Wednesday, August 4, 2021
The Soviet Union’s main adversary in the Cold War was also defined by ideology, to some extent. Many western nations had embraced liberalism, but no other was created with the words of John Locke enshrined in its foundation. Yet liberalism, too, faced its challenges in the late 20th century, not from the obviously failing Soviet Communism, but from rival ideas within the democratic tradition. Starting in the 1960s, a new way of thinking began to predominate in the US that was not really liberal, although its opponents confusingly still referred to it as such.
This new way of thinking was more hostile to freedom of speech, and its adherents began the process of chasing deviant thinkers out of academia that began in the late 1960s and would massively reduce political diversity by the 21st century; it supported not just personal sexual freedom, as did liberalism, but radical ideas about sex, including hostility to the family; it was anti-religion and would become more so when religion clashed with sexual rights. As for freedom of association, the “master freedom” in Christopher Caldwell’s words, this was also incompatible with a worldview that prioritised equality over liberty.
This new way of thinking — progressivism is probably the fairest term — is far less tolerant than liberalism. Indeed, in its hostility to freedom of speech, its Manichean worldview, its suspicion that its opponents are fascists, and the belief that politics should be inserted into everything — from science to children’s books — it is closer to the totalitarian tradition. American progressivism is not communism, obviously, anymore than its opponents are Nazis; the market is perfectly capable of achieving most progressive goals, and America has become more culturally Left-wing as Right-wing economic policies have dominated, globalisation being the common theme that links the two.
But globalisation came with a price, with millions of jobs lost after the 2001 trade deal with China, made two months after George W. Bush had followed the Soviet example by invading Afghanistan. It was in those former industrial heartlands where people first began to notice an epidemic of drug-related deaths that now constitutes one of the greatest social disasters in history.
Four decades on from its superpower rival, the United States had now become a country in which people were dying younger, driven by overdoses and suicides. That this epidemic took so long to register may have been the solitary and often legal nature of the drug problem; unlike Aids, it did not affect too many celebrities, Prince being the exception. But it could also be who the victims were — predominantly rural white Americans, neither powerful themselves nor championed by powerful supporters.
Like the Soviet Union, the United States has developed a system in which some social classes and races are officially favoured, and some are disfavoured, reflected in post-war legal innovations like affirmative action.