For once, conservatives were ahead of the curve.
American conservatism functioned as a political mass movement in the postwar era not because of the rhetorical gifts of its chief expositors (William F. Buckley Jr. et al.) nor because of the intellectual prowess of its best and most creative minds (ask George Nash for his list) but because of the threat presented by the Soviet Union and the worldwide Communist enterprise. The effort to link Soviet socialism abroad with the New Deal and the welfare state at home was always destined to fail, and it did fail as soon as the Soviet Union failed.
The conservative coalition did not crumble quite so quickly and dramatically as the Berlin Wall, but the end of the Cold War found the Right intellectually depleted. The Nineties saw the rise of a certain kind of rightist pseudo-intellectualism held in orbit around Newt Gingrich, the main project of which was providing ex post facto intellectual (even “scholarly”) rationalizations for the immediate political needs of the Republican Party. The Gingrich-era Right remained largely correct on most of the big policy questions, but that was in no small part a matter of happy accident and intellectual inertia; what intellectual rigor remained was subordinated to political necessity, which led, as it must lead, to the total surrender to what we sometimes call “populism,” which denotes only a bumptious style of mood-affiliation politics and the elevation of short-term electoral exigencies over all else. And so we now have a conservatism of slogans in power and a remnant conservatism of ideas in exile.
If anything, the Left and the Democratic Party are even more intellectually exhausted. The Left’s last Big Idea was socialism, and its enthusiasm for socialism was not and is not limited to admiration for Denmark, as Senator Bernie Sanders would have you believe. Lenin and Stalin had their American admirers and cooperators, and not only on the fringes of our politics but also in the pages of the New York Times and The New Republic, in government agencies, even in the White House. Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, and more modern figures such as Hugo Chávez — none of these was a “democratic” socialist, but all of them had (and many still have) their admirers on the American left. The Soviet disaster was a crisis for the Left. And though our progressive intellectuals were able to muster only a very modest, partial, and shallow reckoning with their own contributions to the psychotic gulag state that came crashing down at the end of the last century, the fall of the Soviet Union brought socialism into discredit and disrepute — for a period of time.
Deprived of its Big Idea, the Left turned to a number of unsatisfactory substitutes. Those included academic fads (postmodernism, deconstructionism) that ultimately amounted to little more than gibberish and jargon, well-heeled boutique radicalism (which is really all American feminism ever has amounted to in practice), onanistic identity politics of an increasingly precious and overly refined character (“intersectionality,” now), and a long but ultimately abortive attempt to graft all of the hopes and dreams of the Left onto the green shoots of the environmental movement. All of that failed, which was inevitable. Never mind the voguish academic nonsense, even in the case of much more substantive concerns such as environmentalism there just isn’t enough there there to bear the weight of all that the Left would pile on: anti-capitalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Christianity, “scientific” social engineering, etc.
Faced with those failures and, more to the point, with the undiminished electoral efficacy of the Republican Party — which, in spite of its being effectively brain-dead, refuses to actually roll over and die — the Left fell ever more deeply into a pointillist mode of politics. From roughly the Clinton years to the Obama years, the Left resentfully conceded (in theory) the basic legitimacy of what the rest of the world calls “liberalism” — free enterprise, individual rights, limited government, the rule of law, etc. (“conservatism,” in the U.S. context) — while taking issue with a thousand individual points: health-insurance regulation here, air-pollution rules there, a reformist progressivism of this, that, and the other. That produced some pretty good results: Even with its political poles defined by two such erratic and unsteady figures as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, the United States was reasonably well-governed in the 1990s, and the Clinton–Gingrich forced consensus might have endured for a generation if someone had not convinced George W. Bush that budget surpluses were an offense against the public interest. That, and the national psychic dislocation that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — you poor Millennials may not remember that there was a time when this nation was not the paranoiac mess it is today — set things on a very different and exotic course.
But even absent the turbulent years stretching from 9/11 to the global financial crisis, the political homeostasis of the Nineties was never going to last: For one thing, political homeostasis never lasts; for another, the incremental, one-piece-at-a-time reformist mode of politics is far too conservative to satisfy the Left, which demands from its politics not only better governance but also meaning, identity, and a sense of transcendence. (One of the great cultural disasters of our recent history is that the Right now matches the Left in the religious fervor with which it practices politics.) “We’re more or less happy with everything except health care” is not exactly a barricade to man in the war against the running dogs of capitalist imperialism or imperialist capitalism or whatever.
And memories are short: Some time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Brothers, a new generation sprung up with no real memory of thermonuclear dread, no meaningful knowledge of famine–terrorism and Siberian concentration camps and the rest of the sorry story of socialism in practice. And so “socialism” has, for the moment, once again become the rallying cry of the day: For Senator Bernie Sanders, who as of this writing is the man most likely to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, but also for younger figures such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even a few callow young columnists at the New York Times. And now from a callow old New York Times columnist, the former economist Paul Krugman, we have the assurance that whatever it is that Senator Sanders means by socialism, it isn’t “socialism.” It’s just Denmark. Professor Krugman apparently is to be the Salena Zito of 2020: When the Democrats talk of socialism, we are to take them seriously but not literally.
Perhaps Professor Krugman thinks that is good marketing: If all you knew of the European welfare state were Copenhagen, then the European welfare state would look awfully good. And if all you had seen of capitalism were Zurich or Sydney, well . . . who needs political ideas when you have the travelogues of affluent American tourists who have seen all the nicest parts of Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, Paris, Berlin, and concluded that these constitute “Europe” and that “Europe” is a synonym for “socialism”? That is Senator Sanders’s platform, in short: He promises to implement Venezuelan policies to achieve Danish outcomes. And Sanders is the man of ideas in the Democratic Party, or at least the man of an -ism, in much the same way as Trump is the Right’s man of an –ism (nationalism, in his case). Like the campus postmodernism of the Eighties, this is really only terminology masquerading as thought, a pseudo-ideological linguistic marker of tribal affiliation.
But if it is preposterous that Senator Sanders is the Left’s man of ideas, consider his competition: Elizabeth Warren, a lifelong high-performing grifter who cannot be honest about who she is, what she believes, or what she wants; Joe Biden, a 77-year-old doddering illiterate who was a doddering illiterate when he was 40; Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire megalomaniac who has no time for ideas and promises only a passion for data and managerial competency; Pete Buttigieg, a retired small-town mayor who speaks French beautifully; Amy Klobuchar, a lawyer and general nonentity from the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party whose main argument for herself is that she is not Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, or Pete Buttigieg, and whose case for herself in the general election would be the same as any other Democrat’s: That she is not Donald Trump. (Trump’s case will be the obverse of that plug nickel.)
That may be enough to win. But is winning enough?
“All voting is a sort of gaming,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” If we are to have something more than mere majoritarianism — if there is to be a truth superseding that “power of the majority” — then we are going to need those ideas that our populists and nationalists and self-declared pragmatists hold in contempt along with the kinds of minds that can produce them.
“Oh, be practical!” you say? Survey the scene in 2020 and tell me with a straight face that it represents the flowering of some practical good. As the philosopher might have asked, “If the pragmatism you followed brought you to this, of what use was the pragmatism?”