How the politics of 9/11 became American politics
In 2018 I encountered, for the first time, a room full of college students with no memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was a remarkable moment, though perhaps it’s also remarkable that it took that long. But that class discussion – the day we talk about the George W. Bush presidency in my course on the American presidency – was not the first time that I had to explain the important details of the day. For years I had explained to students what happened, the public reaction and the progression of events. I devote perhaps more time than I should to the feel of the day for a college student, which I was at the time, without a cell phone or any sort of portable device. My lecture is part timeline, part analysis, and part description of what it was like to go to a computer lab on campus only to find nearly every news website down. The visceral confusion, at least to me, is a key part of the fear that gripped us all that day.
Even before I taught students too young to remember, the discussion of 9/11 serves as a reminder that the ever-present symbolic meaning of the events has drifted away from the details and reality of what happened and its effects. I invite my students to contemplate the possible absurdity of how scared and nervous we were in Champaign-Urbana, a rural college town ensconced by miles of flat, sparsely populated land on all sides, thousands of miles from the hijackers’ targets. The students usually roll their eyes at the thought. But the memory of that anxiety underscores two things I want them to know. First, we really didn’t know what would or could happen next. Any horror seemed possible. Second, since that awful day in 2001, American politics has moved into this contradictory space: 9/11 was a tragedy that deeply affected us all, and yet happened to other people, far enough away that its symbols can be adapted and coopted, molded into the political narratives of whoever might be holding the megaphone.
The terror attacks affected countless lives – those killed, their families, witnesses, and those who would suffer and die in the subsequent wars. We’re also hearing more stories about the xenophobic violence and harassment that broke out afterward. The personal and social effects were, of course, real. But the political story began to slip away from these facts and stories almost immediately, with one very specific, highly symbolic dominant narrative taking hold. This narrative stressed nationalism, a “clash of civilizations” story, and framed the event in cultural and values terms.
What came after the confusion and terror shaped American political discourse in two seemingly incompatible, but actually reinforcing, ways. It closed off debate about how to define and understand what had happened and the politics around, while simultaneously deepening cultural divisions in American politics. The first is something I’m still grappling with and admittedly need to read more about. In my own corner of the scholarly universe, the study of the presidency has a ways to go in grasping the degree to which Bush defined the meaning of the attacks and the subsequent public debate, foreclosing alternative questions and frameworks of understanding. It seemed natural and inevitable at the time, but in retrospect it seems more likely that it was contingent on the moment and the decisions of political actors at the time. An attack on a diverse, cosmopolitan city did not have to become a symbol of nationalism and a justification for a never-ending war on “terror” – an elusive, non-state enemy. As the government reacted, people debated about how to balance “security” and “liberty.” Hardly anyone challenged the premise of the question.
At the same time, the 2004 election revealed not a country in consensus but one increasingly divided along cultural lines. What the Iraq War seemed to do was bring cultural and national security questions into line, revisiting Vietnam War era themes about patriotism and social order. The Bush administration embraced a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, fusing cultural issues and foreign policy ones in the course of a national campaign. To support the administration was to favor a specific vision of American national strength and identity, traditional cultural values and swagger on the international stage. To oppose it was to embrace multi-lateral, multi-cultural, and socially liberal values. And by now we know how these two sides sorted in racial terms. I don’t even have to write it out.
Perhaps what surprises my students most when we study this phenomenon is that American elections have not always been like this.
Each of the issues up for debate in that election and every election affect real people in tangible ways. But the emergence of this new cultural polarization has given every issue the 9/11 treatment: to push it into the realm of abstract symbolism and away from the concrete issues – the lives – at stake. The result has been that politics and policy have become increasingly separated from each other. The political system has become a place to battle for cultural dominance, while major legislation to address national problems becomes nearly intractable, even for measures that are broadly popular when stripped of their partisan and cultural labels. That major legislation is difficult – if not impossible – in an election year has become a common place understanding illustrates the massive gap between politics and policy. A lot of the communication in elections takes place in the symbolic realm, where problems are allegories. Most of us still have to live in a world where problems are real. This disconnection might still have happened if 9/11 never had, but 9/11 symbolism demonstrated the potential of such distortion.
If the first two decades of this century showed how easy it is to divorce politics from policy, the last few years suggest this era might be coming to an end. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has repudiated actions by both Bush and Obama, challenging past foreign policy consensus and possibly the ways in which Americans think about military intervention and national identity. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced its own brand of absurd symbolic politics, but has also force us to confront the reality of policy debate and collective political action. Politics is not just a partisan chessboard; decisions affect real people and their lives.
Young adults today don’t remember a world before 9/11, and they don’t remember a world in which political battles weren’t automatically sorted down identity lines and fought in the realm of symbolism. My job is to show them how these are connected, and how some of the most profound changes after 9/11 are in fact the features of our politics that seem to them, to be inherent and eternal.
When flights resumed in 2001, I remember being much more aware each time I heard a plane in the sky. It’s cliched to talk about what goes unseen and unnoticed, but it’s also a key lesson for post-9/11 politics. There are many choices left to analyze, and questions left to ask.