American Dark Age: How Did The Cold War Era Change From History To Politically Correct Mythology

Schopenhauer said that the world exists as our representation.  No where is this more true than in the field of history. Yet God has not shared with humanity His prerogative of creation-from-nothing rather, even in the world of fiction we are but sub-creators, building our worlds up from the elements of thought and language with which our Creator has endowed us.  Moving beyond fiction we come to history and journalism, where we may bring our narrative style to the table of fact, but we are forbidden to create fables.  None the less, the falsification of history by a sinful humanity is ubiquitous to the point that even the best  chronicles contain a great deal of myth.   Contrary to the expectations of the Enlightenment, this promiscuous myth-building has not been dispelled by the dawn of scientific historiography or the rise of quantitative methods in the social sciences.  Rather, increased sophistication of technique has led only to larger and more comprehensive myths.

As Jaques Elul would no doubt reminds us, we have long since passed through the ominous portals of the Propaganda Age and are now deep into its final, most degenerate stage. And was it not another Frenchman, Malbranch, who assured us,

Fear not that I will lead you into a strange country

Perchance I will teach you that you are a stranger in your own country

Alas, and passing strange would it be if this very America that we claim to know and love is little more than a tissue of myths held up for our mental adoration.   Yet that is the very claim of those who are generously denominated “the left”…those who have reduced the early history of Anglo-America to little more than caracature, a semi-comic tableau of Delaware crossings, cherry tree choppings, of log cabins and caps made from the fur of raccoons.  Against this bathos they juxtapose the high seriousness of critical history, with terse chronicles of minorities and women struggling for various quanta of equality along a variety of indicators.  In all this struggle between the comic and the tragic side of American history, the left fails to tell us that it is they, not conservatives, who are really teaching us only the expurgated and trite Classics, and that we are not supposed to raise any embarrassing questions about the origins of our actual social order, not quite the ominous “New World Order” but the socialized American order, one settling into a cantankerous middle age.

This is quite marvelous, since we are forever hearing that the left is the sworn enemy of Classicism, and champions of the raw, the real, and the contemporary.  Yet the truth is almost the exact opposite.  The left is loath to depart from the most ancient and shop worn narratives of early America.   It avoids talking about recent times, at least anything which is genuinely novel, except where it can find some narrative continuity with the corrupted remains of the ancients.  I know that this sounds paradoxical to the point of incredulity, but you will find that it is true if you can see history, and historiography, with new eyes.  The key to this paradox is simple.  The left only wants to talk about those periods of American history prior to the left’s complicity in establishing the present regime.  Everything after this establishment is taboo, while everything before the present regime is seen through a standard narrative, a new Classicism where America plays the same part that Rome did in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Finding a starting point

Dredging up facts is the herculean task of journalism, not history.  For history the great work is establishing the correct boundaries between eras which differ in their essential characteristics.  The standard narrative of American history has not been mythologized through the inclusion of false facts, plentiful as such errors might be.  Primarily, history has been mythologized because the boundary markers between different regimes have either been moved, or were never clearly demarcated to begin with.  It is the very chronological framework which has been tampered with, and false facts have only been introduced where they have been required to shore up a fictional framework.

The idea that there have been fundamentally different regimes operating underneath the legal and symbolic superstructure of American history, while hardly the staple of public school history, is a reality tacitly acknowledged by historians of various political ilks, all of whom can hardly be brushed away as eccentric or biased.  A good synoptic vision of America’s saga through tacit regime change can be found on the website of neo-Kantian philosopher Kelley Ross, where he refers to the First (1789-1860) Second (1861-1933) and Third (1934-present) Republics, which to any historically educated mind recalls the similar sounding, but standard, divisions of French political chronology.  Of course the reason this kind of division is non-standard for American history, reflects a situation where each of the “republics” in question did not, as in the case of France, originate through the public proclamation of a new constitution.

Admittedly,  the idea of constitutional emendation crops up during and immediately after the Civil War of 1861-1865, endowing the “Second Republic”with three amendments pertaining to slavery, citizenship, and civil rights.  Conversely, the onset of the third regime, dating from 1934, exhibits no explicit change whatsoever in the organic foundation of the American state.  The legal framework remains fundamentally the same as that promulgated in the Constitution of 1787, but the  interpretation and application of that framework is fitted to an entirely new understanding of governance and policy.  Therefore, this third change in regime was not so much a change in the laws as a transition from legal to post-legal norms of social governance.

