Graphite, black and white chalk sketch on tan wove paper depicting two hands, right clasped over left

“Study of two hands” (1844–5) | Daniel Huntington / Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / CC0

In the realm of social theory, few analogies capture the essence of state functions as vividly as Pierre Bourdieu’s portrayal of its “left hand” and “right hand”: the left hand involves provisions of health, education, and welfare, representing the state’s duty to nurture and provide, while the right hand represents austerity and discipline imposed by “the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, the public and private banks.”

Bourdieu observed these hands at work within France’s political space, with Leftists and Socialists on one side and Republicans and Gaullists on the other. Extending Bourdieu’s analogy across the Atlantic, another French sociologist, Loic Wacquant, depicted how these two hands operate in the United States. In Wacquant’s characterization, the right hand of the state—its “masculine” side—extends beyond fiscal and monetary discipline in the interest of finance to include the police and penal institutions. I believe this conceptualization of the state’s “right hand” can—and indeed must—be extended even further, especially in the case of the US, to include national security bureaucracies involved in gathering intelligence, safeguarding the “homeland” from perceived “terrorist” threats, and patrolling the borders. This broader view of the state’s “right hand” would more clearly reveal how shifting priorities driven by domestic and international challenges have shaped American statecraft.

The postwar period in the US has been marked by intense ideological and fiscal debates over which hand of the state to fortify, with the scale eventually tipping markedly towards the right hand, one in which national security is not only prominent in American statehood but informs how the government addresses other policy matters, international and domestic. Pearl Harbor stands out as the pivotal moment within this trajectory. As Douglas Stuart explains in his book Creating the National Security State, the realization that “America could be directly attacked from a distance of nearly 4,000 miles,” marked a significant shift in Americans’ perception of their global vulnerability, as well as the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens. This lent national security an “unchallengeable” status as a parameter for other policy-making, especially after the (bipartisan) passage of the National Security Act in 1947. “As Washington and Moscow jockeyed for dominance,” Stuart writes, “the logic of national security and the institutions created in 1947 to serve that logic sustained and legitimized each other.” Once the Soviet Union collapsed, some experts and policymakers questioned the relevance of the national security supremacy Stuart calls “the Pearl Harbor model. But the right hand of the state has not only prevailed but has also been fortified in the decades since, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.

During the War on Terror, the US government pursued a strategy aimed at preemptively thwarting terrorist attacks and neutralizing individuals suspected of terrorist affiliations, as Sameer Ahmed discusses in Yale Law Journal. New laws and policies enabled law enforcement to detain people before they could partake in or support violent acts, often leading to prolonged prison sentences for young American Muslims. Ahmed highlights how this approach mirrors the racial targeting observed in the War on Drugs, chronicled by Wacquant, Michelle Alexander, and others, which has disproportionately impacted young African American men.

The rift within the Democratic base today, between establishment liberals and the progressive Left (which constitutes 12 percent of Democratic electorate), stems not so much from disagreement over the left hand—which both sides support, albeit in varying ways and degrees—but over the excesses of the right hand. Transcending mere budgetary debates and resistant to resolution through standard compromises and amendments, the issue is now entrenched in a moral quagmire. Being critical of economic inequality and recognizing the need for action on climate change are not where the battle lines are drawn. Progressives are increasingly wary of the workings of the right hand of the state—the criminal justice system, police brutality, endless wars, and more broadly, the overall “national securitization of the state”—a pattern evident across US policy, from social welfare to immigration. Take, for instance, the transition of immigration and citizenship services from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice following Pearl Harbor, driven by rising national security concerns, and later to the Department of Homeland Security after the events of 9/11.

Distance Between the Progressive Left and Establishment Democrats/Liberals on Policy Issues

Graph by Basak Kus based on Pew Research data indicating Distance Between the Progressive Left and Establishment Democrats/Liberals on Policy Issues
Author’s calculations based on Pew Research data. Difference in percentage points.

The national securitization of the state is so clear a pattern that even the “Yes We Can” president could not evade its gravitational force, ultimately becoming the foremost prosecutor of national security whistleblowers. Yes, the Obama era notably strengthened the state’s left hand (think Affordable Care Act). But as Michael Glennon argues in National Security State and the Double Government, the same period saw significant expansion in “programs such as rendition, military detention without trial or legal counsel, drone attacks, offensive cyberweapons, whistleblower prosecutions, covert operations, and NSA surveillance”—the right hand. 

In director Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, a fictionalized account of the development of the Manhattan Project and the race to expand the US atomic energy program, “Pearl Harbor and three years of brutal conflict in the Pacific buys a lot of latitude with the American public,” a character observes. We find out soon that Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the project, is troubled about this: “When we detonate an atomic device, we might start a chain reaction that destroys the world,” he tells Einstein. He comes back to the line at the end of the film: “We were worried that we’d start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world … I believe we did.” This image of an uncontrollable chain reaction as an expanding national security state intertwines with and capitalizes on scientific advancements leads us to an urgent question: What implications does it hold for democracy? 

Recent events unfolding across American campuses over the past few months directly speak to this question. Students have protested against Israel’s war on Gaza by demanding that their universities divest from military weapons manufacturers. They have faced criticism not only from the Republican Right but also from a significant portion of establishment Democrats, who have accused them of promoting divisive rhetoric and disrupting academic environments. Many protests have been shut down, with university presidents calling officers in riot gear to clear encampments.

What student protesters are emphatically stating is that they do not want their government and key institutions to succumb to the political logic of the right hand. In previous years, campuses have also seen calls to divest from companies linked to private prisons. While seemingly unrelated, these protests are emblematic of a progressive left-wing youth that is increasingly impatient with the excesses of the right hand and with major institutions, like universities, aligning themselves with it. University presidents should avoid embracing this logic in their response to protests, which has so far involved arresting, disciplining, and punishing the students.

And as the next election approaches, the Democratic establishment should take note.