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.
World War II and the confrontation with the Soviet Union fundamentally altered existing political dynamics. The war against Nazism delegitimized isolationist sentiment, made overt white-supremacist politics an international liability, and fostered support for an aggressive American global presence after the war. As attention turned to the Soviet Union, policy makers developed a new account of the cultural and political differences between the United States and the country’s totalitarian foe. As opposed to those of its global adversary, they contended, the interests of America were coterminous with the world’s interests. Taking up threads from earlier politicians, from Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt to Albert Beveridge and Woodrow Wilson, early cold warriors effectively wove together a new past for the nation, newly cleansed of official racism. The United States, they declared, had been from its founding committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence: self-government, universal equality, and personal liberty. All this licensed an assertion of American international police power—largely unprecedented outside the Western Hemisphere—and the country’s position as world steward and first nation.
In the context of competition with the Soviet Union, the American push to world hegemony placed new pressures on postwar domestic politics. As decolonization began in Asia and Africa, national elites became concerned about winning over politically assertive and newly independent nonwhite populations in the Global South. Jim Crow became an international public-relations problem: for western Republicans like Earl Warren or southern Democrats like Lyndon Johnson both, racial reform was a foreign-affairs imperative. If the Soviet Union embraced a language of racial egalitarianism and anti-imperialism, the US, too, had to recast state-sponsored discrimination as out of step with the march of American history.
Just as important, the challenge of the Soviet Union created a need to project global prosperity. Although not nearly as wealthy as the United States, the USSR offered a clear example in the postwar years of an impoverished state that had rapidly industrialized. The US responded by attempting to provide developing states with tangible material benefits. This was most obviously underscored by the Bretton Woods institutions and the Marshall Plan. Both were organized on the principle that the US should support a global system for reconstruction and development, undergirded by the noblesse oblige of American capital. The system grew out of a desire for American corporations to profit, surely—the benefits were real enough—but also out of a genuine desire to produce practical economic achievements that could stand up against the Soviet alternative.
Under this framework, civil rights reforms were passed, US economic leadership grew, and uncooperative politicians like George Wallace were pushed to the margins. Both parties had committed to the basic elements of what became “the American model.” At home, it involved a modest welfare state combined with meliorism on issues of race. Abroad, the goal was the reconstruction of foreign societies on American terms through the spread of market capitalism and the legal-political institutions of liberal democracy. The aim: an American-led world community in the nation’s own reconceived image, driven by collective security and a supposedly enlightened capitalism, with US military power and wealth as the ultimate guarantor.
In the past year it has become commonplace for left-liberals and even conservatives of the Bill Kristol and David Frum variety to pine for the sureties of the postwar project: the serenity of labor-business cooperation, the joy of global multilateralism, and the bonhomie of bipartisan faith in American exceptionalism. Some liberals appear willing even to forgive the Kristols and Frums of the world for their ardent warmongering, as long as they repeat bromides on race and voice support for human rights.
But one cannot discuss the civil rights achievements of the cold-war era without recognizing the degree to which they were enabled by imperialism. Freedom at home was used to justify unfreedom abroad: Harry Truman explicitly argued that for American foreign ambitions to succeed, the country would have to “correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy”; Lyndon Johnson was said to have called “segregation” at home “absolutely crazy” because “80 percent of the world is not white.” And although the US presence abroad was defended as promoting liberal democracy, whenever foreign populations opposed American preferences the consequences were staggering—direct involvement or complicity in mass violence, coups, and assassinations across large swaths of the world, epitomized by the American war in Vietnam but extending to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Indonesia, Central America, Chile, and elsewhere.
Cold-war rhetoric also downplayed the extent to which systematic forms of political and economic subordination defined the experience of racial minorities and indigenous peoples within US borders. The cold-war vision presented the achievement of racial equality as a matter of simply completing the project of liberal integration. Unlike the dominant views on the left before the 1940s—when even establishment academics took for granted that the Constitution was a counterrevolutionary document—the new assumption of the cold-war order was that American institutions were essentially just, and the only necessary change would be to open these institutions to worthy members of black and brown communities. Little attention was paid, as it had been in sections of the left in the 1930s, to how racial and class subordination were intertwined, let alone to how American capitalism was both racialized and inherently oppressive. One should not romanticize that period; the incipient forms of 1930s organizing, against the backdrop of persistent racial discrimination within the labor movement, hardly suggested a clear path to liberation. But what marked that pre-cold-war era was real ideological openness, a variety of genuine political possibilities—some emancipatory, some deeply destructive—at least in comparison with what followed.