Garet Garrett, journalist and political commentator, coined the phrase “revolution within the form” to describe the political transition beginning in 1934.  As per the above, the constitutional form was retained, giving all subsequent political life in America a duplicitous flavor, since there was, even at the level of ideas, a double standard of constitutional standards and policy goals, a duplicity qualitatively different from the corruption of moral and legal norms which characterize all political systems to one degree or another.  Unlike “corruption”, i.e., evasion of public morality, there were now two established but competing systems of public morality.

To Garet Garrett’s mind this “revolution within the form” was a veritable coup d’etat against the constitution.  However he was singularly unsuccessful in convincing his compatriots and contemporaries that a genuine regime change had been effected.  Hindsight has vindicated Garrett, but at the time there were a number of factors which rendered this regime change opaque.  I refer to factors other than the popularity of the New Deal, and that many felt it to be both a boon to the American people and in their own advantage.  Rather, those who opposed the New Deal rarely saw its revolutionary character.

There were a number of reasons for this, beginning with the relative ease with which the  New Deal revolution was commenced.  It seemed to be a revolution accomplished almost entirely without violence, commendable at first blush, but serving to desensitize the public to the magnitude of the changes which were being worked on the body politic.   Furthermore, the ways in which the new managerial state differed from a constitutional republic were obscure to the public.  It was not immediately apparent that the combination of legislative/judicial/executive functions within the “alphabet agencies” were at fundamental variance to the principles of classical liberalism and the separation of powers.

Change in parties vs. regime change

However the most important reason why the public was not alarmed at the occurrence of regime change in 20th century America was due to the conflation of two qualitatively different processes, change in parties within a parliamentary republic, and regime change.  The latter was made to look like an instance of the first, and more over, was dragged out  over such a long period of time that the process looked legitimate and moderate.

When we take a slice out of time and see party X (supposedly committed to ideology A) and party Y (supposedly committed to ideology B) iterate between themselves, it is electoral politics, in all its glory and/or shame.  However when we take two slices of time and see that, at time T1 party X was espousing ideology A and party Y advocating ideology A’, and at time T2 party X is now espousing ideology B and party Y is advocating ideology B’ we know that sometime between T1 and T2 regime change has occurred.   The problem is that it may be hard to locate the precise moment when this happened, since the process is likely to have been both covert and insidious.  Certainly this is what we see in the extra-constitutional evolution of the body politic in the United States.

Not for Americans the Gallic clarity of having a “Second Empire” or a “Third Republic”, or a historical deluge marked by barricades and clarion voices chanting the Marseilles.  Rather, it is as if we wanted to be tricked into our future, without either violence (commendable) or deliberation (lamentable).    Perhaps two theories, both inherited from perfidious Albion, explain this susceptibility to “revolution within the form”: Whig history and Darwinism, which are just the natural and political sides of one potent thought, both internally coherent and morally ambiguous, if not catastrophic.  For those convinced that change is both incremental and beneficial, there seems no compelling reason to set boundaries or limits to anything.  This is particularly obvious with regard to legislation, since continuously sitting legislatures guarantee that there will always be more statutes, not fewer, until the very notion of laws becomes too complex for the human mind and everything defaults to judicial fiat.  Hence there can be no such thing as regime change, even if moral day turns to immoral night, since all variations are points along a continuum.

The War Against Clarity

None the less, a good case can be made that the era of regime change, that is,change into the political system that we know and love (or love to loath) happened sometime early in what we call “the cold war.”  We might even accept the nomenclature of Dr. Ross and call ours a Third Republic, and yet dispute his identification of 1934 and the start of the New Deal with the start of a new regime.   During the 30s and 40s there was still an opposition to the New Deal, which maintained its status as a partisan ideology.  Only in the 1950s did the New Deal (as substance, not slogan) become the actual regime.  This is because the old Right, largely the Republican party, maintained its stance of opposition.  Granted the opposition was sporadic and not particularly effective.  However there was still some unknown quanta of potential energy stored up in the opposition, and the hopes and fears of those alive at the time were limited by the thought that the hammer would drop and the normality which had existed before the depression and the war would be restored.  After the election of Eisenhower the kinetic energy of this dream had been expended, and it quickly became apparent that bureaucratic centralism was the new normal.

The “Cold War” is in some sense a misnomer.  First if all, it contained within its ambit a number of very large-scale hot wars.  However it was also a kind of dark age, in the sense that it was a time of multiple contradictory narratives which entwined in such a way as to mutually invalidate one another.  Following upon WWII, the American people had gotten used to conditions of censorship in the media and the public square.  The half-light of a cold war prolonged the obscurity, and lowered public, and even Congressional, expectations of executive transparency.  Those elements of the left which remained embedded in the government continued their duplicity, which may be taken as a constant.  More salient was the failure of the conservatives at the time to understand the situation with any degree of clarity.  On the whole they seem to have been incensed by the threat of foreign operatives, and unwilling to see that there were flaws in the  body politic which automatically generated leftward drift.

It all depends on what you mean by “was” was

As Garet Garrett famously noted in the 50s that “the revolution was” and the republic of Lincoln had long since been supplanted by the social democracy of Roosevelt by the cold war.  Furthermore the social democracy and the national security state were essentially the same organism, continuing the apparatus used to fight the depression and WWII into the Truman years, and then normalized by Eisenhower.

The Old Right of the time was powerless to do much more than react with righteous indignation at the post-Constitutional character of the new order.  Part of this was due to a lack of developed economic and historical doctrines on a par with the seemingly sophisticated Marxist system.  Granted, a renaissance in conservative thinking was well underway, first popularized by the publication of F. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944.  However these findings, notably those of Austrian economics, were still ill-digested among conservative politicians and poorly propagated within society.  As a result conservatives gazed outward at the Soviet threat, and their program was easily confused with that of the national security bureaucracy.  Initially, these were two distinct tendencies, and only later would a political ideology arise (neoconservatism) where they merged.  Moral consistency and concern for the rule of law were largely restricted to anti-communist investigations, and even this was dampened down after the demise of McCarthy.

Hence Social Democracy had crept in over the objections of the Old Right, and even over the will of the American people to replace a Democratic administration with a Republican one.  However, if we can epitomize those Old Right objections according to the understanding of Garet Garrett, that “the revolution was” we are left with an enigmatic doctrine of history, one that is conspiratorial in the pejorative sense of the word.  This would be the notion that, through a ruse, the government had been cunningly usurped by social democrats in 1934.  That was the best historiography that most conservatives could muster in the 1950s.

Now that was certainly a true thesis as far as it went, it is just that it didn’t go back far enough, either in terms of chronology or causation.  In fact the Great Depression, long presumed to be the socio-economic Big Bang which necessitated the New Deal, in fact had antecedent causes in the policies followed by central bankers.  American central bankers were, in turn, creatures of the Federal Reserve Act (1913) which was in turn the outcome of a confluence of interests between the Trusts and the legislators of the Populist era.  Contrary to Garrett, this was an era in which both the constitutional form and the social substance changed.

So how many revolutions does that leave us with?  Well, following on the Civil War we have the Progressive era as our Third Republic.  Thus we must revise the scheme of Dr. Ross and rename the New Deal, and all subsequent to 1934, the “Fourth Republic.”  Nothing has really changed since then in terms of the extra-constitutional organization of the state.  The significance of the 1950s is that this was period in which reorganizations of America’s system of governance (not necessarily something sinister in itself) was surreptitiously and, as it were, retroactively codified into regime changes.

Propaganda, then and ever since

This metamorphosis of America’s history, from the story of constitutional development to the story of extra-constitutional evolution, is an artifact of the Propaganda Age, whose unstated goal is to remove from the population its capacity to rationally articulate the basis of the commonwealth in an objective social contract.  This inability has, as one of its major consequences, an incapacity to distinguish between licit behavior and criminality.  What then, is this “propaganda” this potent elixir which is deemed capable of thrusting civilizations back into a state of nature?

