This election season Michelle Bachmann, member of congress from Minnesota, seconded Sarah Palin’s claim that Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists.” She then suggested that liberals in congress should be investigated to uncover their “anti-American” views.
Some dismissed Bachmann as an outlier. Campaign donations flowed copiously to her opponent. And although she regained her seat, she declared herself “extremely grateful that we have an African-American who has won this year.”
Pundits and professors tell us that the “culture wars” are over and that the “conservative intellectual tradition” that brought Reagan and his acolytes to power “is already dead.” So, were Bachmann’s comments simply out of step with the new America of President Obama?
Let us be cautious in drawing this conclusion. History does not stop and start one day at a time. Common practices and beliefs are always more durable than they appear to those who claim to give them up. And even when beliefs are forgotten, the language which formed them and was in turn informed by them persists. And language is not “just talk.” The habits and reflexes associated with dead beliefs can remain embodied in the ways we talk to one another, which is to say the way things get done in politics.
Words like Bachmann’s therefore merit closer attention. She brought to light something that is still very much alive but which has been hidden behind commonplace distortions concerning our history, our present, and our future. We would do well to begin the new era by straightening these out.
After World War II our country entered a phase of history we call “the Cold War.” But who in America directly confronted the Soviet Union? Rather, “the Cold War” was for most of us a pervasive presence in our domestic political life. It became the common ground for a face-off between factions within the United States. Everyday citizens lived it as a conflict “between the passions and paradoxes of one and same identity.” In that crucial sense “the Cold War” continues today.
Foreign enemies do not stand as right measure of this history. Nor does a Communist ideal that had lost its domestic appeal already in the 1930s. The yardstick for the citizen is something different. What matters is our civic life, which is to say the circumstances and judgments of each one of us who tries to make democracy work as a way of living together every day.
This “Cold War” at home featured the experience of a whole nation living in the shadow of “nuclear terror.” Our prospects darkened late in the summer of 1949. Americans were aghast to learn that the Soviets had tested an A-Bomb. We lost the sense of invulnerability sustained by a brief monopoly of “the basic power of the universe.”
Since the fifties, the terror associated with the ultimate weapon has occasionally waned; think of the détente in the 1970s and the Clinton years. But each time it has also been dramatically reignited, as when President Reagan proclaimed the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 or the prospect of nuclear terrorism exploded again onto the scene on September 11th, 2001. Every day for decades unused nuclear weapons fired the imagination, cranking up fears that motivated all sorts of political projects.
Although fueled by “nuclear terror,” the primary vehicle for “Cold War” domestic politics was something else. It was a sometimes whispered and sometimes screaming belief that the “American way of life” was under attack. If from abroad we were threatened with destruction, from within came the menace of subversion.
The fact is that the bomb was never used again after Nagasaki and the fact is that this subversion never amounted to much. These facts did not impede the cultural system of “the Cold War.” Americans developed it into a finely articulated vocabulary and architecture for domestic political conflict.
We typically think of the factions in this conflict as conservative and liberal, “red” and “blue.” Today, however, these terms are sterile. They no longer serve as accurate measures of the civic way of life. They cannot guide us to the true position of the citizen in the 21st century.
“The Cold War” was built around a more fundamental divide. This opposition depends on your response to the essentially plural condition of humankind and the astonishing variety of human lives, needs, and desires. One may fear plurality or embrace it. Some have sought over and over again to suppress diversity, others have aimed to nourish it.
Let us, with Jefferson, call the first sort monocrats. They are attracted to and amplify that tendency of power to overwhelm opposition, to promote its one true way, to deny the responsibilities of interdependence.
On the other side, across a treacherous chasm, reside those dedicated to democracy, democracy as only America has seen it and dreamed it. In our version, democracy must seek to advance the full flowering of human potentials and proliferating variety which that entails. For plurality is the natural environment and source of energy for citizens who must live together every day, even though we are each and every one of us different and bound to pursue our own unique lives.
Under pressure of emergencies real or fictitious, the “Cold War” favored the consolidating and unchecked power of monocracy. Monocrats, pretending to revive tradition, pushed forward far-reaching programs of cultural transformation. Around issues like family, religion, education, individualism, law, and war, they sought to establish single-minded beliefs — one type of family, one true religion, one view of history, winners and losers responsible only to themselves, judges scripted by an imaginary “original intent,” unilateral uses of force — despite the variety of experience and interests naturally arising in our unprecedented nation of immigrants. With each inevitable resurgence of diversity, the monocrats branded it as a threat to, rather than the realization of, the American way of life.
This is what we need to understand. For how long have powerful voices amongst us denied the inherent plurality of America? For how many years have we come to expect conversion and consensus in civic life instead of an on-going negotiation of difference and civil cohabitation?
Imagine that “the Cold War” ended in 1989. Is it remotely plausible that the reflexes and habits of two generations could be wiped out in just the subsequent one?
