Socialism . . . But?

‘Socialism!’ the Democrats cry. ‘But don’t take us too seriously!’

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.

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