Memo to GOP: Cold War's Over

Mitt Romney can be funny. Seriously.

That's how I saw it when he confronted a protester during the South Carolina primaries. The young man asked how the former Massachusetts governor, as a member of the 1 percent, planned to support the 99 percent. Romney gave an answer that he'd been polishing for a week about the need for unity during our country's darkest hour and how demands of the 1 percent were attempts at division and rancor among the citizenry. Then he cited countries that we were supposed to understand were not better:

"If you’ve got a better model, if you think China’s better, or Russia’s better, or Cuba’s better, or North Korea’s better, I’m glad to hear all about it. But you know what, you know what, America’s right, and you’re wrong.”

It was an uncharacteristic moment of candor for the metabolically stiff Romney. We can't see the protester in the video showing Romney's answer, but I can imagine the look on his face. It's of total befuddlement, as if to ask: "Did he really just say that?" What's befuddling isn't that Romney told him to love America or leave it but that his references were super fresh. In 1984.

Russia has been ostensibly democratic for a while. China is communist when it's not a global capitalist powerhouse. And Cuba? Really, Cuba?

That he remembered to name-check Cuba before North Korea (whose million-man army really is kinda scary) says something about Romney. He's old enough to recall a time when Red-baiting was an effective means of suppressing class consciousness but, sadly for him, Red-baiting is hard when communists are a national-security threat that rank right up there with Quakers.

I'd wager that many Americans under the age of 30 with no personal memory of the Evil Empire take a dim view of politicians bent on retreading the rhetoric of the Cold War. I felt similarly during the 2004 presidential election when John Kerry got Swift Boated. The Zeitgeist seemed obsessed with events 40 years old, and if we couldn't leave the past in the past, how could we prepare for the future?

Indeed, the more Romney bullies young Americans with his with-us-or-against-us taunts, and the more former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bloviates over Obama's leading the country down the road to a "secular, European-style bureaucratic socialist system," the more these candidates, and by extension their Republican Party, are going to alienate young voters left and right.

The downside to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 was that the power elite no longer had an alien bogeyman with which to dampen radical dissent. The "war on terror" later replaced communism as the foundation for our perpetual national crisis state, but, listening to Romney and other men of a certain age, it appears that the rhetoric of the Cold War won't ever go away, not as long as it remains a useful tool of political coercion.

A small confession. During the 2008 presidential election, I laughed at John McCain. Not because he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate but because he was the first to call then-candidate Barack Obama a socialist. To me, that seemed utterly out of touch, and so not what you want to hear from an old guy gunning for the presidency. True, Obama had provided an opening by discussing wealth redistribution, but McCain seemed to say "socialist" with a mix of contempt and mothballs. In a way, I could imagine him scrunching his nose before saying "kraut."

So that's not very nice, but still, I have a point. "Socialism" isn't what it used to be, because socialism is not the diametrical opposite of capitalism, just as the USSR is not the geopolitical counterweight to the U.S. Without that balance of power, in which there is no mutually assured destruction without mutual assurance, Cold Warriors look as if they're boxing at shadows.

Implicit in their Cold War rhetoric is the assumption that good-old American capitalism is the best there ever was, but we know now more than we ever did during the Cold War that that's really not the case. According to a recent Pew poll, only 50 percent of all voters have a positive view of capitalism, while 40 percent have a negative view. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 49 percent have a positive view of socialism. No surprise, the older the respondent, the more negative "socialism" is.

That's in keeping with a similar poll that attempted to measure the political views of millennials. Most (55 percent) favor government spending to revive the economy, not austerity. Most (44 percent) believe in expanding health-care reform. This, by the way, complements other polls that find that voters across the board believe the rich have too much power, that they don't pay enough in taxes, that Medicare and Social Security are just fine thank you, keep your hands off!

Thanks to Mitt Romney and his millions, along with the rise of a national protest movement, we are becoming more and more aware of class differences. Even Politico ran a piece that remarked on the class differences between Romney and Gingrich supporters. When 66 percent of the public (in yes, another Pew poll) believes there is a fundamental conflict between rich and poor in this country (nearly 20 percent more than in 2009), you've got to wonder why Romney and Gingrich keep on keeping on with the Cold War rhetoric.

Perhaps that's all they know. If so, we can expect a vicious cycle in which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, continues to meet criticism of our class system with scary talk about the communists. And the more he talks about things that mattered 40 years ago, the more young voters are going to feel like the people of their parents' generation are just not willing to listen. That happened in 2004, but not in 2008. That's when young voters seized the moment and changed the subject. 

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