This closing off of ideological alternatives partly explains why the cold-war order was bound to unravel. The bargain between business and labor led to the entrenchment of economic hierarchy and the defeat of social democracy. Where in the 1930s radical elements of the labor movement had influence in the Democratic Party, following the cold-war crackdowns on communism, labor radicals lost it all. Government provision of social programs and business’s acceptance of collective bargaining came with a stipulation: the union had to change from a class-conscious instrument of mass democratic organization to a more limited special-interest group. The AFL -CIO left issues like control and management to business, and parroted cold-war patriotism. For union leaders like Walter Reuther, fearful of McCarthyism and optimistic after decades of union growth, this was an acceptable exchange. Over time, it cost unions the ability to contest the terms of the state, which chipped away at domestic labor gains while promoting a pro-business foreign policy through force of arms.
By the early 1970s, the postwar consensus had frayed. Economic crisis, social rebellion, and failure in Vietnam exposed the limitations of the early cold-war vision. Reaganite conservatives blamed these failures on a bloated government, a corrupt labor movement, and a black community mired in pathologies. But while he seemed to repudiate basic elements of the cold-war framework, Reagan, in his runs for the presidency in 1976 and 1980, couched his appeals in a nostalgic and virulent militarism: an effort to take America back to the good old days. (His 1980 campaign was the first to proclaim, “Let’s make America great again.”) In this climate, both parties rejected the deeper goals of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., from social democracy and radical racial reform to an end to American interventionism. But they nonetheless symbolically sanctified the civil rights movement’s legislative achievements, which could stand as proof of the national capacity for progress. In this way, Reagan reset, rather than overturned, the cold-war order.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union a decade later represented the ultimate confirmation of the worldview. It was critical in shaping the political identities of the Clintons, Obama, and the younger Bushes. Although extensive structural disparities between white and black society persisted, the integration of elite institutions and the growth of the black middle and professional classes appeared to herald a new postracialism. The demise of the Soviet Union ended debates about alternatives to capitalism and also seemed to bolster the legitimacy of US international adventurism. The only proof one needed for the basic goodness of the American project, at home and abroad, was 1989.
Well into the 2010s, American political elites of both parties shared a common vision. They remained gripped by a cold-war imagination that saw the ascendancy of American liberalism not as a unique confluence of events generated by the combination of the Depression, war, and Soviet competition, but rather as the country’s natural and permanent progression. Men like John McCain and Obama believed so deeply in this story because they had worked and suffered for it, and it had given their lives a larger meaning. And for periods in American life, if one kept to the proper circles, it could actually feel true: wealth was indeed generated, excluded groups were included, and threatening adversaries were defeated.
The problem turned out to be that neither the ideals nor the institutions were up to the challenges to come. Structural economic problems had been mounting for decades, and new problems had been created in the meantime. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were international adventures larger than any since the Vietnam war. The global financial crisis underscored the precariousness of middle- and working-class economic security and exposed the scale of the divide between haves and have-nots. As the country reeled from near-economic collapse, the carceral state’s generational effects on poor and black communities led to mass protest and social rebellion. The years 2014–16 saw more civil unrest than any time since the early 1970s.
Apparently unrelated, each of these crises was the result of policies based in core cold-war assumptions: the moral value of American interventionism, the faith in market liberalism, and the presumption that American institutions were bending toward racial equality, simply in need of small-scale reforms. The policies that had set the nation down these paths had been enacted precisely because they fit so well within the cold-war frame. And as political elites responded, the dominance of that frame led them back to the same old cold-war toolkit: more intervention (Libya, Syria, Yemen), more marketized social services (Obamacare), more minor racial adjustments (body cameras, sensitivity training).
