Back in the day, when I was taking a history class, there was a ribbon of a concept marbling the message called "isolationism." The isolationists, it was said, were folks who were on the "wrong side" of history, who didn't understand how the world worked. Coming out of the Second World War, isolationists were pretty much viewed as proven by history, that is the War, to have been utterly wrong. And their wrongness was grounded in their mistaken idea that America could be an isolated country, that we could somehow remain apart from the rest of the world's roiling. Isolationists were also in a fairly vague way (probably vague because to really cash all this in is impossible in one measly American History class--what is required is at least a PhD worth of study, including of course reading much thinking that had not, in the early '60s (when my class was taking place), even been written. Alternatively, one reads as the years roll by, as one can--and eventually things may become clearer. But I digress.)
In short, while it was clear that to be an isolationist was to be something of a potato-head of an American, we never delved into an analysis of just what being an isolationist is all about. As life ticked by, I did notice from time to time a new mention of the term, particularly as it related to economic matters. Mr. Clinton was a "globalist," not an isolationist. Thus, the US signed economic contracts with other countries, and our overall economy was more and more officially tied into the world economy--an officiality which let us stress because it's true, simply recognized the boots on the ground, as it were. There is a global economy, stupid. If you acknowledge and work with it, money gets made (by a lot of people). The Democratic Primary of 1992 included a conversation on the American relationship to the global economy. Mr. Harkin lost. Mr. Clinton won. During the general election the conversation continued, with Mr. Perot taking the "isolationist" position. Mr. Clinton again won. Mr. Harkin and Mr. Perot both raised the issue of the wholesale export of American jobs--this issue was not addressed except to simply say that a global economy is a fact of life. ( This "fact" has never been analysed at the political level, in any detail--no efforts have been made to mitigate the terrific negative effect on the American economy and the American people of wholesale job export to the world labor market.)
But I think the idea that "isolationism" is just a stand-offish economic position very much misidentifies what isolationism is really all about, at its core. Isolationism is more deeply to be understood as a kind of egocentrism, the idea that Americans stand in some very special place and hold a special perspective. Understood more deeply, isolationism can actually be the underpinning of acts which on the surface seem to engage with the world. Examples would include our war of choice in Iraq, not to mention our horrific meddling in the Reagan era in Central America, in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.
In Congress right now, isolationists are seizing the day. The most radical of them seem to believe that Americans are so special that we can actually change the laws of mathematics, for this is exactly what a "Balanced Budget Amendment" actually is. And anyone who continues to brush aside the danger to the country of people who believe a law requiring a balanced budget is possible ignores the obvious fact that many such believers are already now in power. It will only take the capture of the Senate and we will find our country hell bent on changing the laws of mathematics, as these same people have already tried by mere legal means to change the laws of physics and the realities of medicine (particularly when it comes to women's medicine).
There was a sad time when people who started out trying to fundamentally alter the deeply terrible conditions in Russia ended up writing false sciences and histories, and imagining that they could simply erase knowledge and thus obliterate their deeper and deeper crimes. Their world was tangential with that of Hitler's--two great iron wheels grinding against each other and lubricated with the flesh and blood of millions of innocent Europeans trapped in their orbits. These days our Congress is trying to blot out scientific inquiry on a number of fronts by simply defunding agencies dedicated to such fields. This is an isolationist bent.
At its core, isolationism is authoritarian. It is the Daddy, putting a stop to this foolishness, snipping the credit card in two, spanking the recalcitrant child. It is the edict that people who do not "produce" shouldn't vote anyway. And since authoritarians actually admire authority, it is the bizarre notion that only the wonderfully rich people can create jobs. When the jobs don't appear, the authoritarian simply grovels and presents yet another offering. More subtle concepts, such as "demand," simply evaporate from the mind's eye.
Fundamentally, isolationism is arbitrary. It is a presumed singularity. We are special. And the "we" tends to be tribal--one feature of the campaign of fear that began with the election of a black man to the Presidency in 2008. We all have a tribal gene, which can be massaged and appealed to. Many of us, perhaps particularly those of us who yearn for an authoritarian solution to life, can find that tribal evocation seductive. And thus a body of foot soldiers, Tea Partiers, arises.
And so we are here, on the cusp of a possible isolationist revolution in our political dimension. One House to go. And don't be surprised if these isolationists don't decide that attacking Iran makes sense too, down the road, or even Pakistan. Economies before ours have been militarized as a presumed solution to chronic unemployment. Since the isolationist believes that we are singular and special, we therefore have a "right" to deal with countries around the world who prove to be irritants, rocks in our sandals, argumentative.
For further reading and better, see James Fallows: