THE STEADY DECLINE OF AMERICA FROM REAGAN TO TRUMP
WE’VE SUFFERED ENOUGH FROM THIRTY YEARS OF CONSERVATIVE IDEOLOGY
Yes, yes, I know. Rush Limbaugh insists daily that it’s us “libruls” who are destroying America, causing the nation’s loss of moral fiber, plunging the populace into the nether world of multi-culturalism, whining endlessly about such paltry matters as civil rights and climate change. Well, he and his listeners have won. Sort of, anyway. Hillary has racked up over 2 million more votes (almost 2.5 million now) than President Elect Trump but Trump won the lottery by taking home the most Electoral College votes. (NOTE: The Electoral college, established by the Constitution, was a means to even out the disparities in population between the North and the South back in 1787 by allowing the population of southern states to count slaves in their population via the three fifths clause. Without this weight, the North would always have dominated the South when it came to Presidential elections.)
So the alt.right, white supremacists, radical conservative crowd has exacted their revenge on us liberals by electing a totally unqualified huckster and flim flam artist as the 45th President of the United States. I certainly hope they’re happy. But so far, it seems that Mr. Change Agent (this is why the Trumpettes voted for him or at least so they say) is looking like a more run-of-the-mill, standard issue Republican than some Wild West, Don’t Tread On Me gunslinger out to slaughter all the bad guys (aka, us liberals) and drain the Washington swamp. So far his efforts at “draining the Washington swap” appear more like filling it up with more of the same Republican establishment types who were supposedly so hated by his supporters, just less civil and less intelligent and much more radical conservative and white supremacist ideological.
For more than three decades we have been following this long, slippery slide into populism and authoritarianism. After the upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s and lest anyone thinks that today’s “social media revolts” are the be all and end all of social change, forget about it. When we have a hundred thousand people surrounding the Capitol Building or filling Lafayette Square in front of the White House, with armed cops and rifle toting National Guardsmen doing battle with angry, irate passionate protesters who are willing to be clubbed, tear gassed, arrested and thrown into jail, until this happens there will be no social change. Depend on it. But by 1980 America was tired of protests and they elected Ronald Reagan who, just like Trump, promised law and order and a return to “traditional values,” Morning in America, as he called it. Reagan, like Trump, was speaking to and for all those folks who watched in horror as us hippies upended the bright, white order of the day threatening the establishment as no other group had since the Communists back in the 1930’s during the Depression.
A populist man of the people, friend of the working man, Reagan proceeded to dismantle the very structure of American society that had transformed the working and middle classes from marginal participants in our society to full achievers of the so called American Dream thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A single factory worker could support his family, buy a new car every two years, take a two week vacation down to Florida while saving enough to send his kids to college without borrowing a lifetime of debt and, at the same time, look forward to retirement thanks to his company funded pension. I know. My father was one of those “never finished high school” working class guys who was able to achieve all of this and more.
Reagan, with the active participation of what was called the “neo-liberal” establishment economists and policy makers (there was nothing “liberal” about them and the newly minted term was a dodge to fool people into thinking that they embraced liberalism when, in fact, they were arch conservatives) who fervently believed in the theory of Unfettered Free Market Capitalism, unfettered by pesky unions, life saving government regulations and laws that protected the small guy from rapacious profit making corporations. Much of the social safety net that Roosevelt had created was dismantled. Not, of course, directly. Most of the unraveling was done as a call for “reform” whether reform of evil unions by right to work laws that destroyed unions or tougher welfare rules that made it much more difficult for the poor – welfare cheats - to climb out of poverty. And, because Reagan was a very popular President who came across as folksy, grandfatherly and oh, just someone you knew was looking out for you, there was little in the way of protest against the conservatism that pervaded his presidency. Besides, by this time, us Baby Boomers were busy working 10 hours a day, six days a week.
My classic example of how backward were the eight Reagan years was energy policy. At the time, America was heavily dependent on imported Middle Eastern oil. How dependent was brought home when OPEC decided to cut off supplies and miles’ long lines of cars appeared at gas stations around the country in 1973 during the Nixon Administration. With the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 he became the first President who championed what we today call the development and use of alternate energy sources. The Carter Administration instituted tax credits for installing solar panels, solar hot water heaters and even for insulting your home. Come 1980 and the election of Reagan, every single inducement to reduce our reliance on imported oil when out the window including the solar panels that Carter had installed on the White House roof. From 1980 until the election of Barack Obama in 2008 little was done in the way of research and development of alternate energy sources or reducing oil imports, although natural gas – released prior to reaching the deeper oil deposits in the ground - did become a much used source of energy.
Now we have The Donald to contend with. A non-believer in climate change, a non-believer in Obamacare, a non-believer in government regulation but a true believer in tax cuts. Reagan initiated the tax cutting craze – who doesn’t want to pay less taxes? – when he cut the top corporate rate from 70% to 30% and cut personal tax rates as well. And ever since, through Republican and Democratic Administrations alike, cutting taxes has been the ever popular and populist solution to creating jobs and economic prosperity. But thirty years of tax cuts have also seen the rise of two bread winner families out of necessity, the steady erosion of working and middle class incomes and wealth, the destruction of union employment, the meteoric rise of minimum wage, no benefit, jobs, and the treatment of corporations as if they were the epitome of fair and balanced players in the economic scheme of things. It’s almost as if policy makers have forgotten any economic theory other than Unfettered Free Market Capitalism and any economic tool other than cutting taxes. Following the collapse of the world wide economy in 2008, the newly elected President, Barack Obama, proposed a massive Infrastructure Development Bank that would have provided low cost loans to private enterprises for repairing our roads, bridges, electrical grid and other essential public utility functions in order to stimulate the economy while upgrading the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Republicans were having none of it. None of what was a sensible and desperately needed public service program – a kind of mini-FDR crash program – that would have generated a whole lot of good jobs.
Trump, Clinton and Sanders all proposed such a program during the 2016 campaign. Since the victory of Trump he’s remained silent about this promise and I’m betting that with a Republican controlled Congress it is simply not going to happen. While Trump voters swallowed his “change agent” mantra, they also returned the same do-nothing Republicans to Congress and even increased the number of state legislatures under Republican control this time around so it would seem that they championed Trump as a change agent but did not have the same “change feelings” towards other Republicans who historically have done nothing to help them.
This anomaly, wanting things to change yet electing the same old tired, outdated and useless conservative Republicans, has been a hallmark of non-liberal, Rust Belt America. Apparently the bright, shiny bobble of a few hundred more dollars this tax year as their wealth and incomes continue to decline, outweighs any possibility of attacking the real structural problems that have devastated them for thirty years. It's the kind of action Bernie Sanders so passionately championed this election year.
Is it just stupidity? Is it just ignorance? Yes and no. Working and middle class families have had a great deal of help in not voting for their best interests and, indeed, voting against their interests year after year. A media that cannot espouse views that are in conflict with their corporate ownership, the rise of non-facts and conspiracy theories as truth, the unchallenged spread of right wing media and the continuing campaign of identity politics, demonization of opponents, the sliming of the “other,” and the constant refrain that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem” as a paean to the wonders of Unfettered Free Market Capitalism to bring them prosperity and achieve their dreams in the absence of hard data, has resulted in the most successful propaganda campaign in the history of the Republic.
And, with Donald J. Trump, this campaign continues.
As I’ve noted here before it now seems as if only a massive world wide economic collapse – bigger than 2008 and as big or bigger than the Great Depression - is the only way that these folks will figure out that conservatives have been conning them since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Sad, perhaps, but true.