The size of these crises would have made them difficult to contain under any circumstances. But political leaders confronted another new reality: the growing intractability of the American constitutional structure. Starting in the years immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, then accelerating with the election of the first black president in 2008, American political decision-making became defined by paralysis. Even if political elites had had the creative imagination to pursue large-scale change—as the New Dealers did before the cold-war consensus took hold—it now became impossible for reforms of almost any kind to make their way through governing institutions short of a supermajority.1
In the 1990s, encomiums to the Constitution were taken for granted. It was commonplace for scholars and commentators, drawing on arguments that flourished at the beginning of the cold war, to praise James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for devising the very features in the US Constitution that promoted deadlock. According to this conventional wisdom, checks and balances warded off tyranny: by limiting the power of any single political actor, they ensured that one did not need a society of “angels” for democracy to function.
But as pre-cold-war reformers understood, American political institutions actually require precisely the opposite to work: a near-angelic degree of social cohesion (if not agreement on political ends) among empowered elites. The cold-war order had in fact been forged on two related facts. The first was an organized working class that helped deliver the supermajorities needed to defeat barriers to mass democracy in the 1930s, and then mustered enough electoral strength in the decades that followed to expand, or at least protect, the social safety net their efforts had secured. Just as essential, the confrontation with the Soviet Union fostered cohesion among political elites in ways that produced the conditions for compromise, most dramatically evidenced during the period of 1960s civil rights legislation. When the Republican senator Everett Dirksen helped break the Southern filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, declaring, “The time has come for equality of opportunity. . . . It will not be stayed or denied,” he was speaking the same liberal universalist language as Lyndon Johnson and was motivated, regardless of the partisan divide, by much the same vision of the country and its global mission.
With working-class organizations weakened, it has become hard to see how any political coalition can elect a supermajority capable of overcoming the Constitution’s roadblocks. At the same time, the US’s enemies, from marginal global players like North Korea to weak nonstate actors like al Qaeda or ISIS, hardly present an existential competitor in the style of the USSR. There are no longer external incentives for elite agreement. Instead, a combination of intense party polarization and the profound influence of money have left the legislative branch constitutively unable to confront fundamental social issues. And as Obama’s post-2010 time in office made clear, even the ever-more-powerful executive branch is limited when it comes to reshaping domestic policy.
The dysfunction is not a matter of our institutions alone. When the Bushes and Clintons of the world reached political power, what it meant to be American had a very specific content. Politicians knew what homilies they had to repeat to be taken seriously by party gatekeepers and thus rise to prominence. They had to defend Constitution and country, and to see in the founding principles a basic commitment to universal equality. They had to embrace free enterprise as the greatest economic system on earth. They had to speak glowingly about American exceptionalism and the country’s global responsibilities. Every one of these views remained seriously contested within sections of the public, on both the right and the left. Members of the white citizens’ councils in the South did not simply stop believing in white nationalism. Similarly, the radical political activism of the 1960s and ’70s, which challenged the combined evils of white supremacy, capitalism, and militarism, did not simply evaporate with the resignation of Nixon. These threatening ideas were suppressed, often through force by the state, and they were disavowed—even if still expressed under cover of “dog whistles”—by the two main political parties. There may have been popular constituencies for beliefs that fell outside the polite consensus, but those constituencies had no explicit home in establishment politics.
But with more than two decades having passed since the cold war, and the republic’s basic institutions paralyzed, the country was overdue for a reckoning. In the Republican Party, the candidates of the old center-right, like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, were dispatched with ease. In the Democratic Party, Clinton ran as an old-fashioned cold warrior, with a flag-waving party convention that looked, and at times even sounded, like what Nixon or Reagan might have offered, embracing the national security establishment and repeating the truisms of the postwar order (“We are great because we are good”). This strategy won Clinton the most votes, from her party and the general voting public, but the center of political gravity nevertheless shifted elsewhere. On the left, those who championed Sanders and rallied to social movements have not hesitated to critique capitalism, defend socialism, reject the national security state and hyper-incarceration, and call for both a dismantling of the banks and an end to racial and class inequality on a structural level. On the right, new life has been breathed into perhaps the most powerful pre-cold-war ideological position in American history: the long-standing combination of anti-elitism, economic populism, and white nationalism, stretching in various permutations from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson, Father Coughlin, and George Wallace.
The differences between Trump’s and Wallace’s political trajectories are instructive. In 1972, Wallace’s third attempt to claim the Democratic nomination was derailed by an assassination attempt. But his failure overall was also due to coordinated efforts within the party to deny him the nomination. A significant part of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 primary strategy involved running popular local surrogates against Wallace in the states where Wallace ran. In 2016, no analogous effort was mobilized against Trump. Part of the reason was that in the 1960s and ’70s, elites still appreciated the power of overt white supremacy. Four decades later, the leadership in both parties simply could not believe that their invocations of “American values” would fail to blunt the appeal of an old man who trafficked in explicit racism and misogyny, and who embodied elements of the past long assumed to have been politically vanquished. But Trump’s success was in part due to his advanced age. Raised in the early days of the cold war, he gave voice to the sentiments and vitriol of a previous era when white nationalism was active enough that it had to be aggressively tamped down. This might also explain why Trump’s parallel figure on the left was also a septuagenarian. In his youth, Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League, a group that originated in the Progressive-era Socialist Party. He came of age with a politics that predates the cold war—perhaps this, and their rise outside the party process for culling nonestablishment voices, are the two men’s only real similarities.
The United States is in a remarkable place: for the first time, we are living in a truly post-cold-war political environment. For those on the center-left and center-right, there remains a desperate hope that if Trump were to be removed from the scene, through impeachment or defeat, the US could somehow return to its previous trajectory. And for all the past year’s politics of despair, a likely electoral outcome, because of popular revulsion toward Trump, is that centrist politicians in both parties will gain another shot at power. Given the razor-thin margin of Trump’s victory—despite institutional advantages like the electoral college and voter suppression—there is little reason to assume that Trump the politician will enjoy lasting political dominance. But as long as party stalwarts persist in recycling cold-war tropes, they will remain trapped in the same cycles of social crisis and popular disaffection. Even if this combination of nostalgia and outrage works for a couple of election cycles, it cannot work indefinitely. This is not 1989.
With the end of the cold-war frame, the left is now truly present at the political table for the first time in decades. It represents a growing and increasingly vocal slice of the American electorate, and it is more ideologically assertive than at any point since the 1960s, perhaps even since the 1930s. The left’s strength today is in its extra-institutional energy and capacity for mass mobilization. It is in the ability to turn out participants to public rallies and engage activists for specific and targeted protests. The strength also resides in broad popular sentiment, most dramatically evidenced by the shifting public perceptions of socialism and capitalism. Despite internal disagreement, this broadly democratic socialist left, as expressed in everything from the Fight for $15 to the vision statement of the Movement for Black Lives, has a systematic and practical agenda for addressing the central problems that have roiled American life: the destructive rise of plutocratic power, the reality of structural racism, and the effects at home and abroad of American militarism.
The obstacles are, of course, significant. The left’s extra-institutional power has not yet resulted in real power over the institutions of economy and party. There are no contemporary equivalents to the old unions. And the left, unlike the ethnonationalist right in the Republican Party, has so far been contained within the Democratic Party, whose longtime functionaries are reluctant to cede the stage.
The left faces other internal problems as well. Classic disputes over whether and how to relate claims grounded in race to those grounded in class are unlikely to be soon resolved. In the past, these issues were addressed—when they were addressed—through activists and institutions that had the mass support of their bases reaching common ground. In this way labor and civil rights activists, for instance, managed to foment cross-racial and class-conscious political coalitions, despite profound philosophical disagreements over the constitutive nature of white supremacy or whether to focus on broadly social welfarist policies or those that were seen as targeting racial domination specifically. Today, especially given the fragility of the old institutions and the lack of clarity about the extent to which designated leaders have representative authority, the tendency has been different. Often, instead of finding working agreements through shared policy goals, the inclination has been to resolve conflicts in advance through debate over the philosophical status of race or class—an impossible task. The result has been sectarianism that has only worsened a long-standing weakness of the left in this country: the lack of cohesive coalitional politics.
