We Won the Cold War. Did the Communists Win the Peace?

We Won the Cold War. Did the Communists Win the Peace?

The United States of America just re-elected the most radical president in its history after four years in which he expanded the power of the state, spent lavishly on redistributive programs, and adopted a policy of “leading from behind” in foreign affairs. He campaigned using class warfare, mocking private enterprise and individual success–while offering assurances to Russia that he would be more “flexible” in offering concessions afterwards.

By the time President Barack Obama leaves office in 2016, Americans will have spent 16 of the 24 years since the Cold War with a Democrat in the White House. The first eight years saw the center-left administration of Bill Clinton, who added work to the welfare system and acknowledged the importance of limited government and free trade. Under Obama, those ideas are passé–so much so that even Clinton seems to have abandoned them.

The presidency of George W. Bush was a weak and unstable interregnum. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, and came close to losing the Electoral College in 2004. He strengthened the country’s defenses in response to the 9/11 attacks, but also increased the size and cost of the federal bureaucracy. In his last few months in office, the government took over large, struggling enterprises–an unprecedented intervention in the private sector.

Aside from the conservative rebellions of 1994 and 2010, the political argument of the past two decades has been between those who want to transform America fundamentally, and those who merely want to reform it, to make it kinder and gentler. The idea that we might want to expand freedom as well as our ability to defend it is one that has had precious few advocates, and a great many enemies in the media and in popular culture.

One of the most telling statistics in last week’s election is that Republican Mitt Romney won among voters aged 35 or older. If you are old enough to have learned about the U.S.S.R. as an enemy, and to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, chances are that you voted to unseat Obama. If you were born or grew up in the post-Cold War era, when communism was no longer a geopolitical threat, you are far more likely to have voted to re-elect him. 

Children today are not taught that communism was evil, a system that not only killed millions but corrupted almost everyone forced to live under it. Instead they are taught that it was a fine idea that failed in its implementation, which ought to have been democratic. They know more about McCarthyism than the Stalinist show trials, and leave school convinced that it is more morally repugnant to call someone a communist than actually to be one.  

At colleges and universities, students are assigned the works of Marx and his acolytes over and over again, while the works of Locke, Burke, Hayek, and Tocqueville are largely neglected. One of the most popular assignments is Marx’s On the Jewish Question, in which he outlines his views of the state, civil society, and history. Students are encouraged to ignore the crude antisemitism of the essay–or to regard it as a minor, non-essential flaw.

Popular culture celebrates Soviet kitsch as a kind of harmless, nostalgic fantasy. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is a bar called “People’s Republik,” featuring garish communist iconography. For the local radical set, the bar is a non-ironic meeting place. Though communism has killed more people than fascism, no one would ever think of opening open a beer garden devoted to the Third Reich or an Italian restaurant dedicated to Il Duce.

In classrooms, movies, and museums, we have taught successive generations of Americans of the evil of those regimes–the wars, the millions murdered in concentration camps, the brutal suppression of political dissent. But we do not remember the millions of victims of communism in the same way. We do not even honor the U.S. soldiers who fought the Cold War. All we know is that we fought communism; we no longer remember why.

We know that our welfare state is failing, and that we can no longer pay for it. But we are terrified of trying the alternative, which Obama describes to us as a system in which “you’re on your own.” And so we vote for more government as the answer to bad government. We expand spending on everything except defense, the first and most legitimate function of government. We forget that the Eastern bloc collapsed under the weight of its debts.

When we imagine political evil, we think of the SS officer who haunts our Holocaust memorials. We think of the Taliban insurgent who broadcasts threats from a cave and shoots schoolgirls point blank and in plain sight. The left uses these figures to label its political enemies: fiscal conservatives were likened to Hitler in Wisconsin for taking on bloated public sector unions; social conservatives are called Taliban on the nation’s editorial pages.

But call Obama a socialist–even though his policies would be called socialist in most other western democracies, even though he himself once joined, and sought the endorsement of, a socialist political party–and you will be marginalized. Our present political discourse lacks the figure of the Soviet commissar as the embodiment of an absolute evil, one whose name can be invoked to set a boundary around the excesses of far-left-wing policies.

And so our media and our popular culture enthusiastically embraces the revolutionary mobs of Occupy Wall Street as if they represented something new and idealistic, rather than the misguided outburst of a youth culture rebelling with the few words in its political vocabulary, steered behind the scenes by a hard activist core from their parents’ generation. The virtues of self-reliance, industry and frugality are eclipsed by collectivist visions.

We have had to be reminded by communist China that our government is too large and too expensive. The Chinese own much of our debt; they wish to displace us as the dominant global economic and military power. Our newly re-elected president has no answer to that challenge except to emulate China’s model, while eroding our freedom further. Two decades after we won the Cold War, the communists may finally have won the peace.