Ellul informs us that this vaunted “propaganda” is nothing more than “technique.”  Not all technique is propaganda, but all propaganda is technique.  Specifically, the technique of persuading populations to concerted opinion and action.  The replacement of contract with propaganda as the major bond of society is correlated with the replacement of principles by psychology.  We see the effects of this in the postmodern world with the increased emphasis on feelings at the expense of facts, particularly in educational contexts.

However this is only the consequence, of which propaganda is the cause.  The early 21st century is no more propaganda-driven than were the 1950s, at which time the process had already attained full-throttle.  The cold warriors found themselves in the middle of this syndrome, and not just on account of the bitter American-Soviet rivalry.  Due to the perceived necessity of bureaucracies to protect themselves and the ongoing alarms of perpetual war, information restriction and manipulation became normalized, with consequences too far ranging to be mentioned in a short essay.

Here I only note that the most important consequence of this fostered ignorance was the retrospective understanding of America’s history itself, which ceased to be the clear outline of a constitutional republic, but the narrative of a democracy in which the popular will was constantly engaged in social metamorphosis.  From a progressive point of view this is a good thing, and of course we are not arguing about that here, since there can be no dispute over first principles.  However what can be stated without argument is that the normalization of this “progressive” viewpoint was attained through propaganda, or the substitution of objective cognition by emotional manipulation.  Clarity was the first casualty.

Political Mythos or Political Logos: The Ultimate Significance

If the principle of the rule of law is to have any meaning then the operations of government must be deduced, if not to philosophical premises, then at least to an original law-establishing covenant.  There must be an unbreached historical and legislative continuity from the moment of the covenant to the present moment of application.  If we focus on the moment of the covenant, through promulgation or revelation, the regime in question has a revolutionary legitimacy.  If we focus on the transmission, through time and legal deduction, then the regime has a traditional legitimacy.  Actually, revolutionary and traditional legitimacy are two sides of the same coin.  One might even venture that it doesn’t matter so much if the American regime was established in 1776, or 1787, or 1865, or 1913, or 1934, provided we can all agree on a starting point and then deduce the proper moral, judicial, and legislative applications for the present.

However this rational model of statecraft has ceased to be salient ever since we have entered into the Age of Propaganda.  Propaganda is not concerned with truth but with the power of information, be it true or false information, to control the commanding heights of society.  Hence in order to establish a propaganda regime it is necessary to obstruct any logical regression of current policy back to first principles.  Is it not fairly clear that something like this has been going on in America ever since the middle of the twentieth century?  Moreover this was not the predetermined outcome of technological development, but a consequence of the government’s vastly increased responsibility over welfare and warfare, responsibilities which required control over both the dissemination and restriction of information.

This is why even people who enjoy the study of American history are inclined to skip over the cold war.  It is, by very definition, a period of collective “black out” after which the body politic wakes up in a strange bed, forced to reorient and go on as well as possible.  The way back to any possible Age of Reason is blocked by multiple taboos, “McCarthyism” and whatnot, guarding the  historical rupture with all the assiduity of cherubs policing the portals of Eden.

Of course there are those, including Ellul himself, who suppose the  political Age of Reason, to be itself a myth.  Ellul bases his view on an argument that both reason and propaganda are the morally indifferent contraries of grace.  However this is theological meat too gristly for the children’s table, and since here we are dealing with simpletons, politicians and policies, I will leave the topic for future discussion.  Rather, let us suppose that it is better to persuade people with reason than to manipulate their desires.  Let us suppose that while Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx were equally sinners there was a significant difference in their policies.  Let us suppose that there is a logos, a fundamental sense of justice, or what C.S.Lewis called a “tao” innate in natural humanity which, while but the shadow of grace, still merits consideration and preservation.

On the basis of such principles, however endangered, conservatives and libertarians may go back and declare that the “revolutions” of 1913 and 1934 were deviations from correct constitutional practice, and anticipate a future restoration.  To that end it is imperative for historical investigators to penetrate the dense ideological, policy, and social fog of the cold war era, in the prospect of finding a genuine logos behind the standard mythos.

Reprinted with permission from Mark Sunwall.