In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and America won the Cold War. We did not understand at the time how much winning the war would change us.
In hindsight, much of what we assumed to be natural and normal to “America” was in fact a response to the Soviet threat.
The American government’s support for arts and culture was in no small part a propaganda effort against the Soviet Union, so that capitalism would not be seen as incapable of supporting a thriving and relevant art scene. When the threat of the Soviet Union was gone, much of that funding and support dried up.
The American government’s support for pure science research, and its need to be the scientific leader of the world, was in no small part an effort to stay one step ahead of the Soviets and to convince the world that a free country was a country capable of supporting a rigorous scientific establishment. When the Cold War ended, the prestige of science in the American government took a nose dive — if we didn’t need it to beat our great enemy, then we didn’t need to be leading the world in it.
Our support of unions and workers’ rights fell flat after we won the Cold War, because the best card that communism had against capitalism was that capitalism oppresses its workers and leaves them at the mercy of employers and plutocrats. Americans needed a thriving union culture in order to prove that wrong. When the Cold War ended, support for workers was replaced at every level of government with support for stockholders. Likewise, America had a compelling reason not to seem racist during the Cold War — if we were seen as racist, it would tip popular global sentiment towards the Soviets. So, we were invested in making progress on racial equality.
We had no idea how much of what we thought was basically American was in fact America forced to be on its best behavior because we didn’t want to lose. But that America vanished around us when the Cold War ended.
America changed again after Sept. 11, 2001, and this time we knew it was happening. We became angry at the world, and afraid of it. Whereas before we had honestly believed, arrogantly but sincerely, that we could improve life for all the world’s peoples, suddenly we were willing to sacrifice any value at home or abroad for a feeling of security. Ironically this briefly made us far more utopian than we had been before; the invasion of Iraq was based on the assumption that if we could just give the Middle East democratic elections, that all their problem would be solved. It was an absurdly simplistic conjecture, which is why the George H.W. Bush presidency, honed in the realism of the Cold War, had known it would fail. Had predicted its failure exactly the way it happened, and so had not invaded Iraq during the first Gulf War. But after Sept. 11, 2001, our fear and anger had also made us gullible.
The emergence of the internet as a major social force didn’t help. In fact, it accelerated these trends, making us angrier, more fearful and more gullible. By the time Obama was re-elected, Silicon Valley and Wall Street had become the communist parody of rapacious American capitalism, unconcerned with what they break or who they hurt. This time, there was no mitigating factor from within — titans of industry were openly allowed to plunder America.
By the 2016 election, the transformation was complete. America had become everything its greatest critics once accused it of being. To compete with global communism, we once built up the greatest country on earth, whose infrastructure, arts, culture, science, education system, basic freedoms and rule of law were the envy and aspiration of the world. Now we are tearing it all down.
None of our enemies could beat us, but winning changed us. We were a great superpower, but a terrible hyperpower because we stopped being on our best behavior and got mad, fearful and self-indulgent instead. That is the lesson of 2016.
Our days as a hyperpower are probably lost to us forever — we ourselves destroyed the world in which we were the only country that mattered. Those days will never come again, but we can still lead by example. The world still needs America, but 2017 has proven that we cannot get the country we want by being angry and afraid and self-indulgent — only by demanding that we be our best selves. America’s future depends on who shows up, and whether their standards are stronger than their anger.