Goodbye, Cold War

For the first time, we are living in a truly post-cold-war political environment in the United States

Josh Reames, Pride. 2017, acrylic on canvas. 60 × 48". Courtesy of the artist and Brand New Gallery, Milan.

The 2016 election was the last election of the cold war. The conflict that molded generations of American elites has ceased to function as the framing paradigm of American politics. Even decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, an account of the cold war—and of cold war victory—contained disagreement in Washington and formed a consensus that linked the center-left to the center-right. This consensus, based on a set of judgments that coalesced in the aftermath of World War II, concerned everything from the genius of America’s domestic institutions to the indispensability of its global role. These judgments gave coherence to the country’s national identity—allowing both Barack Obama and Bill Kristol to wax poetic about America’s special destiny as a global hegemon—and legitimacy to its economic policy. But with the 2016 election, the cold-war paradigm finally shattered.

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the establishment candidates, found that the value of their political inheritance had collapsed; in a sense, they were the last scions of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump marked the return of the repressed: the reemergence of two varieties of popular politics that were common until the 1940s but were eventually crushed under the pressure of the long cold war. Socialism was no longer anathema, as memories of the Soviet Union faded, but neither was white nationalism in all its terror and intensity. For good and for bad, a door had been unlocked. Today, the country is more ideologically open than it has been since the 1940s.

Establishment politicians’ response has been a call for the return to “normalcy.” Democrats and many Republicans continue to reaffirm the moral distinctions between America and its enemies, regardless of who occupies the White House: the United States stands for liberal equality and uses force to serve the world’s interests; its adversaries are threats to democracy that must be contained, undermined, or forcibly confronted. This is a movement to reassert the terms of the cold war, and with those terms, a previous status quo. Although it is hardly the first time politicians have sought to revive cold-war presumptions for their own political purposes (Reagan ended the era of peaceful coexistence and détente with lurid denunciations of the “Evil Empire,” coupled with panegyrics to American exceptionalism and free enterprise), the difference today is that the old-time religion can no longer be revived.


In search of historical analogies for our present crisis, pundits often compare the present to the Civil War or to the reassertion of white supremacy immediately following the end of Reconstruction. But it is the longer Gilded Age that our own moment more closely resembles. In the 1890s, the US suffered the most violent labor conflicts in the world; in the 1930s, developments in the US caused the greatest global capitalist crisis in history. During all these years, it was routine to wonder whether the country was falling apart. Industrial society produced inequalities and physically destroyed workers in its factories; political institutions seemed incapable of responding. The constitutional system’s endless veto points made it nearly impossible for the poor to use elections to better their lot. Business elites wielded outsize power at virtually every level of government, which they exercised to defeat social programs and to criminalize labor organizing and protest. It was a political world marked by sensational conflict, in which class war wasn’t a metaphor. Nor, as in the person of Sanders’s hero Eugene Debs or in black labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph, was socialism a mere rumor. During the Great Depression, a major political party even became partly indebted to the labor movement. For a brief period, labor helped provide the Democrats with supermajorities—backed by an implicit threat of social revolution, which was necessary to implement meaningful reform.

At the same time, unreconstructed white supremacy remained part of the country’s drinking water. A majority believed the United States was an intrinsically white republic under extreme duress from recently emancipated, migrating black populations and growing numbers of southern European and Asian immigrants. These white fears created a climate of continuous racial terror and transformed paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan—a creature not just of the South but of the North and West as well, with strongholds in Indiana and Oregon—into among the most powerful social forces in collective life, with a membership in the 1920s of around 4 million people.

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