It is a puzzle: how can the same country have elected both Ronald Reagan (twice!) and Barack Obama within the span of a single generation? I think part of the answer must be that, in bringing down the Evil Empire, Reagan succeeded in making America safe for leftism.
Does anyone besides me suspect that the Soviet Union moldering on the ash heap of history since 1991 is the best thing that ever happened to the American Left? For years the Soviet Union acted as an effective damper on left-wing enthusiasm. As long as the country faced a deadly and implacable communist enemy, a national consensus dictated limits to how far left a politician of national stature could venture and still remain viable. More generally, the range of polite political discourse was constrained, especially, but not exclusively, where issues of foreign policy and national security were concerned. The existence of the communist menace even exercised a moderating influence on our intelligentsia’s natural leftward tendencies.
Then, the Berlin Wall fell and less than two decades later the country elects as its president a garden-variety campus radical, the pampered product of its clueless academic elites, thoroughly pickled in a lukewarm bath of Marxist pigswill. It should go without saying that no person with Obama’s resume or political pedigree could have been elected or appointed to any position of national prominence as recently as a quarter century ago. But an entire generation has grown up since then having no memory or understanding of what the great ideological conflicts of the 20th century were about. Mention the Cold War to them and you might as well be talking about the War of Jenkins’ Ear.
It is hard to shake the feeling that, despite the triumphalism of the “unipolar moment” of the early 90s, in the last 20 years the country’s political center of gravity has shifted inexorably to the left. Nobody any longer finds it odd that the leadership of one of our two political parties, openly embraces: deranged hatred of private enterprise; unrestricted warfare against class enemies; a menacing carnival sideshow Occupy Movement; punitive taxation; nationalization of whole sectors of the economy; industrial policy dressed up as environmentalist crackpottery; contempt for the middle class; sneering contempt for inconvenient constitutional impediments to state power; a vast and limitless expansion of the administrative state’s reach into every aspect of commercial and private life; DMV-quality healthcare; group victimology exalted as state religion; a racial spoils system that makes a mockery of the civil rights movement; social re-engineering of the electorate; unilateral disarmament; abject deference to foreign dictators; etc., etc.
So much for the party of the ruling class. Meanwhile, the other, nominally conservative party, is tongue-tied and impotent, seemingly unable or unwilling to make a principled, full-throated defense of conservatism, let alone take the fight to the other side.
What happened? Wasn’t 1991 supposed to mark the end of history and the permanent triumph of free market democracy? Is it too much to conclude that, although the Soviet Union most certainly lost the Cold War, a form of the ideology that it embraced not only survived, but flourished, precisely because it was cut loose from the dead weight of that failed, corrupt, blood-spattered experiment in machine-age utopian fantasy?
My question is, is the age of Obama a fundamental break with the past related to America’s Cold War triumph, or is it the seamless continuation of the leftward march of progress from Wilson through FDR and LBJ to today? Can it be that America’s erstwhile conservative exceptionalism is merely an artifact of the Cold War, itself a strange and aberrant historical period? And do we, a country founded on ideas rather than ties of blood and soil, really need an external ideological enemy to function with any degree of national unity?