Measured by the everyday life of the citizen, however, what happened in 1989 was not the end of “the Cold War.” It was, rather, a moment when that common phrase, tied as it was to the existence of a vanishing Soviet Union, lost its utility. The facts it stood for continued.
Just one year later James Davidson Hunter gave us a new name for those facts. Like the proverbial inventor of the wheel he discovered something that had already for decades been right before our eyes. And so the struggle between monocrats and the democratic spirit continued under two names: we called it more aptly what it had always been, a “culture war,” and we hid its continuity and persistence by declaring everywhere “the end of the Cold War.”
“Continuity” and “persistence” are not quite the right words. For pivoting in this way “the Cold War” began, in the eyes of its most effective proponents, to assume its purest form. “There is no ‘after the Cold War’ for me,” wrote the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol in 1993. “So far from having ended, my Cold War has increased in intensity, as sector after sector has been ruthlessly corrupted by liberal ethos. Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real Cold War has begun. We are far less prepared for this Cold War, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case with our victorious war against a global communist threat.”
If Irving Kristol seems of another time, remember that just months ago it was his son who guided John McCain to Sarah Palin.
In the same way that cries of “the Cold War is over” disguised its continuation, it was masked as another phase emerged after September 11th, 2001. Characters ingrained with self-righteousness and carrying the baggage of long-standing political conflict boarded the fleet wagon of emergency. The monocrats held sway, and, because we citizens, without much thinking about it, so much share with them the interpretive frame of the Cold-War-as-Culture-War, the powerful in the time of George W. Bush accumulated more power with impunity.
When reminded that democracy thrives with skepticism, objection, resistance, and the demand that the powerful not only show their cards but also risk losing with every hand, the monocrats threw back that familiar old charge: “anti-American.” In other words, they drew attention away from issues and redoubled the inherently uncontestable claims of “security” and “survival.” They raised the stakes; they “went all in”; they declared themselves the party of “whatever it takes.”
That is how the “Cold War” persists as a system of domestic political culture. That is the “Cold War” that originally did and still does implicate the American citizen. This implication has for years and will for years to come constitute the reflexes and habits of vast numbers of Americans. It explains some of the strange conduct in the presidential election of 2008.
Michele Bachmann appealed to the still-present common sense of “the Cold War.” And she is not alone. Sarah Palin and numerous others have been sending the same signals. Together they put in the insidious form of plain talk what John McCain would only insinuate. As the Republican candidate hammered over and over on a fabricated image of President Obama “spreading the wealth,” the word “anti-American,” although it never came out of his mouth, was returned to what it meant after World War Two and for Joseph McCarthy and through the Sixties and in the time of Reagan: it is a synonym for “socialism” and ethical impurity. It is a way of turning public goods like schools and highways and Medicaid and, yes, even that costly collective enterprise called the U.S. Army, each of which are in their own way realizations of the American dream, into their opposite.
The early “Cold War” came with its “nuclear terror.” Associating this fear with a supposed “threat to the American way of life” proved an effective if perverse instrument of governance. Today, the “terrorist” is, in the symbolic system of everyday life, the equivalent of that Soviet A-bomb which, in 1949, turned the tables on the American monopoly of nuclear weapons.
This why the trio of terms — anti-American, socialist, and terrorist — could be leveled against candidate Obama with some effect. It constitutes one charge with a long history propelled by the same “Cold War” types of fear and justified by monocratic self-interest.
The election was a solid repudiation of President Bush. Crude propagandists and demogogues who paved the way for the unchecked accumulation of power by Bush and his associates are now being disavowed by conservative intellectuals. They may seem to be abandoning the ship they launched but they are in fact being thrown overboard. Anne Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and their whole crowd are the true progeny not just of Joe McCarthy, but of Barry Goldwater; not just of the far-reaching networks of conservatives that joined forces to elect Ronald Reagan and to return Reaganism to office in 2000, but of William Buckley’s National Review and Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest.
Michelle Bachmann spoke in a familiar code. If you want the key, ask Anne Coulter, or dozens of others like her. Their message prompts us, with the insidious comfort of “mom” and “apple pie” and “Joe the plumber,” to reenter that big muddy and devastating stream of American history where everyday political conflict is pushed over into accusations of treason.
The uncanny thing is that the Bachmann code no longer stands for something outside itself. It is a knee-jerking Cold War reflex of neo-conservative presuppositions and stereotypes. These remain effective in national politics because many of them are still shared by liberals. Simply handing control of the government from one party to the other will not counteract this. If we do not finally come to grips with underlying beliefs, even new and improved public policies will have an effect as short-lived as the irrational ones they replace.
There is hope. To break this spell, to see a real advance in the experiment of democracy, we must identify clearly what is really eating at the heart of America. Of all the opportunities open to President Obama none has deeper significance than this. He had better find a way to resist all the easy gains and rhetorical levers of monocracy used with astonishing effect by the last administration. He had better find a way to invigorate citizens as he did voters. Then, perhaps, America can once and for all put the Cold War to rest.