The public is not stupid. To be sure, the public harbors a pitch-perfect common sense that the policy elites often lack, even if the public cannot articulate it well. Of course, there are significant elements of the public that are vaguely isolationist, especially within the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent on the anti-war left). But that isolationism is itself a manifestation of America’s own continental geography: the awareness that the physical position of the United States naturally protects it from much of the mayhem in Eurasia. Thus, the public sets a high bar for military intervention, which is eminently commonsensical. So if the public is softening on support for high defense budgets, maybe the policy elites need to listen more closely to what the public has to say. So many of the elites wanted to do something about Syria. Well, the American people collectively shook their heads and answered, Are you kidding?

Present and future threats are both insidious and less obvious than at any time in the past. The very interconnectedness of the world and technology’s defeat of distance makes the oceans less of a barrier to the American mainland than ever before. But the elites have to do a much better job of explaining this to the public. And the armed services especially have to do a much better job of explaining to a skeptical public just why they are needed as much as ever in the past. To wit, air and naval platforms, because they take many years to design and build, require the necessary funding even when no obvious threat is on the horizon.

Indeed, democratic publics, with all their common sense, are nevertheless compulsively obsessed with momentary emotions — especially in an age of incessant polling — and are therefore less wise in planning for future contingencies.