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The unfolding drama in the Ukraine brings back memories — for those of us old enough to remember it — of the bad old era of Brezhnev and the Evil Empire. But also a certain nostalgia. Because, in those days, the badness of the USSR was understood — by most people not living on university campuses — to flow in large part directly from its (leftist) ideology. If the State is responsible for everything, then the State can do anything — and ultimately will.
While the better sort of classical liberals — the Moynihans — took care to point out that they believed there were things the State should not be responsible for, most ordinary people intuitively understood that if you pushed leftism beyond a certain point, bad things would happen. In effect, the Soviet Union stood as a kind of grim specter behind leftism, providing an ever-present reality check to liberal visions of the beneficent State. Whenever the true nature of the Soviet Union intruded into the consciousness of large numbers of Americans, conservatives, while sincerely empathizing with whoever the victims were, at least had the satisfaction of seeing their core beliefs validated, their ideas, arguments, and personalities taken a bit more seriously, and those of their opponents to some degree discredited.
But when the true nature of today’s Russia and its leader — kleptocracy, thug, respectively — intrudes, there is no ideological silver lining. That Putin is a thug and Russia a gangster state reflects no more on Barack Obama and his brand of progressivism — in the minds of most people — than that Saudi Arabia is a theocracy. Yes, there is a case to be made that any excessive concentration of power in the state is corrupting, and that while Putin exhibits his in ways that Obama probably wouldn’t, the ultimate end-game of progressivism will lead to equally bad, if different, results. But that argument is too abstract and conceptual. Most people, even conservatives who abhor Obama, don’t exactly see him as a step on the road to Putinism.
Now that that specter of communism is essentially buried — and has been buried long enough that even early middle-aged people have no real memory of it — the leftist vision of the beneficent State carries less obvious baggage. There’s Europe, of course — most people are dimly aware that much of Europe is plagued by sluggish growth, high unemployment, and various cultural frictions. But none of this carries the weight of tanks in Budapest or Prague, the invasion of Afghanistan, or the gulag. I suspect this may be part of the reason why Millennials, or younger people generally, (in polls such as the recent one from Pew that has generated so much ink) seem less ideologically averse to “big government” than prior generations.
Could it be that, in defeating communism, we actually killed off one of our most effective assets?