were created geometrically.
Understanding and reacting to the new MAD will not cure all that ails us. But it will go a long way in reducing what appears as the more irrational behavior plaguing the nation.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.