Perhaps the largest difficulty, though, is the absence of a clear method for overcoming institutional paralysis in our constitutional system. There continues to be a fundamental imbalance between the popular power even a well-organized left could bring to bear today on government and the constraints (from formal checks to moneyed interests to the security state) built into the governing order. It is simply not clear that the left has a path at the moment to win electoral power and then to govern effectively, since a victory would be marked immediately by pushback from every branch of national government and from the states. For all the far-right talk of the “deep state,” an authentically left administration would face an aggressive reaction from specific elements within the federal bureaucracy—those tied to business interests, as well as those committed to preserving the carceral and security infrastructures.
This underscores the need for left forces to focus explicitly on how to expand their institutional capacity. Before the cold-war faith in the constitutional order came to glaze over everything, labor and black-freedom activists—together with allied reformers—saw transforming the state and its institutions to make them amenable to popular control as the political problem of the day. This was a central reason why labor and black radicals understood their work not in terms of special-interest bargaining or formal inclusion in the existing legal structure, but as projects to create a genuine democracy: their social movements were mass democratic insurgencies. Activists had clear and contesting notions of political design—and they pressed for institutional changes—from the abolition of the Senate to full voting rights to collective bargaining—that, if implemented, would have dramatically elevated the social power of their bases.
One way to think today of Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” or of the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, which tie voter disenfranchisement to broader justice claims, is as a continuation of this exhortation to democratic mobilizing. The goal is not merely to bring back the social welfarism of the past. It is to create an actual left majority—cross-racial and class-conscious—that has a clear agenda serving its interests and, just as vitally, the bargaining power institutionally to pursue those interests. To move past the moribund legacies of the cold war, we need to invest in new democratic reform efforts across the American institutional landscape.
Most obviously, this means harnessing mass anger at the corporate corruption of the political process and at the undemocratic implications of political features like voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the electoral college. But it also requires a targeted effort to bring together both economic and democratic demands, since when intertwined, these projects can help expand the left’s practical institutional capacity. One exemplary option, already being taken up by some activists, insists that “ban the box” hiring-reform efforts must be seen alongside the overturning of state felony-disenfranchisement laws. Another possibility, much older but less often heard today, would be to strengthen the classic bases of left politics like unions by, in addition to making it easier for them to organize and to strike, returning to the language of “workplace democracy,” insisting that the labor movement be viewed not as an interest group bargaining for mere material goods but as an institution that epitomizes how economic and democratic needs can be jointly satisfied. A similar approach could be taken to the decriminalization of immigrant status, since an empowered immigrant community is one able to press both at work and in politics for a racially and economically reconstructive agenda.
Another crucial project will be the development of a full electoral infrastructure for left-wing politicians and civil servants, individuals who can contest centrist Democrats at every level of government and staff every bureaucratic position in local, state, and federal office. If Sanders had won in 2016—given the extent to which the cold-war Democratic Party has long contained left-wing dissent—who could have actually filled more junior roles in, say, the National Security Agency? Whether in universities, think tanks, party infrastructures, or new institutions, there has to be a sustained path to leadership for socialists and radicals, who have in part been reduced to being extra-institutional voices because there has been no alternative. It may be time, in other words, for another long march through the institutions.
The above are just a few possibilities. Ultimately, the end of the cold war means confronting through political action the fact that the country is not now and has never been democratically organized—a fact that continues to make the likelihood of real social transformation relatively small. But again, that is nothing new about American politics. The constraints of the constitutional system and the threat of state reprisals against social movements have always been the predicament for any effort at radical change. Today, however, we face these roadblocks in a cultural context in which the ideas of the left are not merely relevant but also, despite the reality of Trump, politically ascendant. That hardly suggests that victory is assured, but to face down obstacles is simply what it means to be engaged in political struggle.
Winner-take-all presidential systems, in which it is impossible to call new elections, are often notable for deadlock and the need to strike political deals across the partisan divide. In the US, the problem of deadlock is further exacerbated by the various checks on popular authority, from the Senate and the disproportionate power it gives to small population centers, to gerrymandering in the House of Representatives, to widespread practices of voter disenfranchisement. Elsewhere, deadlocked presidentialism has led to government collapse and even violent military overthrow, as Allende’s Chile tragically embodied. More commonly, it results in presidents slowly accumulating greater and greater lawmaking power, simply avoiding blocked democratic processes and hoping to impose policy through the bureaucratic and security infrastructure. The latter tendency has come to define American presidentialism. ↩