Plenty of conservatives have written about the New York Times’ 100th anniversary nostalgia for the totalitarian communist regimes of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. While providing the necessary historical perspective on the horrors these regimes perpetuated, I have not seen many pieces asking why the NYT has engaged in the project.
Back in August, Robert Tracinski theorized that it’s simply because they can — that the passage of time now allows them the attempt (presumably focused on the younger and dumber). But I think he hits closer to the mark simply in observing that 1989 was “the year reality pulled the rug out from under all of the earnest young socialists.”
On the Right — particularly in the Trump era — there has been an increasing amount of discussion of the way conservatism’s Reagan-era successes led to the eventual collapse of the Buckley/Meyer/Reagan fusionism that lifted Reagan to the White House. Fiscal, defense and social conservatives made common cause, but the success of tax reform and the policies that ultimately helped bring forward the end of the Cold War left the GOP with mostly the unpopular factions of the coalition (deficit hawks and the Religious Right) left unsatisfied.
In retrospect, it’s surprising the populism that began to assert itself in the early 90s (via Pat Buchanan within the party and H. Ross Perot outside it) didn’t become ascendant earlier.
But Reagan-era successes, particularly those leading to the defeat of totalitarian communism, were just as hard on the Democratic Party. They sampled and now have rejected Bill Clinton’s third-way policy agenda. A host of factors (an open seat, the failures of the GW Bush administration, a financial crisis) gave Pres. Obama the opportunity to take one more swipe at the the health insurance industry, albeit without the “public plan” he wanted; it’s failing.
More significantly, the failure of international communism created a vacuum on the Left at pretty much the moment the New Left succeeded in capturing many cultural institutions, including higher education. This was the moment where the Left turned to de-legitimizing the achievements of Western civilization and its institutions in earnest. They were so successful that approximately two generations later, so-called “identity politics” are all the rage, with the emphasis on “rage.”
In 2016, neither of the major Democratic campaigns effectively exploited identity politics. Indeed, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ran afoul of it on various occasions, feeling the wrath of what should be the party’s activist base. There were many reasons for this failure, from Clinton and Sanders not understanding how identity politics differs from the old movement politics to the inherent problems in translating identity politics into policies a majority want.
My theory, which is mine, is that the New York Times understands the practical problems of identity politics and fear that fmr Trump advisor Stephen Bannon was correct in identifying identity politics as a tempting, but fatal trap for a losing Democratic Party.
While the Gray Lady has been running a series trying to re-contexualize the communist past, it has been running columns like the Mike Lilla op-ed that he turned into a book-length critique of identity politics. And it was the New York Times, of all outlets, that published a column comparing the thinking of identity politics icon Ta-Nehisi Coates to that of alt-right weasel Robert Spencer.
What can possibly compete with the revolutionary, romantic radicalism of identity politics? Communism. And Tracincki was right in noting that Millennials have been made open to it by out awful left-leaning educational system (and in fairness, a Wall Street panic not seen in decades). And thus the Times leaps forward to re-educate the lumpenproletariat on the coolness of communism.
Mind you, the NYT’s seeming preference for a totalitarian ideology focused on class instead of race may be entirely practical, not principled. Progressive politics have long had the qualities of a protection racket, wherein the more revolutionary agitators play the “bad cop” while the center-left establishment plays the “good cop” that saves capitalism (albeit less and less of it as the years pass).
But the Times may see Pres. Trump’s upset victory as demonstrating that Clintonian neoliberalism doesn’t motivate the Democratic base and that white identity politics may trump left-wing identitarianism. The NYT may see a rejection of identitarianism as necessary now for Dems to not lose quite so many working-class whites that they lose political power. If that means that a fresh coat of paint has to be airbrushed onto the disgraceful history of communism, so be it.
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